As expected, this being an election campaign, shifting positions, contradictions and misstatements of fact attend the debate over Canada's current and past fiscal policy.
It is hard to know where to begin, but since a start is required, why not with the accusation from the NDP and Liberals that the Conservatives have run six straight deficits (soon to be seven when the latest numbers are compiled). This record, claim the opposition parties, demonstrates bad financial management.
Okay, but what exactly would these parties have done had they been in power? The severe financial crisis of 2008-2009 collapsed government revenues and drove up spending on social support programs. The combination happened all over the world.
The Harper government, after some hesitation to overcome its ideological aversion to deficits, poured money into the economy. This so-called Keynesian response is precisely what the opposition parties demanded, what they would have done in office, and what circumstances required. Had the Conservatives done nothing, imagine the howling from the NDP and the Liberals.
Now that the Conservatives have brought the deficit down to a small amount – they wrongly assert the budget is balanced, but it is not, as the Parliamentary Budget Officer has reported – they are being pilloried by the Liberals who, just a short while ago, preached the virtues of a balanced budget.
The Liberals even brought former prime minister Paul Martin from retirement to support leader Justin Trudeau's call for stimulus spending in the form of big investments in "infrastructure."
Mr. Martin called Stephen Harper the "king of deficits." Mr. Martin knows enough to understand what was just explained: The six deficits came from the financial recession and the necessary countercyclical spending by Ottawa. Moreover, was it not Mr. Martin, as finance minister, who once declared that "come hell or high water" he would end deficit financing? Which he did, to great acclaim, except from the New Democrats, who today say balanced budgets are the way to go. Now, his party wants to run deficits, and this has become the right thing to do?
Mr. Martin, in slaying the deficit, did precisely what the Reform Party that included MP Stephen Harper demanded. Now, Mr. Harper insists Mr. Martin did things all wrong by cutting transfers to provinces and raising taxes.
What Mr. Harper fails to mention is that Mr. Martin a) also cut federal spending, b) inherited a financial mess, c) straightened things out and handed over a fat surplus to Mr. Harper who squandered some of it with big spending, d) in cutting provincial transfers, Mr. Martin did exactly what Mr. Harper is doing by reducing the increase in transfers for health care starting in 2017-2018.
Mr. Harper also states (see his Abbotsford, B.C., speech last week) that the Liberals started Canada down the road of deficit-financing in the mid-1970s where it remained for 30 years under their watch. Fact: Deficits lasted roughly two decades, not three, and the Progressive Conservatives were in power for almost half that time. Little historical distortions can be forgiven, whoppers cannot.
Federal New Democrats, for their part, believed strongly in deficit-financing over the decades. (Several NDP provincial parties, having actually governed, unlike their federal cousins, were fiscally prudent.) Shelves groan with compilations of federal NDP demands to spend more public money to prop up the economy when weak; shelves are devoid of NDP speeches about trimming spending when times were good, the other (usually neglected) side of the Keynesian theory.
There never seemed to the NDP a good moment to restrain spending and to cut programs. Even today, when pressed for places to cut, leader Thomas Mulcair proposes little savings such as eliminating or paring back the Senate. Please, get serious.
Now, overthrowing decades of doctrine, the NDP not only preaches the virtues of a balanced budget but insists it will balance its very first one if elected – regardless, apparently, of economic circumstances.
Previously, the NDP would pledge to balance the budget "over the business cycle," whatever that meant. Now, holier than the holiest of deficit-fighters, the NDP says deficits must stop, immediately.
This hair-shirt approach is intended to reassure Canadians that the NDP can run the candy shop of government, with all the temptations to spend.
In sum, if Canadians are confused and a little skeptical when the parties talk about fiscal policy, they can be forgiven.