Fraser Forum

Canada’s federal government disregards its own fiscal rules—unlike Sweden

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Canada’s federal government disregards its own fiscal rules—unlike Sweden

During the 1970s and 1980s, Canada and Sweden both saw a deterioration in government finances. However, hard times in the early 1990s transformed the approach to fiscal policy by governments in both countries, including reducing spending and borrowing, and ultimately returning to balanced budgets. While Swedes have carried on the legacy of fiscal responsibility in subsequent decades, Canadians seem to have forgotten the hard lessons of recent history and have fallen back on the fiscal approach that got us into trouble in the first place.

In his recent book, Swedish economist Johan Norberg explains that for most of its modern history Sweden has been a testament to the success of the free market, rather than a model socialist economy. The country only experimented with socialism for a short period, with disastrous results.

Sweden’s socialist experiment during the 1970s and 1980s saw substantial income redistribution and the introduction of a large welfare state. As a result, the size of government doubled as a share of the economy (measured by GDP). Yet despite increases in taxes, particularly targeting corporations and the wealthy, the government could not raise the funds to pay for such a sizable expansion of the welfare state. Instead, Sweden ran deficits in every year from 1970 to 1987, government debt rose from less than 18 per cent of the economy (GDP) in 1970 to over 70 per cent in 1985, and the private sector completely stagnated.

This approach brought about a financial crisis in the early 1990s that saw interest rates briefly rise as high as 500 per cent. In the wake of this crisis, the Swedish government declared the socialist experiment a failure, and the country saw substantial reform that emphasized balanced budgets, lower taxes, and an open business environment. Rules were set in place to ensure fiscal discipline, and as a result the country has enjoyed consistent surpluses and government debt has fallen from 83.2 per cent of the economy in 1998 to 58.8 per cent in 2021, despite still maintaining a large welfare state.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Canada also experienced a deterioration in government finances. Canada’s issues stemmed from a substantial expansion in the size and role of government in conjunction with rising interest rates. The federal government ran uninterrupted budget deficits from 1970 through to the mid-1990s. Federal government debt rose to over 70 per cent of GDP during this period and debt interest costs were consuming more than one-third of federal government revenues.

By the early 1990s federal finances were in shambles and the economy was stagnant. A new federal government was elected, led by Jean Chrétien, which implemented significant fiscal reform in 1995 based on spending restraint, balanced budgets and lower taxes. The provinces enacted similar reforms, and from the late 1990s through the 2000s, Canadians enjoyed consistent surpluses, debt reduction, and strong economic growth.

While there are clear parallels between the countries, unlike Sweden, Canadians has since reverted back to the risky fiscal approach of the 1970s and 1980s. Since 2015, Canada has seen historically high federal spending, and a string of federal and provincial budget deficits. Consequently, government debt and its associated costs have grown substantially.

Since the 1990s, both Canada and Sweden have had fiscal rules in place to help ensure the health of government finances. But while the Swedish government has largely stuck to its surplus goal by being disciplined with finances, Canada’s current federal government has consistently disregarded its own commitments. Indeed, it has violated its own fiscal anchors several times since 2015, and rather than adopt the discipline necessary to get back on track, the government simply moves the goalposts.

Simply put, Swedes have learned their lesson from their experience in the 1970s to 1990s, whereas Canadians appear to have forgotten. This raises the question—do Swedes have better memories?