The federal Finance Department is preparing a fiscal update that will be ready within weeks, even though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won’t say when his government will outline the full effect of COVID-19 spending on Ottawa’s bottom line.
During his daily news conference Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau declined to clearly answer repeated questions as to when the government will introduce a fiscal update or a budget.
However, a senior Finance Department official told a Senate committee Tuesday that a fiscal update is in the works.
“We’re in the process of beginning that fiscal update, which, of course, involves consultation with the private sector, and we expect to be able to provide a fiscal update in the coming weeks, but I don’t think the government has made any announcements about the timing of that at this point,” said Alison McDermott, Finance Canada’s associate assistant deputy minister for economic and fiscal policy.
Mr. Trudeau and his ministers have announced billions in new spending and loans to help individuals and businesses get through the novel coronavirus pandemic. While it has provided a running tally for most of the measures announced to date, the government has not released a fiscal forecast since December.
At that time, Finance Minister Bill Morneau said the government was projecting a $28.1-billion deficit for the 2020-21 fiscal year. Since then, it has announced more than $145-billion in direct spending measures related to COVID-19, as well as $85-billion in tax deferrals. Those figures do not include programs announced over the past week, including $2.5-billion in one-time payments to seniors and a new loan program for large corporations that are unable to secure private-sector loans.
Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux reported late last month that the federal deficit for this year could exceed $251-billion. During an appearance Tuesday before the House of Commons finance committee, Mr. Giroux said the PBO’s deficit forecast “is probably on the very optimistic side” and that the final deficit figure is more likely to be higher.
“We could be pleasantly surprised. A genius could come up with a vaccine tomorrow and we could go back to living a normal life by September, but that doesn’t look likely for now," he told MPs. “In all likelihood, the deficit will be higher.”
Mr. Trudeau declined Wednesday to provide a timeline for releasing a formal deficit projection.
“A budget is usually something that projects what’s going to happen in the Canadian economy for the next 12 months and right now we’re having a lot of difficulty establishing with any certainty what’s going to happen in the next 12 weeks," he told reporters. “We will continue to be open and transparent with Canadians as much as possible."
Mr. Trudeau and his ministers later faced a wide range of questions in the House of Commons as part of a weekly in-person session of a special committee on COVID-19.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer questioned whether the government is doing enough to prevent fraud in new programs such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh urged the Liberal government to work with the provinces to ensure that seniors are guaranteed a proper standard of treatment at long-term care facilities, where more than 80 per cent of COVID-19-related deaths have occurred.
But the NDP’s advice was challenged by Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, who said health care is a provincial jurisdiction and that federal funds should be transferred to the provinces with no strings attached.
Mr. Singh also said the federal government should cover two weeks of paid sick leave either through CERB or Employment Insurance.
With reports from Kristy Kirkup
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