Federal election campaign's phoney debate over deficits: Chris Hall

So far this week, important questions on the economy are secondary to a dispute over budget deficits — or more accurately, a debate over why one party is prepared to run a deficit in order to finance their campaign promises. For now, it’s a phoney debate.

Answers on how parties plan to pay for campaign promises may not come for weeks yet

None of the parties have put out a fully costed plan, tallying up how much their promises will cost. (Canadian Press)

This federal election is supposed to be about the economy, an opportunity for voters to determine which party is offering the best plan to create jobs, open new markets for Canadian goods and services and to help this country withstand what is shaping up to be, at worst, another recession or, at best, another period of stagnant growth.

But so far this week those important questions are secondary to a dispute over budget deficits — or more accurately, a debate over why one party is prepared to run a deficit in order to finance their campaign promises.

For now, it's a phoney debate.

None of the parties have put out a fully costed plan, tallying up how much their promises will cost. Those platforms will come sometime in September when, if current forecasts hold, the Canadian economy will be technically in another recession.

It's also not clear whether the federal books are balanced, or if the government slid back into deficit this year because of the plunge in oil prices, with the subsequent loss in federal revenues and increase in employment insurance claims — particularly in Alberta where EI claims have risen eight months in a row through June, and Saskatchewan, where claims were up nearly five per cent that month.

Until those numbers are known, this whole deficit debate is taking place in vacuum, absent any specifics, or any real data on the government's actual fiscal position.

Staking positions

But it's not stopping the leaders from staking their positions. And their reputations.

Take NDP Leader Tom Mulcair. He says New Democrats have no intention, if elected, of running deficits.

Not now.

"Our first budget will be a balanced budget," he said Tuesday.

Not ever.

"We will not run a deficit. We're not entertaining any thought of that," he told reporters covering his campaign on Wednesday.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau pounced – lumping Mulcair in with Conservative leader Stephen Harper – staking the Liberals to the left of the NDP.

"Let's understand that Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulcair seem to think that everything is just fine with the Canadian economy. I don't," he said Wednesday in refusing to commit to balancing the budget.  "I think the Canadian economy needs investment. Investment in the middle class, investment in infrastructure."

Framing the debate

Sitting back and enjoying all this is Stephen Harper. The Conservative leader is more than prepared to have his two main rivals duke it out while he stands on the sidelines, egging them on.

"The alternatives proposed by the other two guys? Let's have out of control spending financed, as Mr. Trudeau says, by permanent deficits or have it done as Mr. Mulcair says, by avalanche of tax increases. These are the wrong choices."

Harper's own choice of words is interesting. Accusing Trudeau of planning for ''permanent deficits" sidesteps the Conservatives own record of running eight consecutive deficits to fight the 2008 recession.

Conservatives argue the difference is that their stimulus spending post 2008 was one-time only and lapsed as soon as the worst of the economic crisis passed.

They're happy to frame the NDP and Liberals fight as a battle of higher taxes on one side, big deficits on the other. All while Harper is proposing modest spending increases with no tax hikes and no deficit.

Mulcair is just as determined to portray the NDP as fiscally responsible, to the point of guaranteeing that the party won't run deficits without knowing the government's true fiscal position.

And the Liberals are playing it safe. A deficit if necessary, but not necessarily a deficit. And do it while Trudeau campaigns with Paul Martin, who as finance minister produced a string of surpluses, to remind voters that Liberals know how to manage an economy in tough times.

Plenty of time

Most economists agree that running a small surplus or small deficit now really doesn't matter. Many are promoting another round of stimulus to put Canadians to work, to improve Canada's competitive position in global markets, and to build or repair vital infrastructure such as roads, bridges  and ports.

And why not? Canada's debt-to-GDP ratio remains below all the other members of the group of seven industrialized nations, and the country's net debt is less than half the average of its G7 partners.

Interest rates remain historically low.

And that's what Canadians might really want to consider. What policies are all the parties, including Elizabeth May's Greens, proposing to foster economic growth and to create jobs?

There's no shortage of ideas out there already. No shortage of plans announced by the leaders to compare and contrast.

There's plenty of time left in this campaign to determine what impact they will have on Ottawa's bottom line — and whether they're something voters think the country can afford.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc


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