12/06/2011 10:37 EST | Updated 02/05/2012 05:12 EST

7 Questions You Should Ask About Federal Budget Cuts

As inevitable as an Ottawa blizzard in January, the federal cuts are coming.

This is not a secret. Quite the contrary: through the sly press scrum musings of their ministers, the incendiary rhetoric of their foot soldiers in the House of Commons, and the forced and ragged rationales of their friends in the media and right-wing think tanks, the Conservatives are tuning us up for some big hits.

Their chief tool for making the cuts -- the scalpel du jour -- is the federal program review, as opaque a process as you'll find anywhere in the governance of advanced economies. Senior civil servants have been asked not only to find up to 10 per cent savings in their operations and programs, but they have also been required to adhere to strict secrecy in the machinations of the review.

Yet, for his part, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has publicly stressed that his upcoming budget will be built on balance and aimed at maintaining Canada's economic stability, which he calls, with some justification, our "competitive edge" in an unstable world.

Moreover, the minister said, to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce no less, "It will not include raising taxes, cutting transfers to seniors, children or the unemployed, or reducing transfers to other levels of government that support health care, social services, or other Canadian priorities."

Flaherty appears to believe it is worth saying these things. For now, let's take him at his word.

But where, then, will they cut? Because of the disciplined, centralized control of information by the Harper government, we don't know yet. But we can speculate. Candidates include the sprawling Human Resources and Skills Development Canada department, foreign aid, cultural programs, the CBC and a handful of other big federal agencies. (The Environment department is not on this list because its workforce has already been quietly decimated by the Conservatives).

In any case, as the program review, pre-budget consultations and parliamentary committee work all proceed, Canadians have time to prepare themselves to assess the government's actions carefully, and in some detail.

As my former professor, the late Alan Thomas, often observed, all countries have historical moments of collective learning. This is one of ours. We will learn a lot about the Harper government from what it cuts from the federal budget, and how it goes about making the case for those spending reductions.

To make optimum use of this learning moment, citizens should ask seven questions:

1) To what extent is a given budget cut driven by ideology? The introduction of the omnibus crime bill and the elimination of the gun registry are red meat tossed to the Conservatives' electoral base -- the people that got their vote out and won them the election. What other programs will need to go in order to satisfy this core constituency?

2) What electoral factors are at work when a program is not cut? The Conservatives are working hard to secure the support of segments of the suburban immigrant population, for example. It is therefore unlikely that programs serving this group will be eliminated. Watch for other cases like this.

3) Who are the scapegoats? Tax-and-spend progressives, overpaid public servants, greedy trade unions, single moms on welfare, slothful artists -- take your pick. Someone must be demonized to justify specific spending cuts. Watch who the Conservatives and their allies target, and how carnivorous their rhetoric becomes.

4) What services do citizens lose? Especially in a period of economic slowdown and uncertainty, budget reductions have consequences. Real services to citizens may be curtailed, or eliminated altogether, at a time when all Canadians need help navigating through the economic storm. What services are lost? Who loses them? Who doesn't?

5) What private interests benefit from the program reduction or elimination? Conservative governments tell us that corporations can deliver services more efficiently than governments. But profit-seeking drives prices for services higher, often out of the range of low-income and even moderate-income households. This government privileges and amplifies the voices of big corporations in the policy process, so guess whose perspectives on the budget will carry the day?

6) What are the impacts on local economies? Government workers have good salaries and benefits. They buy houses, cars and other goods and services that generate positive multipliers in their local economies. When public servants are fired, all the other jobs that rely on government employee spending are vaporized, as well. And, unless you live in an oil-rich province, or work on prison construction, the Conservatives don't have a serious plan to replace those good-quality government jobs.

7) Is there an alternative way to achieve these savings? Of course. There always is. Reduce military procurement by one F-35 fighter jet and you save $80 to $100 million. It's not magic. It's a choice. Or how about reducing the aggregate tax benefits to the 250,000 richest Canadians? Embarrassingly, ridiculously, they captured one-third of the nation's total income growth between 1997 and 2007. The one per cent need to step up and do much more for their country, and it looks like they must be legislated to do so.

So, as you see the federal cuts roll out, ask these questions -- and seek real answers.

Talk to your neighbours, friends and family about what you learn, and what they learn, too. And write down what you find. It helps to demystify the whole process, to separate what really matters from the barrage of tactics to be thrown at us by the Harper Conservatives.

Four years from now, when the next federal election is called, your vote will be a very well-informed one.