In today’s federal budget the Conservative government outlined an unprecedented, two-year $40-billion stimulus plan aimed at trying to rescue an economy in recession during “extraordinary times.” It includes massive spending on infrastructure and home construction, aid to struggling industries, communities and workers, and renewed efforts to ease access to credit to get consumers spending again.
After days of orchestrated leaks and announcements, the budget gave Canadians the first full picture of an “economic action plan” that the government says could add 190,000 jobs and perhaps have the economy on an upswing again within two years. “We must do what it takes to keep our economy moving, and to protect Canadians in this extraordinary time,” said Finance Minister Jim Flaherty in his budget address.
The stimulus plan, which will bring a return to the kind of deficit spending not since the early 90s, leaves few stones unturned—there are promises of financial relief for all (from river-boat tourism on the Saguenay to slaughterhouses on the prairies). Stimulus and aid money will be spread far and wide to all of Canada’s hardest hit industries, including $7.5 billion focused on the forestry, auto and manufacturing sectors as well as to fund clean energy.
Much of the efforts are aimed squarely at returning consumer spending habits to those more in line with the boom times. The government will put a total of $200 billion towards easing the so-called credit crunch, making it easier for businesses to get loans and for consumers to borrow to buy homes and cars. That includes an additional $50 billion (on top of $75 billion already announced last year) to buy up insured mortgages to reassure lenders. As much as $12 billion will be put into a fund to support financing of cars and equipment for consumers and businesses—welcome news for the ailing auto industry.
Almost $8 billion over two years will be spent to kick start the housing and construction industries. The provinces are expected to add an extra $1.5 billion to that figure. “A lot of this is about confidence,” says Glen Hodgson, chief economist with the Conference Board of Canada. Ultimately, people and businesses need to feel comfortable spending again.
Middle class families also stand to gain, though only modestly, through tax cuts and reforms. The cut-off level for the lowest income tax brackets will be raised 7.5 percent. Those who have already lost their jobs in the economic storm will be offered more funding and access to job training (the government will spend $1 billion over two years on training) .
All this comes on top of previously leaked plans to spend $12 billion on infrastructure projects across Canada over the next two years—”the largest building projects in Canada’s history,” notes the budget. While critics have questioned the government’s ability to spend that much money quickly enough to act as a useful stimulus, the budget promises that ‘shovel-ready’ projects will begin in the coming months. That won the plan a ringing endorsement from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
This strictly-business budget—complete with the much discussed $30-billion deficit—was a radical departure from the relatively rosy outlook of last fall’s economic statement. And there was no hint of the political gamesmanship that very nearly brought down the government. This time around, just an acknowledgment that times have changed as the reality of the recession has set in.
The sheer size of the spending plan leaves little ground for the opposition parties, which for months have been demanding more serious fiscal stimulus plans, to find fault with the budget. As a share of GDP, Canada’s stimulus package is larger than those in Britain, France, Japan and Germany, according to budget documents.
But some questioned the sincerity of the budget, speculating it’s a thinly disguised effort to appease the opposition. “This is a Conservative budget,” Flaherty told reporters. “Conservatives understand that the government must respond.” Liberal finance critic John McCallum said he wasn’t concerned with the size of the plan, but whether the money is well spent. “The economy needs stimulus. We’re in desperate circumstances,” he said in a television interview after the budget announcement. “We want to make sure the money gets out the door and where it’s needed.”