04/02/2015 04:44 EDT | Updated 06/02/2015 05:59 EDT

Federal Budget 2015: Tories Set Stage For Final Dash To Election

OTTAWA - It took Finance Minister Joe Oliver all of about 90 seconds Thursday during his address on the coming federal budget to launch an attack on the Liberals, the third-place party in the House of Commons seat standings but the Conservatives' biggest threat in public opinion surveys.

With a national election fixed for no later than mid-October, the government's long-awaited annual federal spending blueprint is not just another waymarker on the march to the ballot box.

It's effectively the starting gun.

"The Liberals have told Canadians that budgets balance themselves — I can tell you, they do not," Oliver told his audience in both official languages at a Canada Goose clothing plant in Toronto.

"Budgets require a plan, and the discipline to follow it."

The golden goose in the Conservative re-election plan was introduced to Canadians last October, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper travelled to the bread-basket of Canadian swing voters in the coveted 905 telephone exchange around Toronto and rolled out $27 billion in targeted tax breaks and child benefit increases over five years.

That goose lays its first golden egg this July, when every family with a child under 18 will get a government cheque for at least $360 — back pay on six months of retroactive benefits.

That this massive budgetary outlay was announced and heavily advertised with public dollars before the 2015-16 budget date was even announced says a great deal about the nuts and bolts of the budget to come on April 21.

Oliver took the unusual step of announcing in January that his first budget, typically delivered in February or March, wouldn't come until at least April amid tanking world oil prices. Those prices haven't rebounded.

"I don't think you can blame him or the government for taking the gamble," says Scott Reid, who helped shepherd nearly a dozen federal budgets as the communications guru for former Liberal finance minister and prime minister Paul Martin.

It became obvious months ago, said Ried, that this budget day "would be the de facto firing of the starter pistol for the 2015 federal election."

That's because by laying out the country's fiscal parameters, "you have to declare yourself in fiscal terms as to what is available."

"That's going to determine the political promises you can make, the policy priorities you will establish, and it then opens the door to the opposition to begin to roll out their policy promises," said Reid.

Some $7.5 million has already been earmarked to advertise the Conservative budget once those balanced books and the $2 billion-a-year income-splitting measure become official.

A not-inconsequential benefit of that budget delay for the Conservatives may also have been in pushing questions about the sputtering Canadian economy — described as "atrocious" for now, by the Bank of Canada governor this week — off the political agenda for two months while terrorism and security dominated the government's policy front.

"They've been able to just push pause and say 'let's wait and see...,'" said Reid. "That's allowed them to avoid that conversation," about the state of the economy.

Oliver didn't do anything Thursday to push new budgetary priorities under the stage lights.

The finance minister conjured up massive Liberal tax and spending hikes and warned darkly of threats to "our fragile economic recovery," before going on to say the books will be balanced, and that no more cuts are in the cards.

Halfway across the country at an announcement in Miramichi, N.B., Prime Minister Stephen Harper managed to turn a question on his 2015 budget into a rumination on Pierre Trudeau's fiscal policies of the 1970s.

"I can remember as a boy when the small deficits started to be run in the early 1970s by the Trudeau government, it went on for a generation to the point where we had to have drastic cuts to our services," said Harper, whose historical recall neglected the 10 consecutive balanced budgets that preceded his rise to power.

Back in the House of Commons, where parliamentarians are elected to sit in watch over the country's purse, the leader of the official Opposition New Democrats was left fulminating over the absence of the prime minister and his finance minister. Tom Mulcair said Harper and Oliver had to "flee the nation's capital to avoid answering questions" on the budget.

Don't expect the tone to change.

"We Conservatives understand that government must live within its means," Oliver said in Toronto, laying down the fundamentals of the Conservative message this election year.

"And we accept two basic truths: No government can indefinitely spend more than it earns, nor can it tax its way to prosperity."

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