Poor policies responsible for stagnant economy and deteriorating federal finances

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Appeared in the Hub, January 12, 2024
Poor policies responsible for stagnant economy and deteriorating federal finances

The Trudeau government was elected in 2015 based in part on a new approach to government policy, promising greater prosperity for Canadians through short-term deficit spending, lower taxes for most Canadians, and a more direct and active role for government in economic development. However, the result has been economic stagnation and a marked deterioration in the country’s finances. If Canada is to restore its economic and fiscal health, Ottawa must enact fundamental policy reform.

The Trudeau government has significantly increased spending from $256.2 billion in 2014-15 to a projected $449.8 billion in 2023-24 (excluding debt interest costs) to expand existing programs and create new programs.

In 2016, the government increased the top personal income tax rate on entrepreneurs, professionals and businessowners from 29 per cent to 33 per cent. Consequently, the combined top personal income tax rate (federal and provincial) now exceeds 50 per cent in eight provinces and the country’s average top combined rate in 2022 ranked fifth-highest among 38 OECD countries. This represents a serious competitive challenge for Canada to attract and retain entrepreneurs, investors and skilled professionals (e.g. doctors) we badly need.

And while the Trudeau government reduced the middle personal income tax rate, it also eliminated several tax credits. Due to the combination of these two policy changes, 86 per cent of middle-income families now pay higher personal income taxes.

The Trudeau government also borrowed to help finance new spending, triggering a string of budget deficits. As a result, federal gross debt has ballooned to $1.9 trillion (2022-23) and will reach a projected $2.4 trillion by 2027-28, fuelling a marked growth in interest costs, which now consume substantial levels of revenue unavailable for government services or tax reduction.

Simply put, the Trudeau government has produced large increases in government spending, taxes and borrowing, which have not translated into a more robust and vibrant economy.

For example, from 2013 to 2022, growth in per-person GDP, the broadest measure of living standards, was the weakest on record since the 1930s. Prospects for the future, given current policies, are not encouraging. According to the OECD, Canada will record the lowest rate of per-person GDP growth among 32 advanced economies during the periods 2020 to 2030 and 2030 to 2060. Countries such as Estonia, South Korea and New Zealand are expected to vault past Canada and achieve higher living standards by 2060.

Canada’s economic growth crisis is due in part to the decline in business investment, which is critical to increasing living standards because it equips workers with tools and technologies to produce more and provide higher-quality goods and services. The Trudeau government has dampened investment by increasing regulatory barriers, particularly in the energy and mining sectors, and running deficits, which imply tax increases in the future.

Business investment (inflation-adjusted, excluding residential construction) has declined by 1.8 per cent annually, on average, since 2014. Between 2014 and 2021, business investment per worker (inflation-adjusted, excluding residential construction) decreased by $3,676 in Canada compared to growth of $3,418 in the United States.

There’s reason for optimism, however, since many of Canada’s challenges are of Ottawa’s own making. The Chrétien Liberals in the 1990s faced many of the same challenges we do today. By shifting the focus to more prudent government spending, balanced budgets, debt reduction and competitive tax rates, the Chrétien Liberals—followed in large measure by the Harper Tories—paved the way for two decades of prosperity. To help foster greater prosperity for Canadians today and tomorrow, the federal government should learn from the Chrétien Liberals and Harper Tories and enact fundamental policy reform.

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