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Budget littered with items that have no cost but sound like a million bucks

Prime Minister Stephen Harper (right) shakes hands with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty after he tabled the federal budget in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, February 11, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper (right) shakes hands with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty after he tabled the federal budget in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, February 11, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

OTTAWA - The Harper government's latest budget is chock full of items that don't cost a penny but sure sound like a million bucks.

The no-cost list includes publicizing employment insurance benefits for apprentices, launching a "Made-in-Canada" branding campaign, spurring trade between the provinces, cracking down on money laundering and terrorist financing, asserting Canada's claim to the North Pole and stripping away red tape from the beer industry.

There are also promises to spend an unspecified amount of money to help northerners eat healthier, cap wireless roaming rates and tell Canadians about the potential perils of payday loans.

Some of the measures only require tweaks to existing laws, while others can be done on the cheap — just the right price for a Conservative government desperate to squeeze every bit of cash into paying down the deficit in time for next year's federal election.

Opposition critics, however, were unimpressed with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's miserly approach.

"Essentially, it's a do-nothing budget and it's very thin gruel," said NDP finance critic Peggy Nash. "So they want it to look like there's something in it when there isn't actually very much."

Liberal MP Scott Brison, his party's finance critic, called it "a lot of talk without concrete action."

But Canadians shouldn't be surprised that the budget is full of freebies, said Scotiabank economist Mary Webb.

"Recently, our federal budget documents — and to some extent the provincial budgets as well — have been policy documents," Webb said.

"So this is a chance to provide initiatives across a broad range of areas, sectors across Canada to reset growth, per se, going forward. And it allows the federal government to catch up on issues that, in some cases, have been in the public realm for years."

One of those issues is inter-provincial trade.

British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan have an agreement to ease the flow of goods and services across their borders, and Ottawa wants the rest of the provinces to follow suit.

The budget says Industry Minister James Moore has challenged the provinces and territories to each come up with three ways to boost trade between themselves. The federal government is also going to come up with a list of measures that limit inter-provincial trade.

No dollar figure is assigned to any of those budget items.

While trade is an economic issue, some of the no-cost items appear to stray into feel-good territory.

For example, Canadians will be encouraged to mark several historic milestones that led to the birth of the country. The Conservatives say the money will come from existing programs.

Historic military titles and ranks will be restored and signed into law. That's a no-cost promise that follows the Harper government's earlier moves to restore the prefix "royal" to the names of the navy and air force.

Even beer makers are getting a free budget bauble.

The Conservatives are loosening composition standards so brewers who experiment with ingredients can still call their product beer. The budget offers the example of Rickard's, which had to delay the release of a lager spiced with nutmeg because there was a question of whether it could still be considered a beer.

If you're wondering why history, the military and craft beer are in the budget, Webb has an explanation.

"It's really setting policy," she said. "The policy backbone is supposed to be the fiscal estimates, the financial estimates ... but there is a lot of general policy thrown in."

Follow @steve_rennie on Twitter

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A look at some of the no-cost items in Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's budget:

— Increased awareness of employment insurance benefits for apprentices;

— A review of the Youth Employment Strategy to better align it with the job market;

— Initiatives to reduce regulatory burdens for businesses;

— Changes to Canada's intellectual property framework;

— A "Made-in-Canada" branding campaign;

— Reducing barriers to trade between the provinces and territories;

— Initiatives to crack down on money laundering and terrorist financing;

— Responding to recommendations made by a panel on tanker safety;

— Asserting Canada's sovereignty over the North Pole; and,

— Responding to a report by Doug Eyford, the government-appointed envoy for West Coast energy infrastructure.

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