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Which politician will we get on budget day: The one who can face hard truths with conviction, or the loyal servant of a party with too little fiscal restraint? The fate of our economy is riding on the answer

Chrystia Freeland looked jittery as she stood behind Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Feb. 24, as he announced new sanctions against Russia for its attack on Ukraine. She exhaled laboriously every couple of seconds, and her brows fluttered above her mask as if she was rehearsing what she would be saying. But when the Deputy Prime Minister took to the podium after Mr. Trudeau concluded his remarks, any anxiousness she may have been harbouring appeared to disappear entirely.

“The horrific human costs of this cruel invasion,” she said with laser-sharp precision, “are the direct and personal responsibility of Vladimir Putin, who has chosen to invade a sovereign democracy and challenge the rules-based international order.” Ms. Freeland spoke slowly, meticulously, articulating every syllable as if she wanted to make sure Kremlin interpreters would be able to keep up. “History will judge President Putin as harshly as the world condemns him today. Today, he cements his place in the ranks of the reviled European dictators who caused such carnage in the 20th century.”

This was Chrystia Freeland speaking from a truth she understands innately, as the descendant of Ukrainian refugees, the former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times and the woman the KGB had code-named “Frida” when she was a young activist working for Ukrainian independence and democracy. Eight years before that, nearly to the day, Ms. Freeland was sitting on her uncle Bohdan’s couch in central Kyiv after the Maidan Revolution forced then-president Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country; now, she was not only Deputy Prime Minister but Canada’s Finance Minister, unveiling sanctions that she promised, in concert with those from the rest of the world, would be devastating to Russia’s economy. Even those unaware of the depths of Ms. Freeland’s connections to the region could tell that at this press conference, they were getting the real Chrystia Freeland.

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Ms. Freeland hugs Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a news conference in Brampton, Ont., on March 28.Carlos Osorio/Reuters

Most of the time, however, the Freeland that Canadians see is one who never forgets her bright Liberal-red dress, no matter which ministerial hat she happens to be wearing. There is no question Ms. Freeland is exceedingly capable, having traversed the cabinet room as the minister of international trade, then foreign affairs, then deputy prime minister and intergovernmental affairs, then finance, all while carrying certain files (such as NAFTA/USMCA) with her along the way. But she is also – unlike some of her dearly departed ministerial colleagues – a rather loyal partisan servant who has mastered the art of responding without answering and who will toe the party line in public in a manner that occasionally betrays her own previously expressed views.

Ms. Freeland is now tasked with delivering a budget at a critical time for Canada: when the country is in the early yet unstable stages of pandemic recovery, when a war is being fought in Ukraine, when drought caused by climate change has affected domestic and global yields and when inflation in Canada and abroad is surging. Indeed, the country is now at a precarious financial moment, when it could use the steady hand of that minister it saw on Feb. 24, speaking with genuine conviction about a policy she believes in deeply. What it doesn’t need is a minister dressed in Liberal garb, selling a politically advantageous budget when Canada can’t endure any more risk.

Next week, Ms. Freeland will produce a budget that accounts for her government’s many spending promises – and the new spending promises inherited through the supply-and-confidence agreement with the NDP, plus a likely increase in defence spending – while somehow also reassuring capital markets and stimulating long-term growth. This government has never been shy about spending beyond its means, and it has done so every year far beyond projections, while citing low interest rates and an ill-defined need to “invest” in the economy. The pandemic, of course, necessitated emergency spending on a record scale, although Canada’s trillion-dollar debt and projected deficits over the coming years now mean the country is staring down hefty financing costs: $43.5-billion in 2025-26, to cite one figure from a recent Parliamentary Budget Officer report. For context, the government is spending less than that to settle a years-long dispute over compensation for Indigenous children.

With the economy now recovering (GDP growth in the fourth quarter of 2021 exceeded the forecast rate, and the unemployment rate is down to prepandemic levels), the time for runaway, short-term spending is over, and indeed it risks exacerbating inflationary pressures. Interest rates are going up, and Canada’s debt-to-GDP ratio is projected to be 48 per cent for 2021-22 (up from 31.2 per cent in 2019-20), which means the government has far less room to manoeuvre should it get hit with another crisis. The Liberal Party’s impulse may be to continue to promise everything – Child care! Dental care! Fighter jets! Green retrofits! Rapid housing! – and to leave the bill for some future government to sort out, which is why Canada depends on Ms. Freeland now to make some tough calls and bring the budget down to earth.

