Not since Charles Blondin's tightrope walk 160 feet above Niagara Falls in 1859 has there been such a fantastic display of acrobatics in this country as the stunt that Finance Minister Ralph Goodale is about to pull off today.
The big difference between the death-defying Mr. Blondin and Mr. Goodale is that Mr. Blondin, had he fallen, would have been swept to his death. The Finance Minister, on the other hand, has a big pile of money to break his fall -- about $12-billion, the estimated size of the fiscal surplus in 2004-05.
Today's federal budget -- the first from this minority Liberal government -- will be a strategic, defensive document. And like a three-ring circus, there will be something for everyone. You want more spending on social concerns? Maybe $5-billion for daycare will do the trick. Concerned about the environment? How about $6-billion for green credits and incentives for cutting greenhouse gases? Regions feeling neglected? Okay, here's a bunch of money for your cities. Lower taxes? Let's increase the basic personal exemption.
To Mr. Goodale's credit, there will be no surprises in this tightrope act. Unlike the budgets of the Trudeau and Mulroney eras -- when bombshells dropped on budget day sent the bond markets scrambling and tax accountants scheming -- present-day budgets contain far fewer surprises. Sure, there will be lots of dramatic shouting and wailing from the opposition, but at least everyone will have had a pretty good idea of what was coming.
The opposition will be hard-pressed to shout and wail today. All they'll be able to say is, "Not enough!" Not enough tax cuts. Not enough social program spending. Not enough for Quebec. Not enough for the West. Not enough debt reduction.
What they won't be able to say is that this government has done nothing for their pet concern. That will make their criticisms much harder to sell in front of the cameras. It's tough to feel sorry for the spoiled kid on Christmas morning who opens 10 presents and pouts that there aren't 11. Back in the belt-tightening days of the 1990s, the kids not only got no presents but they had to give back some of their toys from last year.
When the Liberals formed the current government last June, there was some concern expressed that a minority government wouldn't be able to get anything done. The fear was that, because the government had to please everybody, they'd end up pleasing nobody. New strategies would be stymied, bold initiatives would be struck down and, eventually, the government would fall. The whole thing would be a national waste of time rivalling the failed NHL talks.
But today's budget offers some hope that things can be accomplished. Social programs such as daycare can be undertaken. More debt can be reduced. Taxes can be lowered. The government can manage to be all things to all people, thanks again to the sizable surpluses propping them up.
Strategically, this should be a no-lose day for the Liberals.
Where they could lose, however, is if this budget is perceived as simply bowing to the demands of special interest groups rather than delivering a strong statement about where the government wants to take the country.
Again, it's a tightrope act that needs to be managed. Part of the thrill of watching a tightrope walker is the breathtaking possibility of "What if he falls?" The acrobat knows he won't fall, but he still needs to add some drama to keep the crowd interested. If Mr. Goodale's budget speech comes across with tones of appeasement ("Canadians want this or that, so today we announce billions of dollars for . . ."), they'll lose. Everyone will see the wires holding up the tightrope walker, and the scam will be revealed.
But if Mr. Goodale delivers a budget with a strong vision of exactly where the Liberals want to take the country, the whole exercise suddenly becomes much more dramatic. There will be no wires holding him (or his party) up. The only thing they'll have to fall back on is their own leadership skill.
Today's budget will be about Mr. Goodale managing expectations -- political, financial, social and environmental. It will be a tightrope walk with few risks taken. No special interest will go unmentioned in the budget speech, and everyone will have a goodie bag to take home from the circus. But perception is everything. This is the first major chance this minority government has had to truly show its leadership qualities. Let's see if it can pull it off.
Todd Hirsch is chief economist at the Calgary-based Canada West Foundation.