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Canada's former prime minister Jean Chrétien sat down with Reuters in his law offices to describe how his Liberal government eliminated the country's deficit in the 1990s. (BLAIR GABLE/BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS)
Canada's former prime minister Jean Chrétien sat down with Reuters in his law offices to describe how his Liberal government eliminated the country's deficit in the 1990s. (BLAIR GABLE/BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS)

The lesson from Canada on cutting deficits Add to ...

Finance officials bit their nails and nervously watched the clock. There were 30 minutes left in a bond auction aimed at funding the deficit and there was not a single bid.

Sounds like today’s Italy or Greece?

No, this was Canada in 1994.

Bids eventually came in, but that close call, along with downgrades and The Wall Street Journal calling Canada “an honorary member of the Third World,” helped the nation’s people and politicians understand how scary its budget problem was.

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“There would have been a day when we would have been the Greece of today,” recalled then prime minister Jean Chrétien, a Liberal who ended up chopping cherished social programs in one of the most dramatic fiscal turnarounds ever.

“I knew we were in a bind and we had to do something,” Mr. Chrétien, 77, told Reuters in a rare interview.

Canada’s shift from pariah to fiscal darling provides lessons for Washington as lawmakers find few easy answers to the huge U.S. deficit and debt burden, and for European countries staggering under their own massive budget problems.

“Everyone wants to know how we did it,” said political economist Brian Lee Crowley, head of the Ottawa-based think tank, Macdonald-Laurier Institute, who has examined the lessons of the 1990s.

But to win its budget wars, Canada first had to realize how dire its situation was and then dramatically shrink the size of government rather than just limit the pace of spending growth.

It would eventually oversee the biggest reduction in Canadian government spending since demobilization after the Second World War. The big cuts, and relatively small tax increases, brought a budget surplus within four years.

Canadian debt shrank to 29 per cent of gross domestic product in 2008-09 from a peak of 68 per cent in 1995-96, and the budget was in the black for 11 consecutive years until the 2008-09 recession.

For Canada, the vicious debt circle turned into a virtuous cycle that rescued a currency that had been dubbed the “northern peso.” Canada went from having the second worst fiscal position in the Group of Seven industrialized countries, behind only Italy, to easily the best.

It is far from a coincidence that the recent recession was shorter and shallower in Canada than in the United States. Indeed, by January, Canada had recovered all the jobs lost in the downturn, while the U.S. has hardly been able to dent its high unemployment.

“We used to thank God that Italy was there because we were the second worst in the G7,” said Scott Clark, associate deputy finance minister in the 1990s.

Canada’s experience turned on its head the prevailing wisdom that spending promises were the easiest way to win elections. Politicians of all kinds and at all levels of government learned that austerity could win.

‘I WILL DO IT’

The turnaround began with Mr. Chrétien’s arrival as prime minister in November, 1993, when his Liberal Party – in some ways Canada’s equivalent of the Democrats in the U.S. – swept to victory with a strong majority. The new government took one look at the dreadful state of the books and decided to act.

“I said to myself, I will do it. I might be prime minister for only one term, but I will do it,” Mr. Chrétien said..

A shrewd political strategist, he believed Canadians were on board, after they were shocked and embarrassed a year earlier when Standard & Poor’s downgraded Canadian foreign currency debt to double-A plus from triple-A.

He wanted history to remember him as the man who rescued Canada from financial ruin and humiliation.

Mr. Chrétien sat his skeptical cabinet down and laid down the hard truth. He would get rid of the deficit, it would be painful and unpopular and nobody would be spared. There was no choice, no room for negotiation. It had to be done.

The chill in the room was such that newly appointed junior minister for veterans affairs, Lawrence MacAulay, called his wife afterward to say he would soon be out of a job.

“He said, ‘Darling, I will be back home in the next election. I will be defeated, because the prime minister explained to us this morning what he intended to do,’” according to Mr. Chrétien’s recollection.

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