With a document whose very timing, let alone content, was so transparently politicized and manipulative, it's hard to even know where to start. Among the many galling, short-sighted, and ultimately destructive components of this federal budget, here are five that stand out in my view:
1. Timing. At a time of great economic uncertainty in Canada (arising from the sharp decrease in oil prices and growing evidence of serious economic trouble), the government chose to heighten the uncertainty by delaying its budget for several weeks. Turns out this was not because of uncertainty about oil prices. The delay was actually to wait until the fiscal year started, so they could sell the GM shares and use the net proceeds to help achieve the politically all-important "balance." This gaming of the process (let alone the content) of fiscal policymaking was shameful and reckless.
2. Selling the Silverware. Speaking of the GM shares, the $2.1 billion net proceeds from the sale were indeed essential to the government's declared small surplus ($1.4 billion). The shares fetched $3.3 billion, but the government had to deduct their "book value" (which was artificially low anyway due to the government's ultra-cautious accounting in 2009 that they might not get much at all back from the GM rescue). The sale of the shares deprived Canadians of a seat at the GM directors' table, and an indirect lever with which to assure this crucial company's continuing manufacturing presence here. Indeed, the fire sale was widely interpreted in the automotive media as a sign that Canada was "giving up" on the industry (and was accompanied by another spate of stories about the migration of auto investment to Mexico). More fundamentally, selling an asset to balance a current budget is utterly phony: the state is poorer, not richer, because it no longer has that asset. Toby Sanger at CUPE has argued that, based on consensus analyst forecasts, the government would have made an extra $1 billion or so hanging on for just another year. (Except that would be too late to help them contest another election!)
3. Phony Balance. Speaking of the "balanced budget," it is entirely dependent on a fiscal sleight-of-hand. There is a $1.4 billion reported surplus. But that's only because the government diverted $2 billion out of its normal $3 billion contingency reserve (apparently things are so stable in the world economy these days there's no need anymore for so much symbolic "protection"). They siphoned $2.1 billion from the GM shares. And then perhaps most offensively of all, they raided $3.4 billion from the annual operating surplus of the EI system. (That surplus is created by the denial of benefits to over 60 per cent of unemployed Canadians; the appropriate response, especially with growing layoffs around the country, would be to fix that problem -- not raid the EI cookie jar.) That makes a total of $7.5 billion in shell game transactions. Without those three fiscal tricks, the reported balance would be a $6.1 billion deficit -- not a $1.4 billion surplus. The emphasis placed on achieving balance is misplaced anyway, as many economists of all stripes have pointed out. But to attain this inappropriate "victory" in such an underhanded and misleading way sets a new low for the politicization of fiscal policy.
4. Public Transit. The opposition parties have argued that this is the moment for government to invest heavily in overdue infrastructure; this view is fully and loudly endorsed by economists around the world, who correctly identify secular stagnation (not public debt) as the greatest threat to prosperity and stability. The argument must be having some effect on public opinion (a recent poll indicated Canadians preferred infrastructure spending over tax cuts by more than 2-to-1 as the top priority for budget policy), so the government has responded with some mostly token infrastructure initiatives. The most token of all is its ballyhooed "Public Transit Fund." This "innovative" measure merits several pages of text in the budget plan. But you have to wade through many tables until you realize it doesn't get any money at until 2017-18, at which point it gets all of $250 million. Given the cost of transit investments and the desperate need for them (for economic, social, and environmental reasons), this is offensive -- and I am amazed Joe Oliver could announce it with a straight face. As another trivial but telling example of the propaganda machine working overtime, nowhere does the text even mention that $250 million number; you have to inspect the Table 3.4.1 on page 194 to find the true amount. Instead, the budget plan repeatedly speaks of allocating "$750 million over the first two years" of the fund's existence; it seems even Tory spin doctors realized that allocating $250 million to public transit in 2017-18 would be interpreted by most Canadians as way too little, way too late.
5. More Stealth Austerity. Even many critics of the government are describing the budget as a "tax cut budget" full of "election goodies." I think this is a mischaracterization. The tax cuts are what is "new," and hence will be reported. And costing $5 billion in just this year, they are too expensive. (Many others have written about their perverse impact on equality, labour force participation, and other variables.) But the real thrust of the budget won't make the headlines: because it's "more of the same," not news. The budget confirms the path of grinding, disguised austerity that dominated fiscal policy under this majority Conservative government. The government has reduced federal public administration employment by over 50,000 positions since mid-2011. It has imposed incremental, badly-understood spending cuts that cumulate to $14 billion per year. It has underfunded veterans' offices, Coast Guard facilities, meat and railway inspectors, EI processing, and many other services that are essential to the quality and safety of Canadians' lives. It will unilaterally reduce health transfers to the provinces beginning in 2017, by $36 billion over a decade. It will force Canadians to work until age 67 to collect OAS.
These important, painful, and unnecessary measures are significantly undermining the quality and cohesion of Canadian society. Their silent confirmation in this budget is its dominant feature -- not the pre-election goodies the government hopes we will all talk about. And they are the reason I hope Canadians will reject it forcefully in the coming election.
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