John Robson: We Can Expect a Continuation of Feds’ Version of ‘Fiscal Restraint’ in the Fall Economic Update

John Robson: We Can Expect a Continuation of Feds’ Version of ‘Fiscal Restraint’ in the Fall Economic Update
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a media availability with reporters on the final day of the APEC Summit, in San Francisco, Calif., on Nov. 17, 2023. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)
John Robson
Few things could be more troubling, fiscally at least, than to hear Justin Trudeau promise to continue his prudent management of Canada’s finances. But with apologies if I just caused you to expel your morning coffee, possibly through your nose, our prime minister did just set the stage for the fall economic update by saying his administration has “always exercised fiscal restraint.”

We’re in a heap of trouble.

Some may think he’s just pranking us, or possibly preparing for a post-politics career in, say, comedy. But as so often in public as in private life, what you see is what you get. Including gaslighting.

Another important adult life principle, as relevant to public affairs as private, is that whether something should be true is independent of whether it is true. In this case, the prime minister really does hold a very high opinion of how well his policies have worked and are working.

You may say doing so violates my rule about adults mistaking wishes for horses. But we must deal with reality. And he really argues with perfect sincerity and sublime self-satisfaction, if dubious accuracy, that “We have the lowest deficit in the G7. We have the best debt-to-GDP ratio in the G7… We are one of the three largest economies in the world that is rated by independent rating agencies at a triple-A, top tier economy, with a responsible fiscal track.”

It isn’t true, of course. It’s not true literally: Our “net debt” figure is only low because accounting jiggery-pokery counts the supposed holdings of the CPP and QPP against it as if they were liquid assets; our much-reduced deficit is a projection, not money in the bank; our economy has a long-run productivity growth crisis. And how’s this for restraint and prudence? Actual public debt charges for 2021–22 were $24.5 billion, but for 2022–23 they’re projected at $34.5 billion and for 2023–24 at $43.9 billion. By 2027–28, if politicians and bureaucrats know what will happen in five days, let alone five years, they’ll reach almost 10 percent of revenue. Oh dear.

The claim is also not true in context. Trudeau inherited a fairly good fiscal situation due to policies people such as him routinely heckled as callous and short-sighted, but has done his best to undermine it. You’d think he’d know that, for instance, he doubled the national debt in just eight years: Federal spending was $280 billion when he took office and is projected to be $470 billion this year, down dramatically from $608 billion in 2020–21. How’s that “restraint”?

Well, he probably does know it in some sense, not including capacity spontaneously to recite those figures. But the key is that in his mind and those of his colleagues, especially Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, it’s “prudence” in another sense, the “we can’t afford not to” sense. And again, it’s not some cynical rhetorical device or verbal tic.

It reflects their deep-seated conviction that no matter what’s going on, government must spend every dime it can tax, borrow, or mint because public spending is always wiser, more far-sighted, and more productive than the private kind. In times of crisis the state must react to stimulate the economy and save us from recession, disease, or anything except threats to public safety or national security, in calm periods it must invest, and in ominous ones it must take precautions. Always hugely expensive ones but, well, we can’t afford not to.

As Trudeau said in defending his record, “One of the ways we have done that is by not doing what Conservative politicians would want and cutting programs and services to Canadians, but by delivering supports for Canadians.” You see? The more they spend, the more we and they have.

Thus his “restraint” consists not of cutting, except defence. It consists of going full speed ahead with expensive new programs from housing to pharmacare. It may be foolish, but it’s not insincere or incoherent.

Mind you by now it is well-established, in my mind at least, that any time Justin Trudeau or one of his minions promises to “continue” to achieve brilliant results on a file, you know it’s a disaster beyond their comprehension, let alone a remedy. And here we go again, because the PM also said, “That’s more of what I’m excited to share next week with the fall economic update: a demonstration that we know how to continue to be fiscally responsible while we make the investments that are going to grow the economy and support Canadians.”

So fiscal responsibility means saying yes to every spending proposal unrelated to the core duties of government, hiring public servants and giving them raises at a dizzying pace, and plunging into ominously expensive debt. And yes, it will continue.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”