Federal government’s fiscal plan raises red flags

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Appeared in the Western Standard, December 6, 2023
Federal government’s fiscal plan raises red flags

The Trudeau government recently released its fiscal update, which provides revised estimates of spending, taxing and borrowing. A careful examination of the update raises several red flags about the state of Canada’s national finances.

First, some analyses raised concerns about the state of federal borrowing, which are well founded. While the government downplays the level of potential borrowing over the six years covered in the fiscal update, the projected deficit—that is, the amount of spending in a specific year in excess of the amount of revenues—will reach $40.0 billion this year (2023-24) and $38.4 billion next year. However, the estimate for next year does not include the national pharmacare plan that the Trudeau government has agreed to as part of its governing agreement with the NDP.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) estimated that a national pharmacare plan modelled on the Quebec system would cost $11.2 billion in 2024-25 (the provinces would likely cover some of this). The 2019 report of the Advisory Council on the Implementation of National Pharmacare, better known as the Hoskins Commission, estimated that a national pharmacare program would cost $15.3 billion in 2027.

Consequently, if the government introduces national pharmacare next year, without any offsetting reduction in other spending and/or meaningful tax increases, the deficit for 2024-25 would reach $49.6 billion, not the reported $38.4 billion. The higher borrowing needed to finance pharmacare continues each and every year, meaning that the overall level of federal debt would also increase.

A second red flag, which the fiscal update ignored, relates to Canada meeting its international commitment for defence spending. Canada is a party to the NATO agreement calling on member countries to spend 2.0 per cent of GDP on national defence. In 2022, Canada spent just 1.3 per cent of GDP on defence. According to the PBO, for the federal government to meet its NATO spending obligations next year (2024-25), it must spend an additional $14.5 billion. That means annual borrowing could be as high as $64.1 billion if both additional defence and pharmacare spending were financed entirely by new borrowing.

And there are legitimate reasons to believe the government would not raise taxes to finance a new pharmacare program. According to polling data in 2022, 79 per cent of survey respondents supported a new national pharmacare program—but support plummeted to just 40 per cent when the new hypothetical program was financed by higher taxes, specifically a higher GST.

That brings us to the third red flag. The total national debt will reach a projected $2.1 trillion next year (excluding the additional potential spending and borrowing noted on pharmacare and defence) and the interest costs on that debt are expected to reach $52.4 billion. For reference, the total national debt stood at $1.1 trillion in 2015-16 when the Trudeau Liberals took office.

By 2028-29, the last year included in the fiscal update, the federal government expects interest costs to reach $60.7 billion. That’s only slightly less than total planned health-care spending by Ottawa for the same year ($62.9 billion). And this is actually a conservative estimate since it excludes potential higher borrowing for programs such as pharmacare and thus higher debt levels. It also ignores any possibility of a downgrading in the ratings for Canada’s debt, which would result in higher interest costs. And it ignores the risk of an economic slowdown or recession that would further increase borrowing and ultimately debt interest costs.

While the federal government, particularly the prime minister and his finance minister, continue to describe their stewardship of federal finances as prudent and responsible, close examination of their fiscal update reveals that federal finances may soon deteriorate from their already worrying position.