Trudeau's budget deficit inspires hope and dread

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tells a forum in New York that he was "pretty sure" the Liberals were going to win last year's election when the NDP failed to match his commitment to run a deficit.

Prime Minister Trudeau says it was the Liberal commitment to a deficit that won last year's election

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in an interview at Bloomberg headquarters in New York, Thursday, March 17, 2016. Trudeau told the crowd that the Liberal decision to run a deficit was key to party's election victory. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Five days ahead of his government's first budget, seated before a business crowd in midtown Manhattan, Justin Trudeau was asked whether it was a deficit that had put him in that spot. And he was only too proud to confirm that it was.

It was on Aug. 27, 2015, that Trudeau announced the Liberal plan to run a deficit to provide for "investment" in the Canadian economy and, in response, the NDP's Tom Mulcair reconfirmed his party's commitment to a balanced budget.

"I got home to my wife and I said, I'm pretty sure we just won the election," Trudeau recounted.

The next morning, upon opening the newspaper, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau was apparently surprised to see that her husband's punditry was not reflected in the coverage.

"I said, no, it's going to take awhile for people to figure it out," Trudeau recalled.

'Let's be bold'

For all else that he has done, it is the promise of a deficit that might be Trudeau's signature moment. Particularly if one accepts the theory that it essentially put him in office.

Trudeau dwelled on the moment on Thursday, explaining how listening to voters and economists had led the Liberals to do it.

"We said, we know this is the right thing to do," he told the crowd. "We know this is what Canadians want to do. It's just not lined up with the political orthodoxy of the past decades. But Canadians are looking for change. And let's be bold about saying what needs to happen."

There followed a meditation on leadership: "I think people look for leadership, and define it many times, as when someone says something that they disagree with, but that they suspect is probably right. I mean, as a leader, I look for opportunities to challenge folks."

By this reading, what Trudeau did on Aug. 27 was simultaneously sensible and daring. Electoral politics has a funny way of allowing something to be both.

But that commitment to a deficit was certainly a challenge to nearly everyone else, just as it might now be his challenge to prove a deficit useful and escapable.

Bloomberg's 'new hope'

A detached perspective is sometimes useful and on that note, there are apparently two ways this could now go, at least as suggested by the two storybook endings guessed at by the foreign press in the past seven days.

Whatever else Trudeau accomplished in Thursday's appearance at a forum moderated by the editor-in-chief of Bloomberg, Trudeau's agenda had already been broadly endorsed by the news service's eponymous owner the evening before. Under the headline "Canada's New Hope," Michael Bloomberg, the man who recently declined to play the centrist saviour of American politics, likened Trudeau to John F. Kennedy and hailed him as a forward-thinking leader set to make smart investments in infrastructure and greening the Canadian economy.

This would seem to be the basic idea. Now it need only be effectively implemented over a number of years against whatever complications the adventures of governing, federalism and the global economy might provide. A pipeline or two might come in handy.

Bloomberg, the wire service, later set up Trudeau as a "litmus test" within the G20 on the wisdom of expansionary fiscal policy, contra the austerity of Germany and Britain. Trudeau, mind you, also stressed the need for fiscal responsibility and competent policy implementation. But he also confirmed his government's intention to cancel the previous government's plan to push back the age of eligibility for old age security, a move the Conservatives quickly bemoaned as fiscally irresponsible.

Trudeau confirms election promise that OAS will start at 65

7 years ago
Duration 2:03
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with Bloomberg TV's John Micklethwait this morning in New York

Like father, like son?

That much might only be something for a second-term Trudeau government to worry about. But thereabouts is the other idea about what Aug. 27 might amount to. 

In an assessment published in the U.K.'s Spectator last Saturday, the British writer Harry Mount suggests that for all Trudeau's "high-minded razzmatazz" his fiscal agenda is flimsy, in part because of a "touching faith in the multiplier effect of government spending."

The precedent for this is apparently, as luck would have it, Pierre Trudeau, "When he came to power in 1968, Canada's debt was £10 billion, 24 per cent of GDP, most of that incurred during the second world war," Mount reports of the elder Trudeau. "By the time he stood down, in 1984, the national debt was £100 billion, 46 per cent of GDP."

Fiscal policy, along with the National Energy Program, is generally regarded as one of Pierre Trudeau's weakness. And so critics can now hardly be expected to resist the comparison.

"Pierre Trudeau's 15 years in office finally ended when his high-spending policies turned against him," Mount concludes. "His son's liberal politics are going down well now. They won't be so popular when his dopey version of Daddy's economics empties Canada's coffers."

Owning a deficit

Maybe so. But this is also possibly something like the inverse of damning with faint praise. Trudeau the Younger might be quite happy to have another 14 years in office, all the more so if he manages to accomplish anything like patriating the Constitution and passing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in doing so.

It might even be to suggest that the public's tolerance for deficit spending is somewhat generous.

Of course, Trudeau might also like to leave office — whenever that happens — without his legacy undermined by deficit. "I most certainly wouldn't be in this chair if I had tried to emulate my father in everything he did," Trudeau said on Thursday when his father's budgetary record was put to him.

Indeed, Pierre Trudeau actually balanced his second budget in 1970.

But it was the notion of a deficit that got Justin Trudeau here. When Tuesday afternoon comes, he will own a deficit. It is remarkable that it has already amounted to so much. And now it might confirm the "new hope" or prove the past prophetic, or merely land somewhere in between.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.