Six federal cabinet ministers gave keynote speeches at a two-day Manning Centre conference, providing a broad brush look at the March 29 budget that will reflect billions in budget cuts but also set forth a longer-term government strategy.
Hints were dropped about coming changes on social policy, environmental regulation and budget oversight.
Part of the plan is to change the attitude of government entirely, said Treasury Board President Tony Clement.
"The real job that we have to accomplish is change the culture of official Ottawa from one of being spending enablers to one of being cost containers," Clement said in an early-morning speech Saturday.
Clement mused that once-a-year exercises like the budget or strategic reviews need to be refashioned as ongoing spending oversight exercises.
In advance of the coming budget, Clement had struck a high-level cabinet committee charged with overseeing as much as $8 billion in cuts to annual government spending.
Going forward, one option being considered is leaving in place the cabinet committee, which had reviewing the spending cut proposals submitted by departments. The committee would monitor the roll-out of the cuts and direct future cuts as necessary.
Clement would not confirm if that's the case.
The government has also not said how it will communicate exactly what's been cut by the review, raising the ire of the Opposition who say that more transparency about the cuts is essential.
A report from a progressive think-tank has estimated as many as 68,000 public sector jobs could be on the line.
Clement acknowledged the government expects pushback from unions, but also suggested that incentives could be a tool to motivate public servants to keep cost in mind when going about their daily jobs.
"It's partially how one is compensated and partially how we do our jobs as overseers," Clement told reporters after his speech.
Incentives are also key to possible changes to the way government handles social programs, said Human Resources Minister Diane Finley.
She suggested the government is looking at creating "social impact bonds," which are contracts between government and private investors to fund social programs.
Payment from the government is tied to program outcomes.
"Essentially the social impact bond has the effect of moving risk from the current state of affairs where government — and taxpayers — pay up front without a real way of guaranteeing performance, to the social group itself who will be 'paid for results,'" Finley said.
"The investors win, the community groups who are successful win, the recipients and users of the service win and the taxpayers win."
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver also reiterated the government's intention to change the regulation system as it applies to energy projects.
He said he couldn't say whether those changes will be reflected in the budget but said they were coming in "months, not years."
Former Reform party leader Preston Manning, who oversees the annual conference billed as a conservative family reunion, said he hopes the budget sees the government fall more in line with a traditional conservative ideological approach.
Many conservatives pilloried the ruling Conservatives for their stimulus programs during the recession and the resulting deficit, but Manning says he hopes those days are over.
"I'm hopeful and I think a lot of speakers here are hopeful that now that we're on our way to recovery that stronger spending constraints can be employed," he told reporters.
NDP MP Peter Julian said it appears the Tories were tossing out tidbits of "red meat" to the conservative base after a few difficult months.
But he said they are sending too many mixed messages, zig zagging between austerity measures and promising large-scale change.
Public confidence in the government overall is on the decline, Julian said.
"It's very difficult to follow where the government is heading," he said.
"The public wants investment, the public wants jobs."
The public also needs to rebuild trust in the political system as a whole, said Manning.
Polling done for the Manning Centre suggests confidence in politics and politicians is at historic lows, he said.
"This disrespect, virtually contempt, is not so much rooted in antipathy to the policies of politicians as it is in a perceived lack of ethics — unfair in many respects but nevertheless real — that most politicians are unprincipled, dishonest, self-serving, and untruthful," he said.
"In the public mind, this judgment is reinforced every time unethical conduct by someone in the political world makes the headlines, as in the case of the sponsorship scandal and now the more recent robo-calling affair, to cite only two examples."
But one Conservative pollster suggested the robocalls scandal was being overblown.
Richard Ciano is a partner with Campaign Research Inc., which was responsible for making calls into Liberal MP Irwin Cotler's riding last year erroneously telling voters that Cotler was stepping down and a byelection was imminent.
Their actions were called "reprehrensible" by the Speaker of the House of Commons.
On Saturday, Ciano condemned reports that during the last federal election, voters were being called and told to go to polling stations that didn't exist.
But he said the Liberals and the NDP were inflating the issue, calling it a "systematic undermining of confidence in Canada's electoral process, and fear mongering about virtually all forms of live or automated telephone calls to voters."
The NDP's Julian called Ciano's assertion "laughable."
"It's not about the technology," Julian said.
"It's about the fact that there was a very clear impersonation of an Elections Canada official."