Operating deficits piled up from the Pierre Trudeau years through the 1980s and early 1990s

Operating deficits piled up from the Pierre Trudeau years through the 1980s and early 1990s

Do balanced budgets really matter?

Stephen Harper may have engineered the sudden surplus confirmed last week, and Justin Trudeau wants to return to deficits

The federal election campaign has produced a jumble of conflicting claims about whether or not Canada has a balanced budget or a deficit, how it was determined, and whether it even matters.

The definitive word on this came out last week, with the release of the Government of Canada Annual Financial Report, signed off by Auditor General Michael Ferguson.

“The government posted a budgetary surplus of $1.9 billion for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2015, compared to a budgetary deficit of $5.2 billion in 2013-14,” the report says.

“Revenues increased by $10.7 billion, or 3.9 per cent, from 2013-14, reflecting increases across all major revenue streams. Program expenses increased by $5.2 billion, reflecting increases in major transfers to persons and other levels of government, offset in part by a decrease in direct program expenses.”

The Conservative government’s pre-election budget calculated that last year was in deficit, and this year would be the first in the black since 2008. Ottawa pundits say this “surprise surplus” was engineered with intentionally pessimistic budget estimates, so Prime Minister Stephen Harper would get a boost right about now.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau claimed last year’s surplus was partly generated by cuts to Veterans’ Affairs and Aboriginal Affairs. Wrong and wrong. Veterans’ Affairs spending was up 13 per cent, and Aboriginal Affairs spending rose nearly 30 per cent.

(See page 16 of this report for details.)

Trudeau has also insisted Canada is in recession now, which helps his suddenly adopted position that a Liberal government would run deficits for the next three years to build infrastructure.

Harper ran the biggest deficits in Canadian history after the 2009 crash, bailing out auto makers and building lots of “shovel ready” infrastructure, as did the U.S. and other countries. The question raised by Trudeau’s plan is whether it’s a good idea to keep doing that without a financial crisis.

France, for example, has run operating deficits every year since the early 1970s, although the current Socialist government vows to balance the books by 2017. France’s operating debt is now equal to 91 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product.

Canada’s net debt-to-GDP ratio is currently around 30 per cent, down from frightening levels in the 1990s before the Chrétien government finally balanced the budget.

(Fun fact: then-finance minister Paul Martin not only cut transfers to provinces, unlike the current government, he inflicted the largest-ever cuts to the CBC. Harper’s CBC cuts were part of government-wide reductions, again due to that 2009 crisis.)

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has promised to balance the budget every year of his mandate, should he form Canada’s first-ever socialist government. He will spend the rest of the campaign trying to reconcile this promise with the grandiose spending plans he has piled up.

Meanwhile in B.C., Finance Minister Mike de Jong may have benefited from Harper’s lowball budget. In his first quarter update last week, de Jong reported that his February budget forecast is on track, with a $277 million surplus.

This is despite a $300 million bill for forest firefighting, thanks to personal and corporate income tax revenue expected to be $374 million higher than budgeted. B.C. bases its tax revenue figures on federal estimates, and the ones they got early this year were clearly low.

Understated or not, this is a nice problem to have. De Jong says that at the current pace, B.C. will pay off its accumulated operating debt by 2020.

The last time the province was free of operating debt was 1982. The big debt peak came during the NDP 1990s, with another spike from 2009 to 2013 under the B.C. Liberals.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

Just Posted

Ashcroft hospital emergency closed sign, 2016. Photo credit: Barbara Roden
Ashcroft Hospital emergency department closed this weekend

Closure due to unexpected limited physician availabiliy, says Interior Health

Residents line up outside the Vernon Recreation Complex for their COVID-19 vaccine Saturday, June 5. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
No appointments necessary for first dose COVID-19 vaccine: Interior Health

People can just show up at clinics, register on the spot and get the shot

Heidi Roy of the Cariboo Jade Shop in Cache Creek with the 3,000 jade boulder, which is now on secure display inside the shop. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)
Massive jade boulder returns to Cache Creek store six months after daring heist

The 3,000-pound boulder was stolen on Dec. 19, 2020 and found abandoned in the bush a week later

Dr. Albert de Villiers, chief medical health officer for the Interior Health Authority. (Contributed)
Child sex crimes charges against Interior’s top doc won’t impact pandemic response: Dix

Dr. Albert de Villiers is charged with sexual assault and sexual interference

People watch a car burn during a riot following game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in downtown Vancouver, B.C., in this June 15, 2011 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Howe
10 years ago: Where were you during the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots?

Smashed-in storefronts, looting, garbage can fires and overturned cars some of the damage remembered today

The B.C. government’s vaccine booking website is busy processing second-dose appointments, with more than 76 per cent of adults having received a first dose. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C.’s COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations stable for Tuesday

108 new confirmed cases, 139 in hospital, 39 in intensive care

A worker, at left, tends to a customer at a cosmetics shop amid the COVID-19 pandemic Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Half of cosmetics sold in Canada, U.S. contain toxic chemicals: study

Researchers tested more than 230 commonly used cosmetics and found that 56% of foundations and eye products, 48% of lip products and 47% of mascaras contained high levels of fluorine

White Rock’s Marine Drive has been converted to one-way traffic to allow more patio space for waterfront restaurants. (Peace Arch News)
Province promotes permanent pub patios in B.C. post-pandemic plan

More than 2,000 temporary expansions from COVID-19 rules

Lake City Secondary School Williams Lake campus students Ethan Reid, from left, Brenden Higgins, Ty Oviatt, Kaleb Alphonse, Nathan Kendrick and Landon Brink with RCMP officers Const. Nicoll and Const. Stancec. (Photo submitted)
RCMP thank 6 teens for helping prevent forest fire in Williams Lake

The students came across fire in a wooded area and used the water they had to try and extinguish the flames

There is an emergency shelter near the Golden Ears peaks. (Facebook/Special to The News)
Hiker fogged in on Golden Ears, spends 2 nights

Talon Helicopters, Ridge Meadows Search and Rescue bring him home Monday

Annamie Paul, leader of the Green Party of Canada, speaks at a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on June 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Green Leader Annamie Paul facing no-confidence motion from party brass

move follows months of internal strife and the defection of MP Jenica Atwin to the Liberals

Tulips bloom in front of the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa, Thursday, May 10, 2018. Day two of a full week of scheduled hearings will be heard in Federal Court today on a case involving Indigenous children unnecessarily taken into foster care by what all parties call Canada’s “broken child welfare system.” THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
AFN slams Ottawa for ‘heartless’ legal challenge of First Nations child compensation

2019 decision awarded $40,000 to each Indigenous child removed before 2006

Ivy was thrown out of a moving vehicle in Kelowna. Her tail was severely injured and will be amputated. (BC SPCA)
Kitten thrown from moving vehicle, needs help: Kelowna SPCA

The seven-week-old kitten had severe tail and femur injuries

Most Read