A budget for Stephen Harper's granddaughter

Joe Oliver asks us to cast our eyes forward from the budget to the future

Joe Oliver

Whatever they end up doing with their Tax Free Savings Accounts, our grandchildren will regard us with some smugness. Or so we should hope. It is the unalienable right of every generation to regard its predecessors with bemusement, and not merely for the sake of differentiating themselves. Indeed, if subsequent generations don’t regard us as quaint, it will suggest they’ve gotten little further than us in the cause of human progress.

To understand federal public policy circa 2015, or at least the discussion thereof, they might look at just two numbers: 7.5 million and 2.8 million.

The former, in dollars, is reportedly the latest portion of public funds allocated by the government to advertise itself and the initiatives it includes under the slogan of Canada’s Economic Action Plan™, a multi-year, many-million-dollar promotional campaign.

The latter, in dollars, is the annual appropriation to the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the non-partisan institution that exists to help parliamentarians understand how the public funds they approve are allocated.

Neither of these numbers seem to factor into the 518-page, slogan-filled and handsomely designed Economic Action Plan™ that was stamped with the official emblem of Canada and tabled in the House of Commons yesterday, but perhaps everything is explained by the mathematical expression 7.5 > 2.8.

With any luck, our grandchildren will one day look back on that as symptomatic of a simplistic polity, something that they have advanced far beyond. Indeed, for the sake of our grandchildren, we might hope to reverse those figures. Imagine: spending more on professional analysis of the budget than we spend touting the budget to ourselves. Perhaps even submitting political platforms to such scrutiny. That would seem like the foundation of a decent and serious country.

As clumsy as was Joe Oliver’s invoking the Prime Minister’s hypothetical progeny to dismiss a concern about the long-term fiscal impact of the policy he prefers, there is something to be said for framing our current debate in future terms. There is weight to such a thought. Think of your grandchildren. Those innocent souls yet to be born, or at least yet to have screwed things up for future generations.

“Leave it to our grandchildren. Really?” begged Tom Mulcair yesterday. “I have grandchildren and like so many grandparents I do not want to leave the responsibility for cleaning up the Prime Minister’s mess to my grandchildren.”

Ventured Justin Trudeau, “Mr. Speaker, Canada is a great country because we believe in building a better country for our kids and grandkids than the one we inherited from our parents and grandparents.”

Pleaded Stephen Harper, “Balancing the budget is good for future generations. Cutting taxes and allowing people to save and keep money in their own pocket is good for future generations. Giving to money to Canadian families so that they can raise their children is good for future generations.”

Future generations of finance ministers might study this budget to learn how to create a balance in a pinch. But even if it will probably not be cherished by our descendants as one of the foundational documents of modern society—unless, of course this country is eventually renamed Economic Action Land —this budget might be subject to questions grand and granular.

There is, for instance, the small matter of climate change—a question about which was made basically inevitable by Oliver’s casual musing about the potential for future trouble.

“Mr. Speaker, this budget puts a burden on future generations, and the minister of finance has admitted it,” offered the NDP’s Megan Leslie. “Today is Earth Day, but climate change, one of the biggest threats to future generations, is not in the budget … Why is the Conservative government making our children and our grandchildren pay for its inaction on climate change?”

In response, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq rhymed off a series of proposed investments that would not obviously do anything to meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That the government doesn’t want to move forward with further regulations to mandate GHG reductions is now well established. But it should at least have to explain why. New restrictions would seriously impair the competitiveness of oil companies here, you say? Let’s see the math that demonstrates as much. Our grandchildren might be more forgiving of inaction if they see we thought somewhat hard about it before not doing anything.

“The NDP and the Liberals, however,” Aglukkaq finished, “want to hike taxes for all Canadians.”

This was something like the government’s refrain yesterday afternoon. Or at least half of it. Between two and three o’clock, by my count, Conservatives used the word “tax” and its plural some 90 times—as in, we will cut taxes and they will raise taxes and so on and so forth. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt is due a second helping of dessert the next time he’s invited to 24 Sussex for dinner after managing to make this the response to a question about funding for education for Aboriginal children living on reserves. But fully 38 of those 91 uses of the t-word were sung by Kevin Sorenson, the enthusiastic minister of state for finance who was filling in for an absent Oliver.

Minus both Oliver and Sorenson between two and three o’clock this afternoon, Conservative use of the t-word dropped to 70.

Possibly this—taxation—is the defining theme of the past 10 years and the momentous question of the moment, particularly if you imagine it to be part of a discussion about trust in government and the ramifications therein.

That the federal government, in all its splendour and services, will somehow cost less is a fairly decent idea. Surely we could all agree that it shouldn’t cost any more than it has to. But there too is the crux of all arguments.

It would be helpful to know with some clarity how well the government is functioning after years of spending restraint and reduction. Do we have enough food inspectors? Are our national parks in need of repair? Are more resources needed to fix a broken access-to-information system? Or have we basically managed fine; have the Conservatives efficiently and relatively painlessly shrunk the size and capacity of the federal government? How much more would it cost to accomplish goals X, Y or Z?

Do we have a Parliament capable of providing studied answers to those questions? Probably we don’t. And otherwise there does not seem to be an obvious case that the smaller government we have is fatally weaker.

Now we’ll have something of a proxy war: A fight on rather limited grounds about what government should be doing. Should taxes be cut this way or that way or raised for those people or should government spend a slight bit more than it already does on a couple of select things? But rest assured probably no one is going to touch your child’s fitness tax credit. Possibly this will still be a more substantive campaign than the last two.

Some of this terrain we have has been helpfully mapped by the Parliamentary Budget Office. The government didn’t want to provide a breakdown of its income-splitting initiative, so my colleague John Geddes asked the PBO to put one together. And before that the PBO had released an analysis of the government’s plan to double the allowance for Tax-Free Savings Accounts. (Here too is an analysis of TFSA changes from Kevin Milligan, who notes that the impacts will be relevant long before 2080.) On the latter, it was the PBO’s finding that “benefits skew to higher wealth and older households.” On income-splitting, the case against might be more complicated.

That the PBO exists is a measure of progress and however much or little the government has supported its development, its creation is to the government’s eternal credit. And data from the PBO, and other outlets, will presumably underpin some of what we will hear between now and October, but there will otherwise be much shouting about taxes. Six months of shouting about taxes, punctuated by television ads, some of them actually paid for by political parties. And then we’ll vote.

And then it’ll all be down to how much our grandchildren will laugh at us.