“Wait, there’s more!” The Liberals could have used the pitch lines from TV commercials for vegetable slicers to sell the seemingly endless list of breaks and programs and benefits in the platform they released on Sunday.
More old-age security. More breaks on student loans and grants. More subsidized camping. Even a new federal family day holiday!
There are aspirational promises to tackle a host of social problems, but at its core the Liberal platform is an effort to go toe to toe with Conservatives on “affordability,” albeit with a very different philosophy.
The Conservatives have offered a broad tax cut, with a money-in-your-pocket theme, and much of the rest of their program so far is a bunch of targeted, boutique tax credits. The Liberals offer a broad tax cut, too, but also a lot of new publicly paid benefits and programs for students, seniors, parents and so on.
The notion that one day the budget will balance, promised by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in 2015, is gone. Without a trace. Instead, the platform follows the principle the Liberals have been using ever since their first budget hiked the deficit up: Every time the deficit goes down a bit, it is an opportunity to spend more.
Deficits and debt don’t explode, but they don’t go down. Ever. The Liberal slogan used to be that “Better is Always Possible.” The platform’s message is that more is always possible. And that more is always better.
The platform tallies up $17-billion a year in new measures by 2023-24. Not all are spending; there is a $5.6-billion tax cut (all annual figures are for the same 2023-24 year) for example. But there are a lot of other things: The platform lists 48 new measures with sums attached. Larger sickness benefits in employment insurance, increasing the Canada Child Benefit for kids under the age of 1, removing citizenship fees for recent immigrants, and on.
But wait, there’s more. The $17-billion doesn’t even include the promise to implement a national pharmacare plan, which may cost something like $10-billion a year. Actually, despite all of Mr. Trudeau’s suggestions that he will implement a pharmacare plan in the next Liberal mandate, the platform doesn’t commit to that in black and white. It only promises to “take the critical next steps.” It’s hard to be sure what that means. But it sounds like more, doesn’t it?
The Liberal platform doesn’t make that all balance out. It has some proposals to bring in additional revenues, including a 10-per-cent tax on luxury goods over $100,000, such as boats and luxury cars. The biggest is a not-especially credible promise to save $3-billion with a new review of spending and tax breaks. All together, the new revenues only amount to slightly more than $7-billion, so instead of a shrinking deficit, it will stay above $20-billion a year.
But whatever. The Liberals are not trying to reduce the deficit, or the debt. They just don’t want it to increase by so much it gets noticed.
It is true the Liberals can argue that Canada’s public finances are still relatively sound. Compared to the size of the economy, the federal deficit is smaller than many countries, as is the accumulated federal debt. Because the economy is growing, the ratio of the debt to gross domestic product has stayed at around 30 per cent. Veteran Liberal and one-time finance minister Ralph Goodale argued Sunday that the public finances can withstand potential shocks.
Of course, a shock such as a recession could punch a hole in the federal budget and send the debt-to-GDP ratio higher. But the finances are okay for now.
Perhaps it is churlish to dwell on the Liberals’ $17-billion in promised new measures in a campaign where Elizabeth May’s Green Party plans to expand federal spending by $60-billion a year, plus whatever it costs to implement a guaranteed income for all.
In 2019, there are no deficit hawks; Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives have scrapped previous promises to balance the budget in two years, instead indicating it will take five – so not until a second mandate.
Like the Liberals, the Tories can read polls that say the deficit isn’t voters’ chief concern. So Mr. Scheer promised to put more money in your pocket. Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals are using different ways, but they are in a competition to promise more.
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