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

Inquest scheduled into woman’s death while in Chilliwack police custody

BC Coroners Service has scheduled a public inquest into the death of Charlene Teresa Sakamoto

Take-home naloxone may be replacing 911 calls in parts of Lower Mainland

Naloxone kits handed out up 29% over 2017, ambulance calls and emergency visits down 22-24%, deaths hold steady

Mt. Hicks fire 15% contained, continues to burn north of Agassiz

The fire, suspected to be caused by a vehicle with a flat tire, not threatening any structures

UPDATE: Anonymous tip leads DFO night patrol to Fraser River poachers

Charges pending after poachers arrested at night while fishing, 48 sockeye, harbour seal seized

Wildfire update: Fires burning in Fraser Canyon, Highway 7 and Skagit Valley

Several fires in the region are under ‘modified response’ meaning no firefighters are attending

Happy birthday Boler: An anniversary gathering of the cutest campers in Winnipeg

Hundreds of the unique trailers in Winnipeg to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Manitoba invention

RCMP cleared after woman fatally overdoses on fentanyl

Charges not recommended after IIO says woman appears to have brought fentanyl into her cell

21% of people admit to being addicted to their phone: poll

Smartphone usage surpasses TV time in B.C. homes, a new survey suggests

Reported home invasion led to 7 arrests in Maple Ridge

Port Coquitlam home invasion suspects tracked to Albion neighbourhood

Tim Hortons says its China expansion will include menu with congee, matcha

Coffee chain plans to open 1,500 stores in Asia over the next decade

How to help B.C. wildfire victims

Donations being taken by many organizations, BC Hydro waiving bills

5 to start your day

Mt. Hicks fire near Agassiz 15% contained, man dead in Surrey motorcycle incident and more

Two 23-year-old men die in separate Surrey motorcycle crashes in three days

One man died Thursday night after his motorcycle crashed on Highway 10, and another man died following a Tuesday crash

Whole city of Kimberley on an evacuation alert due to wildfires

Residents woke up Friday morning being told to get ready to leave any moment

Most Read