Fraser Forum

Federal government’s fiscal record—one for the history books

Printer-friendly version
Federal government’s fiscal record—one for the history books

The Trudeau government tabled its 2024 budget earlier this month and the contents of the fiscal plan laid bare the alarming state of federal finances. Both spending and debt per person are at or near record highs and prospects for the future don’t appear any brighter.

In the budget, the Trudeau government outlined plans for federal finances over the next five years. Annual program spending (total spending minus debt interest costs) will reach a projected $483. billion in 2024/25, $498.7 billion in 2025/26, and continue growing in the years following. By 2028/29 the government plans to spend $542.0 billion on programs—an 18.4 per cent increase from current levels.

This is not a new or surprising development for federal finances. Since taking office in 2015, the Trudeau government has shown a proclivity to spend at nearly every turn. Prime Minister Trudeau has already recorded the five highest levels of federal program spending per person (adjusted for inflation) in Canadian history from 2018 to 2022. Projections for spending in the 2024 budget assert the prime minister is now on track to have the eight highest years of per-person spending on record by the end of the 2025/26 fiscal year.

Per-person federal spending is expected to equal $11,901 this year. To put this into perspective, this is significantly more than Ottawa spent during the global financial crisis in 2008 or either world war. It’s also about 28.0 per cent higher than the full final year of Stephen Harper’s time as prime minister, meaning the size of the federal government has expanded by more than one quarter in a decade.

The government has chosen to borrow substantial sums of money to fund a lot of this marked growth in spending. Federal debt under the Trudeau government has risen before, during and after COVID regardless of whether the economy is performing relatively well or comparatively poor. Between 2015 and 2024, Ottawa is expected to run 10 consecutive deficits, with total gross debt set to reach $2.1 trillion within the next 12 months.

The scale of recent debt accumulation is eye-popping even after accounting for a growing population and the relatively high inflation of the past two years. By the end of the current fiscal year, each Canadian will be burdened with $12,769 more in total federal debt (adjusted for inflation) than they were in 2014/15.

You can attribute some of this increase in borrowing to the effects of COVID, but debt had already grown by $2,954 per person from 2014 to 2019—before the pandemic. Moreover, budget estimates show gross debt per person (adjusted for inflation) is expected to rise by more than $2,500 by 2028/29.

As with spending, the Trudeau government is on track to record the six highest years of federal debt per-person (adjusted for inflation) in Canadian history between 2020/21 and the end of its term next autumn. Why should Canadians care about this record debt?

Simply put, rising debt leads to higher interest payments that current and future generations of taxpayers must pay—leaving less money for important priorities such as health care and social services. Moreover, all this spending and debt hasn’t helped improve living standards for Canadians. Canada’s GDP per person—a broad measure of incomes—was lower at the end of 2023 than it was nearly a decade ago in 2014.

The Trudeau government’s track record with federal finances is one for the history books. Ottawa’s spending continues to be at near-record levels and Canadians have never been burdened with more debt. Those aren’t the type of records we should strive to achieve.