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

UPDATE: West Shore RCMP reunite camera with owner

Police sought public’s help to identify people photographed on the camera with record-time results

Beware of geese: Nesting season may trigger aggressive behaviour

Greater Victoria residents will have to be wary of nesting geese in the area

Greater Victoria leaders coming together to talk diversity and equity

Royal Road University’s Inclusion Project engages community stakeholders from public, private sectors

Royal B.C. Museum faces space, seismic standards and accessibilty issues; calls for public input

People can share their ideas online and in person from April 1 to June 27

British Columbians are paying more for booze but also broccoli

Victoria’s inflation was 2.3 per cent, a tick above Vancouver’s of 2.2 per cent

Victoria hosts ‘Ultimate Hockey Fan Cave’

The hockey cave was recently featured on a Netflix special

Howard the giant gnome finds new home on Vancouver Island

Iconic attraction will move from Nanoose Bay to Galey Farms in Saanich

Harbour Air to convert to all-electric seaplanes

Seaplane company to modify fleet with a 750-horsepower electric motor

Sailings cancelled after BC Ferries boat hits Langdale terminal

The Queen of Surrey is stuck on the dock, causing delays to Horseshoe Bay trips

Is it a homicide? B.C. woman dies in hospital, seven months after being shot

Stepfather think Chilliwack case should now be a homicide, but IHIT has not confirmed anything

SPCA seizes 54 animals from Vernon property

Animals weren’t receiving adequate care

Morneau unveils principles for Indigenous ownership in Trans Mountain pipeline

The controversial pipeline was bought by Ottawa last year

Refugee who sheltered Edward Snowden in Hong Kong arrives in Canada

Vanessa Rodel and her seven-year-old daughter Keana arrived in Toronto this week

New UMSCA trade deal getting a boost from Trump, business groups

The trade deal is designed to supplant the North American Free Trade Agreement

Most Read