Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Tuesday October 1, 2019
Promising back-to-back deficits isn’t political suicide in Canada anymore
The church of the balanced budget — inaugurated by Saint Paul in 1995 — has been losing power for some time now, even if it retains significant allure.
But with balance no longer universally accepted as the be-all and end-all, a more interesting choice has emerged for voters.
The first blow against balance came in January 2009 when Stephen Harper, who had once vowed never to spend into a deficit, was compelled to acknowledge that running a deficit wasn’t necessarily a bad thing — that sometimes it’s even the right thing to do.
In that case, it was the Great Recession that necessitated a quick influx of government spending. For the fiscal year of 2009-2010, the Harper government ran a deficit of $56.4 billion. Before they were done, the Conservatives ran six years of annual deficits, totalling $157.8 billion.
Still, it was considered heresy when Justin Trudeau announced in 2015 that a Liberal government would run three years of deficits to boost a sluggish economy. One newspaper described the plan as “political suicide.” Shortly thereafter, Trudeau’s Liberals won a majority.
Once in office, the Trudeau government pushed things further — first because of economic circumstances, then because of its own choices and priorities — resulting in deficits of $19 billion, $19 billion, $14 billion and $19.8 billion.
Harper’s deficits could be traced to his decisions to cut taxes — the GST in particular. Trudeau’s deficits had more to do with new spending on federal programs.
While running for the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2017, Andrew Scheer vowed to balance the budget within two years of forming government. But as the 2019 general election neared — and with budget cuts by Doug Ford’s provincial government angering voters in Ontario — Scheer lost some of his enthusiasm for swift deficit elimination. In May, he announced that a Conservative government would instead take five years to balance the budget.
The Liberal platform released on Sunday nudges the goalposts again. With promised new spending, a re-elected Liberal government would run larger deficits, starting at $27.4 billion in the first year and declining to $21 billion in the fourth.
The Conservative response was notable for what it lacked. Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre’s primary argument was not that the deficits were themselves immoral or fundamentally unsound. Rather, he claimed the deficits inevitably would lead a Liberal government to increase taxes — tax hikes the Conservatives claim Trudeau is concealing now.
That attack might resonate more if the Harper government’s deficits had triggered the same consequences.
Economists like Kevin Milligan argue that the current deficit is not a matter for great concern — that government debt is not like household debt, borrowing rates are low, the situation in 2019 is not what it was in 1995 and recent deficits have been relatively modest.
The debt-to-GDP ratio — the debt as measured against the entirety of the national economy — was 31.5 per cent in 2014-2015. The Liberals now project that, even after eight years of deficits, it will be 30.2 per cent of GDP in 2023-2024. (For the sake of comparison, the debt-to-GDP ratio was 66.8 per cent in 1996, when Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin were compelled to cut spending.)
In 2011, Harper’s Conservatives promised $1.6 billion in new spending, while Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals countered with a platform that included $5.5 billion in new initiatives, all of it covered by corresponding tax increases or spending cuts.
In 2019, instead of arguing within a box created by competing desires to both balance the budget and avoid broad-based tax increases, the platforms of the two main federal parties could be upwards of $20 billion apart.
That is not a small amount of money.
If the orthodoxy of the balanced budget has weakened, it has left room for a clearer choice. (CBC)