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Cash-strapped Liberal budget likely more policy document than spending plan

Budget 2017 more about direction than dollars

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government will unveil a federal budget today that’s expected to be heavy on policy and light on spending.

The second budget of the Liberal mandate is poised to focus more on the social policies central to its agenda — from skills to job training, from child care to affordable housing.

In particular, the government plans to take steps they hope will help — and reassure â€” those who fear being left behind by a coming sea change in how economic engines function around the world.

The budget comes at a time when Ottawa has very little room to introduce new spending. The country has struggled with disappointing growth, and the Liberals have already made billions and billions of dollars worth of commitments in last year’s budget.

But even without big-ticket spending, a government source sought Tuesday to counter lowered expectations for the budget, insisting instead that the document would contain “transformative” and “bold” policy direction.

“Not everything is spending, not everything is money,” said one Finance Department source, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss details in advance of the budget’s release.

“The budget’s a public policy document and I think the story will be much more into where the country needs to go as opposed to dollar amounts… If you’re just looking at tables, that’s not where this story is going to be.”

A key budget theme will be the government’s focus on easing concerns about the future of Canada’s labour market.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau dropped some major hints in a speech last week in Germany, where he argued that “anti-globalization, protectionism and even anti-immigration sentiments” are stoked when people feel nervous about their future.

“They look at the pace of technological change, and the seemingly never-ending need for new skills, and are understandably stressed about the future. It’s hard to feel confident, and to face every day with optimism, when you can’t see what’s around the corner.” 

One way to respond to that challenge, Morneau said, would be “a culture of lifelong learning, helping people develop the skills they need at every stage of their life to succeed in the new economy,” which he said he would be taking steps to create.

And while the annual tradition of the finance minister buying a new pair of shoes often brings clues about the budget narrative, the symbolism this year seemed heavier than most.

The dress shoes, black with laces, were designed by the two Canadian sisters behind Poppy Barley, an Edmonton company that says its shoes are hand-crafted by fairly paid artisans in Mexico. Morneau donned the shoes in a Toronto classroom, surrounded by children of diverse backgrounds, including girls wearing the Muslim hijab.

 The Opposition, meanwhile, wants to see more than just bold ideas.

“Justin Trudeau has racked up the credit card and now he needs money to pay the bill,” said interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, who said she expects to see tax increases in Wednesday’s document.

New Democrat MP Alexandre Boulerice said the time has come for the government to close tax loopholes that benefit the rich, and use the proceeds to help more people.

“We can bring back billions of dollars for our social programs and public services,” Boulerice said.

— Follow @smithjoanna and @AndyBlatchford on Twitter

Joanna Smith and Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press

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