It is a maiden budget that contains much foreshadowing, because more so than most, it is plainly intended as the first chapter of one long story.
There are governments, including the last federal Liberal ones under Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, that flit about from theme to theme with each budget cycle – tax cuts one year, health care another, postsecondary education the third, with lurches between restraint and big spending – based on the demands and political currents of the moment.
Justin Trudeau’s government is a very different animal: Its next several budgets could almost certainly share this first one’s “Growing the Middle Class” title. And peculiar though it may seem to consider a fiscal plan that plunges the country into a nearly $30-billion deficit as only the starting point for an activist agenda, that is precisely what this is.
That’s not just because, contrary to the Liberals’ pledges during last year’s election campaign, they intend to run significant deficits past the end of their current mandate (and not quite live up to their promise to lower the debt-to-GDP ratio during that time). More so, it’s because of a pattern that runs through the document tabled by Finance Minister Bill Morneau that should delight people who spent the Stephen Harper era longing for more ambitious government, and horrify those who fear the messiness that can come with that approach.
In section after section, this is a budget that offers relatively straightforward and easy-to-deliver spending for now (most of it drawn from the Liberals’ election platform), then hints that much of that spending is stop-gap while an inexperienced cabinet settles on more transformative stuff aimed at increasing prosperity and economic fairness.
Infrastructure investment is the most obvious example, with Mr. Morneau going to the trouble of explicitly breaking it down into phases. Phase 1 is the “unsexy” part the Liberals warned of in the days leading up to the budget, with $11.9-billion in new money devoted over the next five years largely to shovel-ready maintenance projects. Then roughly four times that amount will seemingly be newly allocated for the much-sexier but more vaguely defined Phase 2, with new builds aimed at what the budget variously describes as a greener, more inclusive, more globally competitive and more liveable society – much of it revolving around yet-to-be-written national strategies on everything from affordable housing to child care.
Other than the Liberals’ new child tax credit and middle-class tax cuts, the rest is only slightly less a multiyear work in progress.
“Interim” increases to research and development funding are the precursor to an “Innovation Agenda” that will see more targeted and aggressive efforts to fund emerging industries. Extra funding for training for the unemployed is “the first step” before consultations to shape more changes to that system. Increases to student grants are to be followed by the development of a new, more progressive grant system. Enhancements to employment insurance are to be followed by making it easier to take parental or compassionate leave.
After reversing the Conservatives’ raising of the eligibility age for seniors’ income security, the Liberals want to develop a “Seniors Price Index” to reflect the cost of living. Increased veterans’ benefits are to be followed by a streamlining and simplification of the system. A “collective decision” is to be reached on an enhanced Canada Pension Plan by the end of 2016.
Even the $8.4-billion over five years to improve conditions in indigenous communities, one of the budget’s less ambiguous long-term commitments, is going to require a great deal of fleshing out. Then there is the new “multi-year health accord” with the provinces to follow some marginal short-term health investments, and the promised national carbon-pricing framework.
It is an odd mix, this budget, of clear ideas of where the Liberals want to be in four years, and fairly abstract thoughts about how to get there – the latter perhaps an inevitable consequence of a sudden surge to power, a frantic post-election schedule of domestic and international bridge-building for the new Prime Minister, and many rookie ministers still finding their way.
Keeping their eyes on all the balls they have put in the air won’t be easy. The more those new ministers learn their files, and their departments’ and stakeholders’ demands, the more they will start pushing for additional commitments. And no government gets to just focus on its Day 1 agenda, immune to unexpected events economic or otherwise.
But the hope, among those who crafted this document, is that it will sharpen focus on the goals it lays out, including within a bureaucracy being rapidly retooled with an eye toward activism and nimbleness.
Mr. Trudeau and those close to him, meanwhile, have ample confidence in their own ability to play the long game – to tell their story in as much time as it takes.Report Typo/Error