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Proclaiming your government ‘fiscally responsible’ does not make it so

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Proclaiming your government ‘fiscally responsible’ does not make it so

The Trudeau government will table its next federal budget on April 16. Before and after budget day, Canadians should be wary of carefully crafted and overly positive government rhetoric, which may bear little resemblance to the actual state of Ottawa’s finances and the government’s fiscal track record.

For example, federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland recently said the government plans “to invest in Canadians… in a fiscally responsible way.” At first glance, these comments seem reasonable. But consider the Trudeau government’s record on spending, deficits and debt over the last nine years.

Since taking office in 2015, the Trudeau government has demonstrated a proclivity to spend and borrow at nearly every turn. From 2018 to 2022, the Trudeau government recorded the five highest levels of federal spending per person (excluding debt interest costs) in Canadian history (inflation-adjusted). Recent projections from the government suggest it will possess the eight highest levels of per-person spending by the end of its current term next fall.

This repeated preference to turn on the spending taps has resulted in nine consecutive budget deficits, with federal debt reaching $2.0 trillion at the end of March 2024. Rapid debt accumulation means each Canadian was responsible for paying $1,160 in federal debt interest costs in 2023/24 alone and the government will likely need to raise taxes in the future.

The government also plans to continue running larger deficits than it did before COVID and borrow nearly $500 billion more by 2028/29.

To make matters worse, we can’t put much stock in their fiscal plans, as spending and deficits are almost always higher than government forecasts. Two years ago, for example, the government planned to spend $478.6 billion in 2024/25 and run a deficit of $27.8 billion. Its latest forecast, however, shows a larger deficit of $38.4 billion despite revenues being $32.6 billion higher than anticipated. A failure to restrain spending means the government now expects total spending to be $521.8 billion in 2024/25.

None of this points to any semblance of fiscal responsibility.

Ontario’s Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy has made similar erroneous claims. When tabling that province’s budget last month, he said his fiscal plan, which includes a $9.8 billion deficit in 2024/25 and $59.7 billion in debt over three years, was a “prudent, responsible approach.”

Despite paying lip service to their strong stewardship of government finances, Minister Bethlenfalvy and Premier Doug Ford rarely waste an opportunity to increase spending and burden Ontarians with more debt. From 2017/18 to 2024/25, provincial revenues will have increased by a projected 36.5 per cent, yet the Ford government has more than wiped out these gains by increasing program spending by nearly 41.0 per cent over the same timeframe.

Moreover, Ontario’s per-person inflation-adjusted spending is higher now than it ever was during Kathleen Wynne’s tenure as premier. Due to the Ford government’s decision to post deficits in five of six years, in conjunction with significant spending on infrastructure, provincial debt has increased by close to $92.0 billion since 2017/18.

None of these facts point to a “prudent, responsible approach” to finances at Queen’s Park.

The current governments in both Toronto and Ottawa have remarkably poor track records with spending and debt. Proclaiming yourself to be fiscally responsible does not make it so. It’s time for finance ministers to stop playing word tricks and be honest about their own mismanagement.

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