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The Globe and Mail is hosting a debate on the economy among the leaders of the three main political parties on Thursday at 8 pm (ET). Click here for more details.

The fact that last year's budget balanced itself underscores the prevalence of empty political rhetoric about surpluses and deficits, a debate driven by symbols more than economics.

Monday's news was that – surprise! – the federal government had a small surplus, $1.9-billion, in the 2014-15 fiscal year that ended in March, rather than the $2-billion deficit it estimated in April.

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But here's the thing. In economic terms, they are basically the same results. The politicians are crowing or crying over the symbolism.

Make no mistake, it is an accomplishment after years of deep deficits to bring the budget back to balance. Whether you think it is the right accomplishment for the times is a key debate in this election campaign. But it definitely took some doing.

Yet the Conservative government had already done it long before Monday's figures came in. The 2014-15 budget was already essentially balanced, in the grand scheme of a $280-billion budget, even when the government thought it had a $2-billion deficit.

Of course, $2-billion is a lot of money, but not on the scale of the economy, or federal budgets. It is literally within the margin of error in the government's revenue estimates. In fact, revenues came in $3-billion higher than what Finance Canada projected in April – when the fiscal year was already over. What really matters is how fast a government is adding debt, and how that measures up against a $1.8-trillion-a-year economy.

Yet Conservative Leader Stephen Harper was celebrating like the news of surplus represented a big change: "Incredibly good news," he called it.

Everyone else spun it their way, too. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, who has made a point of pledging balanced budgets, called it good news, too – he wants to reinforce the point that he's on the side of fiscal restraint. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said both that the austerity employed to get last year's budget to surplus hurt the economy, and that the surplus itself was a blip – the government, he said, is back in deficit in the current year.

Politically, the symbolism of the surplus was good news for Mr. Harper. He's running a campaign based on warning that other parties will lead us down the "road to ruin" by running deficits and building up debt.

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But he had a credibility issue: Mr. Harper had run six straight deficits, and his government's own figures had until now said 2014-15 would be a seventh. Some economists, and all of his political opponents, were warning that a slow economy was knocking the current 2015-16 budget, slated to have a tiny surplus, back to deficit.

So politically, it's helpful for Mr. Harper, when preaching the evils of deficits, to have a surplus in his pocket.

The irony is that it when the late finance minister, Jim Flaherty, tabled the budget for that year 19 months ago, he deliberately avoided projecting a surplus, because the government wanted the return to surplus – and pre-election goodies – to come this year, in an election year. A slow economy has made this year's surplus less certain, but at least now, Mr. Harper has last year's.

But the fact that the difference between red and black was in a matter of small post-year-end surprises should instruct us about what matters about the budget balance: it's how much debt you rack up over time.

Even the deficits of up to $10-billion per year that Mr. Trudeau says he would run for three years to pay for stimulus spending are small compared to most Western countries, like the U.S., Britain, and France, who run much bigger deficits. So did Mr. Harper between 2009 and 2013.

But Mr. Harper's government did show the discipline to dig out. It did it by slashing foreign aid and military spending, slowing growth in program spending, then taking in more revenue as the economy grew over time.

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The real debate now is about timing and discipline. Mr. Trudeau argues it's worth running a deficit for a few years because the economy needs a boost of stimulus spending. Mr. Harper, and by implication Mr. Mulcair, say things aren't that bad. And Mr. Harper argues that if the Liberal Leader is willing to run a deficit now, he won't have the discipline to dig out later. That's a serious choice about the direction of fiscal policy, and it matters a lot more than whether the ink is red or black.

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