Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to release a “snapshot” of federal finances on July 8, but said his government “will continue to reflect” on when it will release a full fiscal update or a 2020 budget.
Mr. Trudeau announced the date during his daily news conference on Wednesday, a week after telling Canadians the economy was too unstable during the novel coronavirus pandemic to reliably forecast the size of the federal deficit in light of billions in spending related to COVID-19.
The July report will be formally called an “economic and fiscal snapshot” and will focus on the short term, rather than long-term fiscal and economic projections that are routinely found in a regular fiscal update.
“This will give Canadians a picture of where our economy is right now, how our response compares to that of other countries and what we can expect for the months to come,” Mr. Trudeau said.
The Liberal minority government shelved plans to release a 2020 budget on March 30 in light of the pandemic, which also led MPs to suspend regular sittings of the House of Commons on March 13.
Since then, the Prime Minister and Finance Minister Bill Morneau have rejected calls from opposition parties and policy experts to release a budget or a fiscal update that would show how the billions of dollars in new pandemic-related spending this year will increase the size of the federal deficit.
Last week, Mr. Trudeau told reporters a fiscal update during uncertain economic times would be “an exercise in invention and imagination.”
On Wednesday, he said he maintains the position that the economic landscape is still too uncertain for longer-term projections and he declined to commit to releasing a 2020 budget.
“As for when there will be a full fiscal update or an eventual budget, right now we’re still very much responding to an immediate situation and we will continue to reflect on when that time could be right as the situation stabilizes,” he said.
Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux is scheduled to release his latest fiscal forecast on Thursday. In an April 30 report, the PBO estimated the deficit for this fiscal year could be $252.1-billion. That compares with the $28.1-billion deficit projected by Mr. Morneau in December, the government’s most recent official forecast.
In an interview Wednesday, Mr. Giroux said the economy has outperformed his office’s earlier assumptions; however, the fiscal improvement due to economic factors will be largely offset by new spending announced in recent weeks.
Mr. Morneau has repeatedly argued it would be too difficult to release a fiscal update in such an uncertain economic time. Mr. Giroux has challenged that view in a series of committee appearances and media interviews.
“It’s not rocket science,” he told BNN Bloomberg earlier this month.
C.D. Howe Institute chief executive Bill Robson said the current fiscal year started on April 1 and a full budget is urgently needed so that Canadians have a sense of the direction of federal finances.
“It’s just unconscionable that all this money is getting spent without proper scrutiny,” he said, adding that nearly all of the provinces and territories released budgets this year including one this week by the Saskatchewan government.
“The federal government really sticks out as not doing its job. I don’t think parliamentarians should accept this easily. I don’t think Canadians should accept this easily,” he said.
Conservative MPs accused the Liberal government of waiting to release new numbers until summer, when Canadians are on vacation and not following the news.
“They’re spending money like it grows on trees and yet the Liberal Finance Minister seems completely incapable of doing his job and telling the truth to Canadians about the country’s finances,” Conservative MP Raquel Dancho said Wednesday in the House of Commons during a meeting of the temporary COVID-19 committee. “To make matters worse, they’ve shut down Parliament for the summer during the worst crisis in living memory, so we will have no opportunity to fix these broken programs or the new problems that are surely to emerge this summer.”
Meanwhile, the House of Commons finance committee is launching consultations on the 2021 federal budget, with a deadline of Aug. 7 for interest groups and individuals to submit their ideas.
Also on Wednesday, the PBO released a report on the federal government’s $187.8-billion Investing in Canada Plan, an infrastructure program running from 2016-17 to 2027-28.
In line with previous reports, the PBO found the pace of spending was behind schedule by about $2-billion over the program’s first three years.
“That said, the delay in infrastructure spending has decreased,” the report states.
The government has said it has approved funding for 53,122 projects through the program. However, the PBO said it was initially only able to find a list of 33,112 projects.
Just as the PBO was finishing its report, the federal government provided his office with additional information. The government said an additional 12,000 projects are attributable to the gas-tax fund transfer to municipalities, and 8,556 projects were delivered through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.
Mr. Giroux said he is not satisfied with the level of detail provided in these additional reports and that not all individual projects have been identified.
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