Don Martin: Fiscal update shows a revamp, like spring and an election, is coming
OTTAWA -- It was never mentioned by name, but there was a blurry paint-by-numbers portrait of Justin Trudeau’s so-called reset n Monday’s fiscal update.
Amid the dizzying lineup of 12-digit figures financing the government’s pandemic response were the monetary makings for whatever the prime minister has in mind to revamp Canadian society once the pandemic passes.
A $100-billion set-aside -- triple the annual deficit forecast only one year ago -- was announced Monday as a three-year fund to restart the economy after COVID-19 has been vaccinated into the history books.
Details are to follow, but that much money provides plenty of fiscal room for the controversial greened-up and income-rebalanced Canadian makeover mused about by Trudeau.
Add that to a Liberal giveaway of $2.6 billion for energy efficiency and tree planting at the end of 2021 and you’ve got the Liberal re-election platform in one big, bulging-bucks envelope.
Perhaps all this focus on the future is understandable. The short term is so gawd-awful the government needs to find hope beyond COVID-19 for the voters’ mental health.
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s 38-minute speech repeatedly seized on the meteorological metaphor of this moment as the darkest of winters before spring returns.
Or course, such bleak times might not be the moment to lament the taxation albatross our grandchildren will carry to repay all this borrowed stimulus or to note the last federal budget was more than 600 days ago in the last government’s mandate.
(But we must pause to tsk-tsk a government which borrows at unprecedented levels only to vaguely reference ‘fiscal guardrails’ by way of deficit restraint, this even as the stock market booms and house prices bubble).
So, looking at the current spending she actually controls as finance minister, let’s give Freeland credit for announcing bumps in all the right places, given that money is no object to this government’s largesse.
Wage subsidies were notched up until March, rent relief for stressed businesses extended, child benefits up-ticked and another billion is diverted into infection control in long-term care.
That pot of new spending had the government boasting about unleashing the highest per capita stimulus of any G7 country, no small fiscal feat in a world awash in an epidemic of deficits.
Even so, there was no bump in federal health transfers to help provinces cope with the oncoming ICU onslaught in hospitals.
And Freeland picked a curious time to break Trudeau’s 2015 election promise by slapping a sales tax on Netflix and others, this just as isolated Canadians watch streaming services more than ever.
But, in raw political terms, it was mission accomplished for Freeland as she watched the Official Opposition flailing to get traction by attacking her plans as too generous while, incredibly, the NDP warned there was too much austerity ahead.
She is in a particularly warm and fuzzy place for Liberal governance where deficits are in fashion, budgets can be deferred indefinitely and uncertainty is the only certainty.
And Freeland is looking out to a hopeful COVID-vanquished horizon where spring is coming and, with it, money is there for a $100-billion reset to create a Justin Society.
That's the bottom line.