Even before she presents her first mini-budget next week, Chrystia Freeland has become the most powerful Finance Minister, maybe the most powerful cabinet minister, in 20 years. What we don’t know yet is whether she will use that power. Or how.
She should be an open book. She has written two of them, one of which, Plutocrats, raised concerns about the emergence of a new superrich, and rising income inequality. She has worked as a journalist for the Financial Times, The Globe and Mail and Reuters, writing hundreds of articles, often about business and economics. She has given dozens of speeches and been scrummed by reporters every week.
Yet her appointment as Finance Minister produced dramatically conflicting opinions about what it means for Canada’s fiscal and economic policy. One business-wire story said it signalled a sharp turn to the left, which surprised Liberal MPs, who thought she was a voice of relative fiscal restraint. More or less.
She was appointed to replace Bill Morneau at a time when Justin Trudeau was toying with the idea of a massive green recovery program. But some colleagues saw Ms. Freeland as the minister who pushed back when, for example, green activists in the cabinet wanted to reject the (now abandoned) Frontier Mine oil sands project.
Inside and outside the Liberal government, a lot of people will tell you she is quick-minded and clear-headed, the kind of minister who asked the right questions. She fought off an aggressive U.S. side in NAFTA talks.
And yet it is still hard to figure what kind of economic vision she will foster as the steward of the country’s finances – and maybe the only minister who has the power to win an argument with the PM. In days, she will deliver a mini-budget that will be the first fiscal plan since a pandemic clobbered the economy and turned fiscal policy inside out, and it’s hard to say what the Freeland stamp will be.
Yes, we know the mini-budget will be all about COVID-19, and it should be. And the Liberals will keep spending. The money pumped out by Ottawa has kept the economy rolling in a crisis. Ms. Freeland isn’t going to stop all that.
She gave a speech last month rejustifying crisis spending. But she also indicated that at some point, some form of restraint has to kick in – without giving any hint of when or what form the restraint might take. “Our fiscally expansive approach to fighting coronavirus will not be infinite,” she said. At least we know the upper bound is infinity.
Her fall economic statement will have to say more. It will give us a number for this year’s Godzilla deficit, but it also is supposed to give us some kind of assessment of what money will be available in the future. That’s a judgment call, one that will have a big impact on Mr. Trudeau’s ability to fund a stimulus program and some of the long list of policies in his government’s Throne Speech in September. She will have to signal some priorities. That should give us some clues about Mr. Freeland’s fiscal instincts.
Back in 2015, before the Liberals were elected, Ms. Freeland’s economic-policy ideas were more visible. She advocated a growth strategy of using low interest rates to finance infrastructure, for example; in government, the Liberals had difficulty getting the projects out. She was a chronicler of capitalism, but also inequality; the Liberals raised taxes a little on higher-income earners. It’s harder to glean her vision for a postpandemic economy.
It matters because she has the stature to become a second source of direction in Mr. Trudeau’s government. Her predecessor, Mr. Morneau, could disagree with the PM, but not insist. However, Mr. Trudeau would find it politically dangerous to fire Ms. Freeland, or have her resign in a huff. It’s not just her profile, or promotion to Deputy PM. It’s that Mr. Trudeau pushed his first finance minister aside and made her the quarterback. And that she’s the first Deputy PM to really speak for the whole government.
Right now, there’s no visible daylight between Prime Minister and Finance Minister. But if Ms. Freeland chooses, she has the power to impose some of her own vision. There arguably hasn’t been a finance minister with that kind of sway since Paul Martin, whose second budget dramatically revamped Canada’s public finances.
The mystery is how she will use it.
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