THE BLOG
02/13/2014 12:17 EST | Updated 04/15/2014 05:59 EDT

A Boring Budget: The Perfect Excuse for a Boring Column

There was a hilarious joke on The Simpsons some years (decades?) ago, wherein a bombastic, Rush Limbaugh-type was aggressively interrogating Springfield's hapless, liberal mayor.

"Suppose for a second," he thunders, "that your house was ransacked by thugs, your family tied up in the basement, with socks in their mouths! You try to open the door, but there's too much blood on the knob!"

"What is your question," the Mayor interjects.

"My question is about the budget, sir."

Government budgets are not generally interesting things because they involve numbers and math, subjects which most of us (at least, those of us with humanities degrees) find as dreary as they are intimidating, as complicated as they are dull. Worse still, as far as political events go, budgets are also painfully free of drama or intrigue. Since every political party now claims "fiscal responsibility" as part of their marketing pitch, the yearly ritual of opening the books has become a studious exercise in avoiding bold action -- regardless of who's in charge.

Don't cut too much spending or you'll be seen as reckless. But don't hike it too much either  -- that'd be radical. Left, right, or middle, the safest strategy is to simply release a budget that's largely indistinguishable from the one that came prior. Save a few bucks here, improve efficiency there, but for the love of God don't question too much of the government's purpose in doing what it does  --  let alone how much it should cost to do it.

I wish I could say this year's federal budget was any different.

"Perfectly acceptable, perfectly boring," declared theNational Post editorial board.

"Nothing big, little surprising and not much new" surmised the board of the Globe and Mail.

"Small beer," whined the Toronto Star.

I've seen a lot of budgets in my day, and this may be "the most unremarkable of all," sniffed Postmedia's Michael Den Tandt.

As far as "news you can use" goes, such tweet-sized summaries are probably enough to last most Canadians until 2015. But of course we have a lot of columnists in this country who need to eat, so the slightly more curious need not fear  --  the nation's papers are positively brimming with in-depth insights on precisely how much of a non-event this non-event is.

Good old Andrew Coyne at the Post, for instance, boldly concludes that the budget is "neither reckless nor overly harmful," which is about as close to a hard compliment as the thing's going to get.

More substantially, he notes that Minister Flaherty's ability to allocate a so-called "$3-billion annual adjustment for risk" means our government is quite objectively in the black now, but is dishonestly pretending otherwise because they "would like to be able to officially declare a surplus in an election year" instead. That's kinda playing gross politics with the nation's finances, says Andy, but hey, at least spending is "back within hailing distance of its pre-recession levels," so it ain't all bad.

Flaherty's promise to introduce controls to end price disparities between Canadian and US consumer goods is slightly more bad, however  --  "words cannot convey how idiotic a proposal this is"-- but that's just as well, since words have not yet conveyed how price parity is actually going to be implemented, either.

Jeff Simpson at the Globe, meanwhile, is pleased the Conservatives didn't do a budget thing they've long promised they're gonna, namely "income-splitting" (where couples file taxes separately to lessen their total bill), which Jeff calls "a very bad and expensive policy."

He also darkly observes that this budget confirms our nation's "creeping, inexorable increases in spending on the elderly" at the expense of everything else  --  seniors' benefits will jump "from 16 to 19 per cent of total federal spending" over the next seven years  --  which I suppose is almost shocking. It's the best Jeff's got, at least.

Then there's noted UBC professor Michael Byers in the Star, who wants you to know that all this talk of surpluses  --  either the denied one this year, or the "official" one scheduled for 2015  --  is highly "misleading," given that Minister Flaherty only made it happen by arbitrarily delaying some $16 billion in defence spending. Spending his government's previously promised amid much fanfare, including finally getting new helicopters to replace the decrepit Sea Kings and buying a couple new, non F-35 jets. So that's certainly a big ticking time bomb that's slipped under the radar (ticking time bombs and radar incidentally not included in aforementioned $16 billion).

Canadian budgets are generally only interesting to the limited extent we can cram them into more compelling narratives of larger political happenings, and if this one seems particularly underwhelming it's because we don't have a great narrative at the moment. We can't talk about how the Tories' spending priorities reflect an attempt to bribe the opposition into staving off a non-confidence vote  --  as we could in the minority government days  --  nor can we feign shock that the Harperites aren't being as right-wing as anticipated, as we did in the first years of their parliamentary majority. All we can really talk about, in fact, is how the government is balancing its revenues and expenditures  --  in other words, (ugh) budgeting.

But never fear, this era promises to be short-lived. As Mr. Coyne noted, 2015's budget is set to be released a few months before the next federal election. 

No prizes for guessing what we'll be talking about this time next year, but here's a hint: it won't be math.

2014 Budget Highlights