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When you’re new to the job of governing, a budget is a manifesto written in the air. All things are possible and all problems are solvable for the simple reason that the people who will do the fixing – you – are not the ones who created the problems in the first place.

But with each year that goes by, debris accumulates around your feet, and the options narrow for the vision you can conjure for the country. Late in the game, a budget is not a love letter about some pretty future, it’s a clenched-jaw plan for how you’re going to clean out the garage this weekend, finally.

And it’s obvious from both the rhetorical and policy focus in the Liberal government’s 2024 budget who everyone acknowledges got buried in the avalanche of junk out back: Canadians under 40.

The 2024 Budget is entitled Fairness for Every Generation, and the phrase “every generation” appears 113 times in the document, but that feels like a polite and very transparent fiction because the entire exercise is focused on one particular demographic slice.

“For too many younger Canadians, particularly Millennials and Gen Z, it feels like their hard work isn’t paying off. They’re not getting the same deal their parents and grandparents did. They don’t feel like they’re getting the same fair chance at success,” says the most explicit – but by no means only – mea culpa in the budget. “None of this is their fault. Institutions built by previous generations haven’t kept up to changing times.”

Housing is, of course, a major focus of discussion in the budget, if not scope for imagination. That policy area includes $6-billion over 10 years in infrastructure money that was announced as part of the prebudget road show, and a $400-million boost to the Housing Accelerator Fund. The government says this will “fast track” the construction of 12,000 new homes in the next three years, on top of agreements with dozens of cities through the original $4-billion fund, which accounts for 179,000 projected new housing starts.

There’s $1.1-billion earmarked to continue a boost to Canada Student Grants and interest-free student loans for another fiscal year, and another $1-billion devoted to education initiatives for Indigenous children and youth. Even the big revenue generator undergirding this budget – changes to capital-gains taxes that are projected to bring in $6.9-billion in 2024-25 – are framed in generational terms.

“While all Canadians can benefit from the capital gains tax advantage, the wealthy, who tend to earn relatively more income from capital gains, disproportionately benefit,” the budget says. “Tax fairness is important for every generation, and it is particularly significant for younger Canadians. In 2021, only about 5 per cent of Canadians under 30 had any capital gains at all.”

More than anything, it’s palpable how this budget was etched out between a rock (the government’s past spending and vows about fiscal restraint) and a hard place (cost of living angst among the public that simmered and simmered, and then suddenly hit a rolling boil). All this, while the political pendulum swings like a scythe over the necks of the Liberals.

The very first budget from this government, on the other hand – delivered in March, 2016, five months after they swept to a convincing majority and ended a decade of Conservative rule – was a demonstration of how fun it is to be the new guys. Then-finance minister Bill Morneau was in full shiny-manifesto mode when he rose in the House of Commons to table the government’s spending plans.

“Today, we begin to restore hope for the middle class. Today, we begin to revitalize the economy,” he said. “Today, we begin a long-term plan that will use smart investments and an unwavering belief that progress is possible to ensure that Canada’s best days lie ahead.”

Then, the ambition for how the government and its spending would reshape and improve Canadian life wrapped its broad-shouldered arms around everyone. That budget introduced the Canada Child Benefit and the first phase of a decade-long, $120-billion infrastructure plan, which Mr. Morneau positioned as a win-win growth proposition: Economic productivity would be goosed by smoother commutes and wider broadband access, and the federal money pumped into the economy would bloom like so many flowers.

That budget boosted Canada Student Grants and doubled the Guaranteed Income Supplement for single seniors. It also allotted $800-million for “innovation clusters and networks” in hopes that a place like Waterloo, Ont. could become Silicon Valley North. It wasn’t until later that the Liberals went all-in on innovation (with meh results), but that first budget was their thesis statement that you could capture lightning if you used federal money to build a big enough bottle.

There was a largeness of vision then that was ambitious and grand and blissfully, even arrogantly, hopeful.

And then eventually, they went from envisioning a Shopify on every corner to trying desperately to find room on the national credit card so that two entire generations – and counting – of Canadians could have some non-delusional hope of owning a home, some day.

It’s ironic, really, that this 2024 budget is the one overtly aimed at the young, because that 2016 spending blueprint was the embodiment of being young.

The contrast between then and now is like the difference between a single, upwardly-mobile 25-year-old laying out their life plan and a middle-aged parent with an unwieldy mortgage doing the same.

There are big things that need doing in both cases, to be sure, and either plan might change or fail. But one of those people is choosing from a bouquet of wide-open possibilities floating before them, while the other is backfilling a series of already-dug holes.

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