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With a majority, Tories can be more aggressive on deficit

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper unveils the party platform during a campaign event in Mississauga, Ont., on Friday, April 8, 2011.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

It was Stephen Harper's surprise campaign pledge: The Conservatives would erase Canada's deficit in three years rather than four.

Now federal public servants will be under pressure to cut programs and trim staff to the tune of $11-billion over four years to deliver the Prime Minister's promise.

The Conservatives project the deficit will drop to $29.6-billion this fiscal year and will become a surplus by 2014-15. When Parliament returns, the government is expected to introduce a 2011 budget that is largely the same as the one that failed to win support in March - but this time with a more aggressive plan for the deficit.

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Blessed with a majority, the Conservatives now have more freedom to take risks.

How hard is it?

Earlier spending reviews have produced little controversy as departments invoke classic bureaucratic language, boasting of savings through "increasing efficiency" and ending "overlap." Now with the security of a majority government, some predict harder, more visible cuts.

Andrew Graham, an expert on government spending at Queen's University and a former federal assistant deputy minister, says he hopes a majority government will make the harder decisions that are required to meet the deficit target.

"The number of agencies out there that simply should be abolished or amalgamated or changed fundamentally - that's the next step, and that also entails somebody getting mad at you," he said.

Former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon - now with the University of Saskatchewan - agrees a majority gives the government the freedom to absorb some controversy.

"Barring some major economic downtown, I think it's not that difficult a task," she said.

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How it might work

The government's March budget outlined a process in which a new cabinet committee chaired by the President of the Treasury Board would be in charge of cutting 5 per cent from across-the-board program spending - or $4-billion a year - by 2014-15.

Every department will have to submit two plans to cabinet: a 5-per-cent cut and a 10-per-cent cut. Cabinet will make the final decision.

Who calls the cuts?

With Stockwell Day gone, the Prime Minister must choose someone to lead this push for restraint as Treasury Board President.

One option would be John Baird, the Government House Leader who is already front and centre assuaging concerns in Ottawa that public-service jobs are at risk.

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"I do think out of $278-billion we spend a year, I think we could find $4-billion annually without slashing and burning the public service," he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail, stating some programs - like subsidies to political parties - will end.

The attrition question

Mr. Baird says about 80,000 public servants are expected to leave within the next five to seven years, meaning attrition could be a source of savings. He said the government hasn't set a target, though.

"We're not starting out this process saying: 'Here's the range of public servants we want to reduce,'" he said.

John Gordon, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, says he's concerned by the government's attrition talk.

"Stephen Harper has always talked about smaller government," Mr. Gordon said. "If people leave through attrition, that means less people to do the work. And if there's less people to do the work, then something has to give."

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