The Conservative government will table a balanced budget this week. It’s the mother of all 2011 election promises, the one upon which others, some already delivered, rest, and not one the Harper brand can afford to break. It took a couple of extra months to get the books in order—to see where the price of oil is going, to sell some General Motors shares—but no one doubts that Finance Minister Joe Oliver will present a balanced budget on Tuesday. The question is, does he need to? The collapse of oil prices wreaked havoc on the once-rosy projection of a $6-billion surplus, which lobbyists and MPs had been hungrily eyeing for months. That projection was down to $1.9-billion in the fall economic and fiscal update, after Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a number of tax cuts, including increases to the Universal Child Care Benefit, the introduction of the Family Tax Cut, doubling the Children’s Fitness Tax Credit, and increasing the Child Care Expense Deduction limits. But oil prices weren’t cooperating as these other 2011 election promises were rolled out. Now getting back to black is the objective. Mr. Oliver also recently announced that he will introduce legislation this month requiring the federal government to deliver balanced budgets and only permit deficits in response to extraordinary circumstances like a recession, war or natural disaster “with a cost exceeding $3-billion a year.” The bill would require the Finance minister to appear before Parliament to testify to a plan to return to balance, as well as a five-per-cent freeze on ministerial wages, if a deficit were posted outside extraordinary circumstances. But critics argue that balancing the budget at all costs in time for a fall election will mean missing the opportunity to address longer-term growth issues. Former Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, now at the University of Ottawa, told The Hill Times earlier this month that the budget is an opportunity, as interest rates remain historically low, to “shift the debate” and discuss the “big challenge” facing Canada of growing the economy as baby boomers start to retire. But the government has painted itself into a corner by balancing the budget at all costs, he said. “We’re sputtering, there’s no growth in the economy right now. How are we going to grow it in the future as we go through more of these transformations?” said Mr. Page. Instead, there’s no discussion taking place, and “we’re sticking our heads in the sand,” he said. Armine Yalnizyan, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, told The Hill Times this month that the government’s approach to balancing the books “come hell or high water” while offering billions in tax cuts could lead to a “fiscal mess” for future generations and other levels of government, which are desperately pleading for federal infrastructure investment. The Conservatives will check off another election promise this week, the main one, after years of deficits that were intolerable to their base. They’ll be celebrating Tuesday night, but at what cost to future generations?