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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland arrive to deliver the federal budget in the House of Commons in Ottawa on March 28.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The Trudeau government’s first budget reads now like a love letter written in the heady first blush of a relationship. Brimming with confidence, the 2016 document promises the sun, moon and stars, as though anything less would simply be a waste of the moment.

The Liberals’ spending road map at the time hardly left an area of Canadian life untouched by its sweeping vision. Positioning the battle against inequality at its heart, that budget introduced the Canada Child Benefit and massive infrastructure spending, goosed research grants and arts funding, increased financial support to low-income seniors and students, and spent big on Indigenous housing and water infrastructure.

“Of course, this is only the beginning. Today, we have taken some big steps in a long journey,” then-finance minister Bill Morneau said. “We remember that while we may act in the present, we do not act for the present. We act for the years and decades to come.”

The whole project was imbued with the sense that not only had no one tried to fix these issues before, but perhaps no one even had the clarity and breadth of vision to see them. Every fresh romance is underwritten by some version of the same idea: Now everything is possible, because we are different, you and I, from everything that came before.

At the ballot box or in love, no one would show up if they expected to be disappointed.

That first budget now feels like the letter you stumble across in the back of a drawer or the depths of your e-mail long after things have fallen apart. To read it is to wince along two different fault lines: one for the wistful realization that how things start is often not how they end, and another for the confidence with which we can ignore that in the beautifully smug days of newness.

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The latest budget tabled by the Trudeau government, on the other hand, released this week, reads a bit like that same hypothetical couple’s separation agreement, seven years down the line: practical and quotidian, shot through with a slightly gritted-teeth insistence that a set of lowered expectations has been adequately met. Look, I let you have the dog, can I keep the kayak or not?

This time around, what Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland wanted everyone to know is that Canadian employment has more than recovered from the wreckage of the COVID-19 pandemic and that inflation is cooling – and that, by the way, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the pandemic caused it.

She was also at pains to point out that her government sees the wildly shifting international order and the rather difficult issue of how not to burn the planet while also not setting fire to the various economies that reside on it as an equation whose clear, shiny answer is a green economic strategy.

“Today, and in the years to come, Canada must either meet this historic moment – this remarkable opportunity before us,” Ms. Freeland said. “Or we will be left behind as the world’s democracies build the clean economy of the 21st century.”

In the hours before a new budget is tabled, journalists are corralled into a “lockup” in which they’re given secure access to the document to prepare their stories, on the conditions that they turn in their phones, turn off their WiFi and eat airport food while locked in a hotel ballroom for a day. During the lockup, the government offers two different sorts of briefings: One comes from dozens of finance officials who explain various technical points with the patience of punctilious saints, and the other from senior officials who offer the high-level policy and political context.

The first tells you what is in the budget; the latter tells you what the government would like you to feel is in the budget. In that second type of briefing this week, a senior government official explained that the objective was to keep focused on a limited number of big priorities, because budgets that try to do too much end up sprinkling a thin layer of money over a too-large territory and not accomplishing much.

That’s an entirely reasonable proposition – though an interesting one from a government that just seven years ago was all sweet nothings about doing all of the things, just because it believed it could. But the grubbier reality is that the three big issues that get to bask in the sun of this budget – a low-carbon economy, health care and dental coverage, and the cost of living – were all to some extent cheques that had already been written.

U.S. President Joe Biden showed up with hundreds of billions worth of low-carbon “Buy America” motivation in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act, and suddenly finding some way to get Canada a piece of the nascent green economy was no longer optional. Already-signed health care deals account for $198-billion over the next decade. The dental care expansion that will cost a whopping $13-billion over five years was the price of the NDP continuing to prop up the minority Liberal government.

Where a budget was once a chance for this government to skywrite what was possible, convinced that anything was, now it’s a forced acknowledgment of what has to be lived with and worked around. It turns out the world happens to everyone – sometimes it just takes a little time to realize you’re not exempt.

And so a government that was once besotted with its own newness grapples with the realization that hits everyone at some point in bedraggled middle age: Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

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