POLITICS

Three ways the federal government's budget doesn't look like yours

04/20/2015 04:56 EDT | Updated 07/11/2015 04:59 EDT
OTTAWA - When the Conservative government talks about how it builds — and intends to balance — its budget, it often relates it to the way Canadian families sit around their dinner tables figuring out their personal finances.

"Canadians understand the importance of living within their means and they expect that governments will do the same," Kevin Sorenson, minister of state for finance, said Monday.

But in reality, the federal spending document bears little more than a passing resemblance to the budgets Canadians draw up. Herewith, three ways Tuesday's federal budget will look nothing like a personal one:

1) It's not going to tell you how much is spent on groceries.

When Canadians draw up their spending plans, it's a pretty straightforward document — income versus expenses. But the government document doesn't put everything forward with the same black-and-white clarity.

When it comes to income, there will be a section that lays out how much the government thinks it will make off the various taxes and duties it collects.

On expenses, it is less forthcoming.

The budget will announce spending in certain areas, like money being allocated for Canada 150 celebrations or security measures. But it generally doesn't provide a breakdown of how much money each department will be allocated nor what they're going to spend it on.

2) If a government department needs more money, it doesn't have to dig under the couch cushions or buy a lottery ticket.

Each department has two kinds of budgets — one for operations and one for programming.

What they'll spend on each is outlined via the main estimates, a document that must be tabled in Parliament by March 1. The federal budget usually follows, giving a few more details on new programs or the renewal of old ones.

But a department can get its budget increased without it appearing in either of those documents, via a process known as the supplementary estimates.

Three times a year, the estimates are published to detail additional spending, be it increases in price tags for already-announced programs or altogether new ones. The supplementary estimates also allow the government to account for emergency spending, such as in the event of natural disasters.

But again, those are just estimates. For precise numbers, one needs the public accounts, released each fall, which include departmental spending but also details that aren't available anywhere else, like how much property the government lost in a given year or lawsuits it was forced to pay out.

3) Budgets aren't just about the bucks.

A family deciding whether an extra stash of cash ought to be spent on a trip to Cuba or socked away for a rainy day is akin to the government choosing whether to allocate additional funds to snowmobile clubs or pay down the debt.

But a major difference between a personal plan and a government spending plan is that in their budgets, the government also makes policy announcements with no money attached.

For example, in the 2013 federal budget, the government announced the decision to roll the Canadian International Development Agency into Foreign Affairs. Whether the move cost or saved any money — or how much — wasn't included.

The following year, there were promises for copyright reform, new rules for craft beer makers and a promise to make it cheaper to travel abroad and use your cellphone — no dollar figures required.