By: Michael Holden
“The fiscal restraint that many expected from this budget is more akin to paper cuts than deep wounds.”
The 2012 federal budget was, for all intents and purposes, the first delivered by the Conservative government under majority rule. It was expected to give us our first glimpse at how the Conservatives intend to govern over the next several years. Many assumed that the result would be a fairly dramatic shift toward fiscal conservatism and smaller government. The reality, by contrast, is decidedly middle-of-the-road. The Conservatives have delivered a prudent budget, one that largely fails to live up to the hopes of strong fiscal conservatives, but also largely fails to live up to the fears of their opponents.
To be sure, specific elements of the budget, such as delaying Old Age Security (OAS) and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) benefits until age 67, are bound to attract controversy and spark debate over the coming weeks and months. There are also deep cuts in some areas, among them foreign aid and the CBC. However, the budget also contains several initiatives that are either welcome or overdue (eliminating the penny leaps to mind). But in the final analysis, while the budget itself is a thick document, filled with a wide range of initiatives, this is, on the whole, a cautious and incremental plan. This is true especially considering initial expectations that the budget would pare back government spending in a big way.
In terms of the priorities outlined in the budget – once again called an “Economic Action Plan” – there is a clear emphasis on measures aimed at promoting economic growth and job creation. In particular there are several programs and initiatives that are recognizable as clear priorities for western Canada. These are discussed further below.
As expected, the budget established an accelerated timeframe for eliminating the deficit and restoring fiscal balance, primarily focusing on the expenditure side of the equation. In last year’s budget, the deficit for the current year was expected to be $32.2 billion, a figure amended in November to $31 billion. Owing to a combination of resurgent revenue growth at the end of the year, spending restraint and lower-than-expected interest payments on the national debt, the deficit for this year is expected to be $24.9 billion. Moreover, the federal government now plans to balance the books in four years (2015-2016), one year ahead of the schedule laid out in last year’s fiscal plan. In fact, barring an unexpected downturn in economic fortunes, the budget will most likely be balanced within three years.
One of the big items that everyone was waiting for in this budget was news on the extent to which the government would be cutting program spending in the years ahead. This is the part of the budget where, depending on their point of view, people will be either the most disappointed or the most relieved.
Although many of the details still have to be ironed out, the federal government announced that its review of department spending will yield ongoing savings of $5.2 billion per year by 2016-2017. This total represents about 6.9% of the spending that was subject to the review process, but only 2% of overall federal spending. In addition, about 19,200 federal government jobs will be cut, about one third of which will be through attrition.
While these cuts represent real reductions for individual departments and agencies, it’s important to keep in mind that, in the aggregate, they are based on spending levels that have grown dramatically in recent years. Since the first Conservative minority government in 2006, federal spending has increased by 38.7%, while the federal public service expanded by 15.3% (adding more than 60,000 jobs in the process). When viewed in that context, the proposed budget cuts do not exactly suggest a broad-scale withdrawal of the federal government from the public arena.
In addition, other components of federal spending, like transfers to the provinces and to persons, will be rising throughout that period. Old age benefits are the obvious exception, but those changes don’t even begin to kick in until 2023. As a result, the overall effect of the government’s spending restraint will not be a decrease in total program expenditures as much as a slightly lower rate of growth over the forecast period.
Specific Programs and Initiatives
For the most part, the federal government’s fiscal plan delivers on the expectations set out in the Canada West Foundation’s pre-budget commentary. Perhaps most notably, it includes a commitment to modernize the regulatory system for major project reviews with the goal of a “one project, one review” approach. This approach is designed to reduce duplication, the administrative burden on businesses and the timelines for approval. While the specifics are still to be determined, this is a welcome development for western Canada, provided that it does not result in an abdication of government responsibility in the area of environmental stewardship.
The budget also contains measures aimed at job creation and addressing labour shortages in western Canada. These include some modest reforms to the Employment Insurance program, an enhanced youth employment strategy, hiring credits for small businesses and improvements to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. The budget also mentions improvements to Canada’s immigration system, focusing on economic migrants that meet the labour needs of specific provinces and territories. However, there are few details on what that might mean.
Perhaps most significant for the West is new money for First Nations infrastructure, education and measures to improve training and incentives for the on-reserve Aboriginal population to enter the labour force. In its various consultations and roundtable discussions, the Canada West Foundation has heard repeatedly from western Canadian business and policy leaders that more needs to be done to improve living conditions on reserves as well as to improve Aboriginal participation in the workforce. In contrast with the aging population generally, the Aboriginal population is young and growing quickly. As such, they represent a significant, relatively untapped resource of labour in the West. On this issue, the measures contained in the 2012 budget represent a step in the right direction.
As we looked for in our pre-budget commentary, the 2012 budget also targeted spending cuts to specific areas and avoided cross-the-board measures that might have penalized effective or valuable programs. To be sure, there were few details, as usual, offered in the budget as to which exact programs would be affected by the plan, and as noted earlier, some will be unhappy about the areas that were targeted relatively heavily. But in general, the spending cuts reflected a gradual reshaping of government priorities and not a thoughtless chopping exercise.
The budget also emphasized measures related to innovation and research. This focus was signalled widely in advance of the budget, but the approach taken differed from the norm of recent years. Productivity improvements in Canada have been much sought-after, but elusive as previous government initiatives like lower corporate taxation and tax credits failed to deliver on that promise. With this budget, the government has signalled that it is changing tack. In a “Back to the Future” kind of way, there appears to be a return to more direct government involvement and incentives for high-risk venture capital and business innovation. While this type of direct involvement was (and still is) derided as the government getting into the game of “picking winners and losers,” the initiatives proposed in the budget echo many of the suggestions that we heard from business and policy leaders during our most recent series of Honourable James A. Richardson Roundtables this past autumn.
Another recurrent theme was a continued focus on trade and accessing new markets. In a sense, the budget offered nothing new on the subject; it mostly just restated the government’s recent accomplishments and highlighted the various trade- and investment-related initiatives currently underway. Although there was no new money for trade (in fact, foreign diplomacy and aid received disproportionately heavy cuts in funding), this budget signals that international trade remains a high priority for this government.
There were also some policy issues on which, in our view, the budget was disappointing or disappointingly silent. As noted above, in spite of the fact that trade and market access are stated priorities of this government, financial support for foreign affairs and diplomacy was cut. In addition, the budget includes no significant new measures or financial support relating to environmental protection, conservation, curbing greenhouse gas emissions or renewable energy. There was also disappointing silence on the subject of a Canadian energy strategy. Finally, there were no significant new funds for urban or trade-related infrastructure. While the federal government has made significant investments in this area in recent years, there remains a large infrastructure deficit in many parts of the West.
As a concluding note, it seems appropriate to devote a final thought to bidding adieu to the much-maligned penny which will cease to be minted in April, and stop being distributed later this year. Over the years we’ve all complained about the space pennies take up, we’ve gotten into trouble in school for flicking them at classmates, we’ve thrown them in fountains, used them for ill-advised science experiments and we’ve refused to pick them up when they lie alone and half-forgotten on the street. And now they will be no more.
Goodnight sweet penny. No longer will you fool me into thinking I’m rich based on the thickness of my wallet. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.