On March 22, at 4 p.m. Eastern Time, the Trudeau government brought down its first budget, lowering the curtain on 10 years of Conservative plans for smaller Ottawa. For a decade, the people in power on Parliament Hill dreamed of a government that would do less. They were at times thrown off course by recessions and elections, but what remained uppermost in their minds was the idea of a state whose ambition was to be modest. They wanted it to shrink and do less.
The new bosses in Ottawa, in contrast, want government to do more, and they won election on that ticket. Under the Liberals, the era of Big Government, or at least of a government that wants to get bigger, has returned.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau laid the table on Tuesday with a budget that, as promised, delivers substantial new spending on seniors, parents, the unemployed, students, aboriginals and infrastructure, in addition to previously announced income tax cuts for most Canadians. The mortar holding it all together is a willingness to turn to deficit finance. The Liberals promised that, too, during last fall's election campaign – though the size of the gap between revenues and expenditures has roughly tripled since then.
The Liberals broke the great deficit taboo during the election campaign. It paid off for them at the ballot box, and the politically popular just happens also to be economically sound. Ottawa shouldn't be obsessing over balancing the budget in a time of economic slowdown, and it should take advantage of human history's lowest interest rates to borrow and invest in needed infrastructure.
Mr. Morneau is planning a deficit of $29.4-billion this year – and that's no cause for alarm. He's also blowing past the no-more-than-$10-billion deficit level the Liberals campaigned on a few short months ago, and dropping the idea of returning to balance within four years. In fact, there is no timeline to balance the budget.
However, given Ottawa's relatively low debt levels, a global economic funk and interest rates that have never been lower, Ottawa can comfortably afford to borrow more, running larger deficits for a few years, without ill effects. Indeed, if the extra money is well spent, the economic impact could be big and positive. Deficits are not a disease, they're a tool – which can be used well, or misused.
It all comes down to how Ottawa spends. Where's the money going? That's the real bottom line. Run a deficit for the right reasons, and applause may be in order. Run it for the wrong reasons, and questions should be asked. This budget raises some questions.
The Liberal Party's electoral pitch was that Ottawa would run deficits to pay for infrastructure. But that's mostly not what's happening in Budget 2016. The vast majority of the planned new spending is not investment. It's not building roads or bridges or public transit. It's ongoing program spending, locked-in and permanent. And it's mostly about writing cheques to seniors, parents, aboriginal Canadians, the unemployed and provincial governments.
For example, over the next five years, annual spending on benefits to the elderly will rise by nearly $15-billion – from $45.6-billion in 2015-16 to $60.1-billion in 2020-21. Annual payments for children's benefits will be $4-billion higher five years from now. Employment insurance spending will be nearly $3-billion higher. Health transfers to the provinces will be $8-billion a year higher, and five years from now, the feds will be sending $2-billion extra to the provinces under the Canada Social Transfer, and $3.4-billion more under Equalization.
All of these are worthy initiatives. They may even be necessary. But none of this is one-off spending. It's designed to rise year after year. And it will.
All told, the budget calls for Ottawa's spending, not including interest payments, to rise over the next five years from $270.9-billion to $323.2-billion. How much of that new spending will be investment? Not that much.
What the budget calls "Phase I of Canada's New Infrastructure Plan" involves $11.9-billion in new infrastructure investments – spread over five years. In a big-budget bucket, it's a relatively small drop. The remaining infrastructure spending, which, based on previous Liberal promises, should involve another $48-billion over the next 10 years, is nowhere to be seen. It remains for the next budget. Or the one after that.
The odds of Mr. Morneau overshooting his deficit target in the coming years is low, because a big cushion has been built into the numbers to ensure he beats those targets. There is no fiscal crisis around the corner. And on balance, the idea of increasing government borrowing temporarily, taking advantage of low interest rates, is something most economists favour. However, the fact that the bulk of the money is going to spending, not investment, and ongoing programs, not one-off infrastructure, gives the budget a different colour. The rhetoric has been about harnessing deficits to invest in the future. That's not entirely the reality.