Nick Taylor-Vaisey

Three ways budgets have changed in 20 years

Budgets are now longer, more colourful and more conversational than the crusty documents of yore

Joe Oliver

Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s first budget confronts months of speculation about his fiscal and economic plan for the next year. A lot has changed in budget salesmanship since the last time Liberals tabled a deficit budget in the House of Commons. We track four ways budgets have changed in the last two decades. These will be trends to watch when Morneau’s budget is made public, to see if it continues the recent tradition of flashiness—or return the budget to its duller roots.

1. Budgets have become colourful political advertisements.

It used to be that a budget document was boring by design. The plan was wrapped in shades of black and white, or maybe a shade of grey or teal to mix things up. Finance ministers gave their annual tomes such game-changing names as Budget Plan or the Budget. That convention lasted until 2006, when a new Conservative government launched an era of salesmanship with Focusing on Priorities: the Budget Plan 2006. That year, the government signalled its intention to “turn a new leaf,” and boring greyscale was replaced by bold blue that happened to match the Conservative team’s colours. With that, they were off: the next year, Canada saw Aspire. The year after, Responsible Leadership featured a flag-waving Canadian staring out to sea. Budgets had arrived as odes to patriotic fiscal conservatism.

Those first years of Tory rule were dress rehearsals for what came next. 2008’s global financial collapse prompted another cover redesign: Canada’s Economic Action Plan, a tidy exercise in evergreen branding, touted the sort of jobs, growth and economic prosperity the country could expect from its government. Six years later, a smiling family graced the cover of the final modern Conservative economic action plan, Strong Leadership, which proclaimed a balanced budget explained over 518 pages.

2. Budgets have gotten waaaaay bigger.

Paul Martin’s 1995 budget, an ambitious step in a ruthless plan to balance the books after years of deficits and mounting debt, rang in at 197 pages. Hacking and cutting was the order of the day, and the finance minister’s document laid out his plan in sequence. The economy might have been growing strongly, but Martin warned that higher-than-expected interest rates forced the government to pay significantly increased debt charges. A massive program review delivered those cuts, which Martin’s budget laid out in some detail. In his speech, the future prime minister called his plan “by far the largest set of actions in any Canadian budget since demobilisation after the Second World War.” Those cuts were deep, divisive and eventually effective. They included health care cuts that riled social activists and defence cuts that led to a so-called “decade of darkness” that military hawks still lament today.

And yet Martin delivered the bad news in a relatively tight 197 pages.

Twenty years later, Oliver’s budget was a celebration of black ink after a string of deficits, long-promised income-splitting for couples, and a boost in defence spending starting in 2017. The election-year plan threw money this way and that, and spared few adjectives in its exhaustive explanations of government spending. In 1995, the budget summarized the entire plan for the Department of National Defence, including $1 billion in spending cuts, in a single page. Oliver’s 2015 budget? Not so much with the brevity. Here’s how it explained a one-year, $325-million commitment to fighting Islamic State.

From Afghanistan to Libya to Iraq, Canada has effectively contributed to allied operations to deter terrorism and help bring stability to troubled countries and regions. Canada is resolved to stand with our allies against the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The ongoing deployment of the Canadian Armed Forces as part of the international coalition’s effort to combat ISIL is a measure of the Government’s commitment to counter the terrorist threat that ISIL poses. Canada’s rapid response demonstrates the high degree of flexibility and readiness of the Canadian Armed Forces to respond to threats around the world.

Conservative supporters would argue more words are better when it comes to the spending of the public purse. Critics would dismiss the budget documents as thinly veiled campaign materials. One comparison that’s hard to ignore: When former finance minister Jim Flaherty faced a global financial disaster and was forced to accommodate the wishes of an opposition coalition hungry for power, his 2009 budget clocked in at only 360 pages.

3. Budgets now rely on make-believe “real Canadians” to put faces to the numbers

Martin’s rather sterile effort in 1995 was long on economic jargon that would likely make many Canadians dizzy. That budget may have been a bureaucrat’s delight, but the feds have moved to make their fiscal plans more accessible to those of us who are only functionally financially literate.

Back in 1995, measures to limit tax shelters promised to “affect limited recourse financing, extend the base upon which the alternative minimum tax is calculated, modify the tax shelter identification rules and increase reviews and audits of tax shelters.” What was that about recourse financing an alternative minimum tax? Luckily, governments have more recently leaned on Department of Finance writers to personify budget measures.

Keen readers of budgets past will remember Henry and Cathy from last year’s budget. The fictional couple was raising a couple of fictional kids, Grace and Elizabeth. Henry made $84,000 a year, and Cathy only earned $36,000. The government’s various tax cuts and income-splitting schemes had the effect of “allowing Henry and Cathy to invest their hard-earned money where they see fit.” Anne Kingston wrote that the exercise in fiction writing “transports us back to the fabricated white-bread universe of Leave it to Beaver: a heteronormative place in which men provide support, soldiering and are enrolled in universities; women do the caretaking and are studying to be dental hygienists.”

Let’s not pick on Henry and Cathy, though. They’re only the newest neighbours in Canada’s make-believe fiscal cul-de-sac. They joined John and Dava, 2013’s proud, not-real owners of a grain farm south of Saskatoon; 2012’s Jeff, who opened an imaginary RDSP in 2009; 2011’s Manon, a teacher who supports not only a young family, but also her mother, Claudine; 2009’s Martin, a single father who doesn’t actually live in Nova Scotia with a young daughter; and 2006’s Dwight, a made-up Ph.D. student of electrical engineering. There are others.

Even the Liberals before the Harper Conservatives got into the action. In 2004, we learned about Stephanie, David and Karen’s experiences with interest relief and debt reduction in repayment (their tales are told on p.125). It can’t hurt governments to include these fake case studies with names attached. Journalists who have only a few hours to understand complex proposals can use all the help they can get. And they may be more likely to repeat stories that sound reasonably realistic.

The odds are high the current Liberals will continue the trend. Campaign documents illustrate the party’s plan for family tax changes using families like Anna (and one child), and Darrell and Robert (with two kids). And the Liberals’ provincial cousins at Queen’s Park did a little character development of their own in their most recent budget.