Former finance minister Bill Morneau was initially thought to be the figure who would serve as a bulwark against the Trudeau Liberals’ more quixotic spending inclinations. He was a Bay Street guy who understood the conditions and challenges of running a company in this country, and he championed a pragmatic, sustainable approach to government spending. Back in 2015, when his appointment as finance minister was first announced, Rod Phillips, who would later serve as finance minister in Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government, said, “I feel much better about this Liberal government knowing someone like him is in the mix.”

That comfort was ultimately short-lived. The Liberals quickly abandoned their plan to run three small $10-billion deficits before returning to balance, and Mr. Morneau was trotted out to defend his government’s move to roll back eligibility for Old Age Security from 67 to 65, despite having co-authored a book that essentially made the case for delayed national retirement.

Ironically enough, just before Mr. Morneau resigned during the WE Charity scandal in the summer of 2020, leaks from the Prime Minister’s Office attempted to discredit Mr. Morneau by suggesting he was a bulwark against Mr. Trudeau’s spending plans, specifically as they related to pandemic relief. Sources told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Morneau wanted to keep the wage subsidy at 10 per cent instead of raising it to 75 per cent, among other things, and that his outlook was incompatible with Mr. Trudeau’s. He was eventually replaced with Ms. Freeland, who was ostensibly more onside with the government’s spending proclivities.

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Ms. Freeland with then finance minister Bill Morneau in Mexico City in 2018.Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters

But if ever there was a time to serve as that necessary bulwark, it’s now – when there is so much uncertainty and volatility around economic factors at home and abroad. And yet, there is little reason to believe that Ms. Freeland’s handling of the finance portfolio will be suitably divorced from her party’s political interests. That’s simply because throughout her years in cabinet, Ms. Freeland has proved particularly adept at selling whatever her government is offering, no matter what she might be privately thinking.

She played along as minister of international trade, for example, when Mr. Trudeau flew off to Beijing in 2017 to pursue a “progressive free trade agenda” with a corrupt and oppressive regime (China had to promise to advance gender equity, remember?), even though she has written and spoken extensively on the late-20th-century fallacy that democracies could export liberal values through trade with autocratic states. Ms. Freeland tepidly toed the line on Canada’s continued sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of a diplomatic spat in 2018, even though it was her tweet expressing concern about human-rights abuses in the country that catalyzed the row in the first place.

When scandal erupts in government, Ms. Freeland can reliably be called upon to recite party-approved talking points. During an interview about the SNC-Lavalin scandal with the CBC’s Ottawa Morning after explosive committee testimony from former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, Ms. Freeland said she was “very clearly of the view that the Prime Minister would never apply improper pressure.” When asked if she thought Ms. Wilson-Raybould was telling the truth, Ms. Freeland replied she believed she was telling “her truth.”

Last year, when former defence minister Harjit Sajjan was embroiled in controversy over his inaction on sexual misconduct in the military – including his alleged refusal to look at claims against former defence chief Jonathan Vance – Ms. Freeland tweeted her support for the minister and accused the opposition of playing “partisan games.” And it was the Deputy Prime Minister who, during the last election campaign, tweeted a torqued video of former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole supposedly touting a private health care system – a video that Twitter ended up flagging as “manipulated media.”

It may be that Ms. Freeland’s unquestionable competence serves to somewhat obscure her partisanship. She has successfully negotiated trade agreements with the European Union, with Mexico and the United States to replace NAFTA, and she has won over conservative premiers including Ontario’s Doug Ford. But she is also adept at standing before reporters and responding to questions without answering, and at speaking to Canadians about pressing issues – border controls during COVID-19 or RCMP raids on Indigenous territory – without actually saying much of anything. In 2014, Ms. Freeland wrote a piece for Politico observing that many people see politicians as “boring, poll-watching, talking point-spouting automatons.” But eight years and several cabinet posts later, Canada’s Minister of Everything has taken on that role, too. The Chrystia Freeland this country needs is the one who took the microphone on the day Russia invaded Ukraine and spoke with personal conviction about the role Canada plays in the international order. Yet it’s unlikely that when she presents her budget next week, that’s the one the country will get.

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