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What's behind the curtain? Nitty gritty budget details an unknown

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OTTAWA - Coming to a chamber of commerce or board of trade near you — a Conservative cabinet minister hawking the 2013 federal budget.

The customary, post-budget day sales pitch begins in earnest today, including a lunchtime speech by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty in Vancouver.

But the nitty gritty details behind some of the measures announced Thursday — and how Parliament will get to evaluate them — are not likely to emerge for some time. Flaherty himself will be away from the House of Commons for the better part of a week in Asia, promoting Canadian trade and investment.

"We will not back away from our steadfast commitment to fiscal responsibility," Flaherty said in his speech Thursday.

"We will not balance the budget on the backs of hard-working Canadian families or those in need. But we will balance the budget. And we will do it in 2015."

Flaherty's office won't say yet whether the budget proposals will be stuffed into another omnibus bill, an unpopular tactic with opposition parties and Canadians who want MPs to spend more time reviewing key measures separately.

Highly controversial changes to how bodies of water are regulated, for example, did not come to light until the actual budget bill was tabled last year.

"I'm getting used to the modus operandi of Stephen Harper and it makes me feel that nothing can be said about this budget until we see this implementing legislation," said Green party Leader Elizabeth May.

"Until we see if we're facing another omnibus bill, one that we fear will take an axe to the Species at Risk Act, we have to wait and see."

Exactly how government programs and services will be affected by continuing belt-tightening is also not clear. Direct program expenses — which exclude major transfers to other levels of government — are projected to plunge almost $4 billion this year and another $2.5 billion in 2014-15.

A line in the budget document says the government "will introduce legislation as needed to consolidate operations and eliminate redundant organizations."

MPs only realized months after the 2012 budget that cuts to Parks Canada meant many parks had to shut down their services during the winter, provoking a backlash in many communities. Cuts to Via Rail resulted in slashed services to many cities, but none of that was clear until after the fact.

What's more, some of the proposals in this year's budget require negotiations with the provinces, including a "Canada Job Grant" skills training program. Ottawa, the provinces and employers would equally share the costs of a $15,000 to help train workers for specific jobs. The federal government's spending on training will stay the same, but provinces will be on the hook for new money.

Already there was grumbling.

"This is an economic sabotage exercise," Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau said in Quebec City on Thursday evening.

Other items in the budget include:

— A number of measures designed to boost the manufacturing sector, particularly in Ontario.

— The Canadian International Development Agency will be swallowed into the Department of Foreign Affairs, although the portfolio will keep a minister.

— A renewed infrastructure fund worth $47 billion over 10 years, starting in 2014.

— $241 million over five years linking training programs to First Nations people collecting income assistance.

— $100 million over two years to support housing construction in Nunavut.

— Additional tax breaks for adoption-related expenses.

— Reducing import tariffs on hockey equipment and baby clothes.

— A proposal to hike fees for processing visa and citizenship applications.

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