Federal government consistently spends beyond high spending targets

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in Business in Vancouver, January 23, 2024
Federal government consistently spends beyond high spending targets

As budget season approaches, one thing is clear. If the Trudeau government is notable for planning astonishingly high levels of spending, it’s equally notable for overspending beyond its original plans. At all times—when they first took office in 2015, in the pre-pandemic years, and now—the Liberals have consistently raised their spending targets, then spent more than targeted.

Begin at the beginning. Inheriting a projected balanced budget in 2015, the Liberals proceeded to spend federal finances into deficit in the 2015-16 fiscal year (ended March 31, 2016) before presenting the first budget of their own in the spring of 2016. That budget called for $1,219 billion in program spending over the next four years. What the government actually ended up spending was $1,269 billion for the 2016-17 to 2019-20 fiscal years, blowing past their initial plan by a cumulative $50 billion.

Even worse, they set government spending on a higher trajectory—while cumulative spending in the Liberals’ first four full fiscal years in office was 4.1 per cent more than initially planned, the spending level for fiscal year 2019-20 alone was actually 11.1 per cent above the original target. So not only did the Liberals overspend their Budget 2016 fiscal plan by $50 billion over four years, they significantly weakened the fiscal outlook by permanently raising baseline spending for future years.

That federal program spending exploded to $624 billion in 2020-21 from $349 billion in 2019-20 is not surprising given the onetime expenses during the pandemic, and the $479 billion in spending in 2021-22 also included pandemic-related costs. But while some COVID spending was justifiable, much of the new spending was not. According to an analysis by Fraser Institute economists, $360 billion in pandemic-related spending, at least 25 per cent was unnecessary waste.

What about after the pandemic? In post-pandemic fiscal year 2022-23, program spending was $448 billion and debt interest expenses $35 billion, for a total of $483 billion. Compare that to what the Liberals initially planned in Budget 2018, the earliest fiscal plan to project out to 2022-23. Budget 2018, itself no model of fiscal responsibility, planned $350 billion in program spending and $33 billion in debt interest costs for a total of $383 billion (excluding a $3 billion “adjustment for risk”) in 2022-23.

So post-pandemic, the Liberals raised annual spending by nearly $100 billion versus their pre-pandemic fiscal plan. Comparing expected spending for 2023-24 with the plan in Budget 2019 shows a similar discrepancy. The 2023 Fall Economic Statement projects $450 billion in program spending and $496 billion in total spending versus $369 billion in program spending and $402 billion in total spending for 2023-24 in the Liberals’ 2019 fiscal plan (which itself contained material upward spending revisions from Budget 2018).

Speaking of the Fall Economic Statement, it also revised the spending trajectory upward from what the Liberals budgeted in the spring. In Budget 2023, the Liberals projected $2,395 billion in program spending over the next five fiscal years—or $2,630 billion including interest expenses. Because of new spending commitments and higher borrowing costs, five-year program spending is now expected to be $2,422 billion ($28 billion higher) and total spending $2,688 billion ($58 billion higher).

That’s a significant spending plan increase in only half a year. However, given the Trudeau government’s track record of missing its targets, don’t be surprised if actual spending comes in even higher than the latest forecast.