Short Term Gain – Long Term Pain

My mother always told me that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. So, to start off my column on the Budget of 2016 I am going to speak about a few parts I liked. I was happy to see the new Liberal government enhanced infrastructure spending for municipalities. The Conservative government had a very large commitment to infrastructure spending and the Liberals are spending even more. I know that from working with my municipal and regional government partners that they have many challenges addressing growth of new infrastructure and repair of existing infrastructure, so this will go to local projects that are helpful. I am also happy to see the commitment to address challenges for First Nations, especially the issue of education and drinking water on reserves. Many governments have tried to tackle this issue with limited success. The Harper government had a deal to invest in education with the Assembly of First Nations, but the national Chief was pushed out and the deal crumbled. The Liberal government is spending over $8 Billion for Aboriginal Affairs, so they have clearly placed it as a top priority. My only concern is they have removed measures for accountability in spending by First National governments and there appears to be virtually no oversight of how this money is spent, neither do there appear to be measures to ensure that educational and other outcomes are achieved with this spending. Time will tell.

My largest concern with the budget is the fact that it is piling up short term spending without any long term plan to create employment and grow the economy. Taxes will be going up for small businesses and spending does not seem to be connected in any direct way with job creation. The infrastructure spending is not that large and there are no other major employment programs, so jobs appear to be an afterthought in this budget. The government has also broken its central economic election promise, which was to not run a deficit greater than $10 Billion. The reality is that the government will run large deficits over the course of their four years and it will never be lower than $10 Billion. In fact, it starts with a $29.4 Billion deficit in year one and is forecast to be $14 Billion in their final year. The real trouble with massive borrowing and prolonged deficits is the fact that it leads to higher taxes in the future, or future slashing of spending. We have seen this story in Ontario for many years, as they continue to run large deficits despite raising taxes countless times. In Ontario, many years of deficit spending has also lead to credit downgrades and the cost of borrowing money and servicing the debt going up. That appears to be the approach being brought to Ottawa with this budget.

Some families will see some new benefits in this budget through the creation of the Canada Child Benefit, but a large number will actually see their taxes go up through the combination of measures contained in the budget. I know that many families in Durham will be very disappointed by the cancellation of the Child Fitness Tax Credit and the Children’s Arts Tax Credit. I know our family used these credits and loved the fact that physical and artistic activities were supported and encouraged. The monthly child care payment for families with young children under the Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB) is being eliminated and replaced with Canada Child Benefit that is tax-free, but is income contingent and not universal. Income splitting for parents with children is also being eliminated. The cumulative result of all of these changes means that many people in the “middle class” the Prime Minister likes to talk about will actually pay more in taxes and/or receive less in support. For example, the budget revealed numbers that indicate a typical family raising children with one parent teaching and the other as a first responder will likely fall behind where they were previously. Similarly, families with children that have one parent take time off or work on a part-time or modified schedule will fall behind with the benefit of income splitting eliminated.

For me, this was my first budget as a member of the opposition, so it was a different experience. On budget days I also still think of the late Jim Flaherty and wore a green tie in his honour. I think he will rank as one of Canada’s best Finance Ministers because when he ran a deficit in the Great Global Recession it was premised upon a plan to get back to balance. A balance we achieved after much forethought and discipline. One moment of levity during the budget speech was when the baby of one of the NDP Members of Parliament started fussing and saying “No, No…”. All Members found this cute intervention funny and a tad ironic. Even the Finance Minister seemed to pause and smile. My fear with this budget is that this light moment actually underscores the short-sightedness of this budget. Borrowing tens of billions of dollars with no plan to balance the budget in the future will mean that our children will be saddled with this debt in the future unless it is recovered through tax increases or spending restraint. The economy is slow at the moment, but we are not in a recession. A recession is an accepted reason for running a large deficit. As one commentator noted, this was the largest Canadian deficit in a non-recession year since the early 1970s. Apart from an election promise of a smaller $10 Billion deficit, the government has not clearly articulated the rationale for such a massive injection of spending. Governing is about establishing priorities for spending and sticking to a plan that is affordable and supports long term economic growth. The new Liberal government has established their priorities for spending, but it appears focused on the short term at the expense of the long.