Deirdre McMurdy

It's well-documented that our ability to focus is in sharp decline. The average listener gives a song seven seconds to hook them — or they change the station. And the average adult attention span now runs about five minutes before acute fidgeting sets in.

In communication terms, that stark reality makes the annual federal budget a tough sell. Not to mention the technical and brick-thick nature of the content.

This year, however, it's worth paying closer attention than usual. That's because this is the first true budget of the Harper government.

Every year since the Conservatives were elected in early 2006, the budget has reflected the government's minority status. It was, by reason of political necessity, a document shaped by compromise and trade-offs. That was the only way to get the thing through the House of Commons.

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(It also led to the Tories' unfortunate practice of treating the budget legislation as a giant soup pot, into which were thrown all sorts of unrelated bones, vegetables and other leftovers. These various pieces might not have made a full meal on their own, but they gave the broth a very bitter taste.)

Now, with their first majority firmly in hand, the Conservatives are set to deliver their "roadmap" — a term that has, not coincidentally, started to appear in Tory rhetoric over the past few months.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement has publicly spoken about the need to alter the entire attitude — and culture — of the federal government. That entails a shift from "being spending enablers to one of being cost containers."

What will that mean?

It means that, even though private sector economists have declared the global economy to be improving (and so the most severe spending cuts could comfortably be limited to the lower end of the range — say, $4 billion versus $8 billion), the government will likely cut deeper than is absolutely necessary to balance the budget over the next two years.

The main reason for deeper cuts is that they will allow for the "transformational" process to finally begin. Another is that it makes political sense to capitalize on voters' appetite for austerity.

Whatever the economic outlook, there's lots of scope for belt tightening. Ottawa earmarked $46 billion for its Economic Action Plan in the 2009 and 2010 crisis years. That led to a combined federal budget deficit of $101 billion.