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Kirk LaPointe: Federal budget arrives, fiscal direction doesn't

Grim deficit news among the goodies from the federal government
Federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, right, delivered her budget Tuesday.

Time was, finance ministers would face resignations and the markets would gyrate if even a tidbit of the annual federal budget leaked in advance.

In one celebrated instance in 1989, a reporter got its highlights the evening before, forcing the minister to deliver the budget at an impromptu news conference. It was high drama, the minister nearly lost his job, the journalist and four others were charged with theft, and it took time for calmer heads to prevail.

Then there emerged an era of the strategic trial balloon, in which an insider (an aide in the prime minister’s office or the finance minister’s office, as I recall) would furtively meet a reporter and make a vague suggestion of a measure that could be, might be, may be forthcoming.

There might be a small handful of those let’s-see-if-it-flies leaks. If all heck broke loose in the days following, the measure might never make the budget document (and the journalist would be discredited for a false alarm). If not, the leak survived to budget day (and the reporter would be revered for a real alarm).

Today, we are in the era of knowing pretty well everything consequential in our federal budgets well before they are delivered. There are probably a dozen leakers to a dozen media, and the ritual seems deliberately staged to provide a lengthy run of positive press before the rain hits the parade.

The federal government still holds to the charade that markets need to close before the minister spills the contents, but it’s increasingly difficult to understand why.

What Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland delivered Tuesday was what we were generally expecting, thanks to the leaks: a grocery-rebate program, an expansion of national dental care, tax credits for clean economy investment, and cuts to outsourcing of contracts, among them.

With the goodies nicely sprayed into the atmosphere for several days, some of the more difficult news was saved for the speech and what government hopes to be a one-day wonder, in particular that the deficit will hit $40.1 billion in the fiscal year ending this month, up from the estimated $30.6 billion Freeland predicted only a few months ago.

There is no greater clarity on the government’s fiscal direction. This just doesn’t appear to be in the cards for this government, no matter how it hints at fiscal anchors and frameworks.

The federal debt has grown 92.2 per cent during the Justin Trudeau administration to a projected $1.3 trillion and there is no timeline any longer for a balanced budget. Tuesday’s is a loot bag of higher taxes, subsidies and regulations. One couldn’t walk faster away from an economic growth strategy than the Liberals are.

Budgets are at times about preserving tenuous political support. The $13 billion expansion of the dental program is in effect a political concession by the minority Liberal government to the NDP to buy its votes in the Commons. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is right: it wouldn’t have happened without them, nor for that matter would the cringe-worthy line Freeland delivered that our smiles will no longer depend on our incomes.

Budgets are at times about aligning with our neighbours to the south. The $20.9 billion, five-year program of investment tax credits for clean technology and renewable energy positions Canada in relative lockstep with measures under the Biden administration. Wouldn’t have happened without him.

And budgets are at times about eating one’s words. Tuesday saw a concession on the government’s repeated denial there is serious foreign interference in our elections. If it’s no big deal, one wonders why it is committing $66.5 million to counter Chinese and Russian involvement – $50 million for the RCMP, more than $16 million to create a National Counter-Foreign Interference Office. Wouldn’t have happened without media reports.

The government has no shortage of skill in determining how to spend, and there is likely one more wave of its assuaging next year of the NDP to forestall the election to 2025. Call your grandchildren and tell them to save. Consider this advice a pre-budget leak.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and executive editor of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.