POLITICS
02/10/2014 06:14 EST | Updated 02/10/2014 06:59 EST

Canada Budget 2014: Flaherty's Focus Is On Delivering Surplus In Time For Next Election

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The federal budget to be presented Tuesday is expected to be rather plain, as Conservatives strive to set themselves up for a surplus just in time for the 2015 election.

But their strategy will require more than a bit of luck to be successful.

If Finance Minister Jim Flaherty pulls a surprise out of his sleeve, it wouldn't be the first time. But the Tories have little room for manoeuvre if they are to slay the deficit and balance the budget by next year, as is the plan.

Apart from a few minor commitments, Flaherty's budget will have little to put in the window to impress voters in what could be a difficult year for the Conservative government.

Instead, in forecasting a surplus for 2015, the Tories are hoping to cast themselves as fiscally responsible administrators who led Canada through the recession better than most other countries. Capping off their majority mandate with a surplus of a few billion dollars, as was forecast in last year's budget, should serve them well on the campaign trail.

That is, if Canadians still believe the Conservative Party is best able to handle the economy. A recent poll by Abacus Data suggests that may no longer be the case.

When asked how each party would do in managing the economy, 27 per cent said Liberals would do an excellent or good job, compared to 23 per cent for Conservatives and 21 per cent for New Democrats. And where 31 per cent of Canadians thought Liberals would do a poor or very poor job, that number stood at 40 per cent for the Tories.

With just a hope to point to that the government’s books will be in the black by 2015, the next 12 months will not be made much easier for Conservatives. Polls still suggest that Justin Trudeau's Liberals hold a healthy lead and the Tory vote remains stuck at 30 per cent or less.

The Senate scandal will not go away, with both the auditor general and RCMP investigating. Both bodies are outside of the prime minister's control, meaning the agenda cannot be entirely set by the government in 2014.

What is also largely out of the government’s control is the economy itself.

Budget forecasts have a nasty habit of sometimes being wrong to the tune of as much as $5-$10 billion. Forecasts are not guarantees.

If the Canadian economy doesn't perform as well as Tories hope, or if global markets take a tumble, the government could easily find itself short of revenue forecasts and still in the red when the 2015 budget is presented. In order to fulfill their promise of a balanced budget, which at this stage seems impossible to renege upon, the government will have to continue to make cuts and not deliver on the tax credits promised in 2011. That would be disastrous for their electoral chances in the next vote.

But if things go according to plan, the Conservatives will give themselves the best shot they will have at re-election in 2015.

That is a bigger 'if,' however, than Flaherty would probably like to admit.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers every week. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections. You can pre-order his eBook, "Tapping into the Pulse", a retrospective of polling in 2013, here.

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