To look into the future look into budgets 

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Many of us assume a year begins on Jan. 1, the first day on the calendar often made memorable by a hangover and a vow to do better the rest of the year.

But for many governments, a year actually starts in February, when the budget numbers come up.

This week, President Barack Obama outlined his budget priorities in his State of the Union address. Debate about spending and those priorities will continue in the weeks ahead.

In Victoria, the governing B.C. Liberals will introduce their next, and possibly last, budget next week. The last four have had deficits. This year's budget, presented three months before the next provincial election, is supposed to be balanced

And in Ottawa, Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is expected to introduce his eighth budget later this month, or possibly in March. This will be his fifth budget since the scope of the 2008 financial crisis became apparent. Don't expect any radical shifts from the last four.

"We are in the midst of a very volatile and risk-filled global environment. That's why our government is remaining squarely focused on the economy," Flaherty said last week in a speech to the Economic Club.

"In uncertain global economic times, the most important contribution a government can make to bolster confidence and growth in a country is to maintain a sound fiscal position.

"We have done so. We will continue to do so."

During the worst recession of modern times Flaherty and his Conservative government have rightly made the economy a priority. But as focused and principled as Flaherty sounds, his agenda is at least partly based on politics. He, too, has pledged to eliminate the deficit by the time of the next election in 2015.

And after five years of beating the same drum, should Canadians expect more? As finance minister, Flaherty directs spending. He has, in effect, the tools to shape the economy and prepare Canada for the future. Isn't it time he stepped to the fore and offered Canadians more than just "no."

"We will not engage in dangerous and risky new spending schemes. We will not engage in endless spending to increase deficits. We will not impose new taxes on Canadians."

So what will he do?

Flaherty's priorities include international trade agreements, skills-training policies, immigration policies to attract skilled workers, initiatives to spur innovation, research and development, and "fiscal sustainability."

Hard to argue with those concepts, and hard to know what they mean. We'll just point out that the Conservatives were slow to recognize China as a trading partner; slow to get into the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership discussion; have done nothing to increase air access to Pacific Rim countries and are basically chasing the U.S. on international trade agreements. They have made some efforts to reform immigration but have been accused of "Choosing people for today's jobs when the economy is changing rapidly..."

The Prime Minister's Office says the government "remains focused on jobs and growth."

What it means is everything is on the backburner until the economy is sound. It's a perpetual state of emergency that precludes meaningful action on other fronts, such as climate change, an aging population and a changing global economy. It's a single, simple message, repeated ad infinitum.

And it's a disservice to Canadians at a time when the issues facing them are complex and evolving rapidly. Similarly, Canadians do themselves a disservice by accepting the message.

In tough economic times simple messages do well. Bill Clinton's "The economy, stupid" and Brian Mulroney's "Jobs, jobs, jobs" were both memorable and effective. But did they narrow our focus too much?

"To the extent that environmental concerns have faded in economic hard times, and they have, it is a reflection of the fact that most of the public and most of the leadership still believes that protecting the environment represents spending money rather than saving it, represents consumption rather than investment.

"From this view, it follows that the task of public policy is to find the proper balance between the two. In a recession, the balance shifts to promoting economic prosperity and away from (quote) spending money (unquote) on the environment."

Those two paragraphs are from Dennis Church, who made the remarks in 1992. Church is the founder and president of EcoIQ, an American organization that espouses: "Smart choices aligning economics and ecology."

On March 31, Canada's National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy will close up shop. The NRT was founded in 1988 as an independent, non-partisan agency tasked with finding ways to reconcile environmental and economic considerations in public policy. Whether it's been effective is open to debate but its demise, which will help to narrow our focus just a little bit more, was sealed in last year's federal budget.

The point — which we are finally getting to — is that budgets matter. They illustrate governments' priorities more accurately than words. They demonstrate direction and leadership, or lack thereof. They are perhaps the best forecast for the years ahead. And we should pay more attention to them.

A good place to start might be attending the Resort Municipality's budget open house Feb.19 starting at 4 p.m. at Millennium Place.

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