Liberal budget offers lots of 'vision' but few new numbers: Aaron Wherry

The Liberals are selling a vision of what they hope will eventually be. In lieu of a new tax cut or benefit, in the place of any big new investment, that will have to suffice.

Liberals limited by previous spending commitments and reluctance to raise new revenue

Finance Minister Bill Morneau listens to a question during a press conference at the media lockup before tabling his budget in the House of Commons. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

At a dozen points in the budget document, the Liberals interrupt their announcements to explain "What Success Will Look Like."

Canada, we are told at one point, "will have one of the most skilled, talented, creative and diverse workforces in the world." The country "will be on the leading edge of discovery and innovation." Commute times will be shorter. Cities will be more livable. The air will be cleaner. Being a parent will be easier.

That is what the Liberals are selling: a vision of what they hope will eventually be.

In lieu of a shiny new tax cut or benefit, that will have to suffice.

Because this wasn't particularly a budget about numbers.

Not until the seventh page of his 11-page budget speech did Finance Minister Bill Morneau offer what could be described as a "new" number: $11 billion for a national housing strategy.

But two caveats are necessary. First, the money is to be distributed over 11 years. And, second, all of it is covered by funding already announced for "social infrastructure" last fall. 

The total amount of new funding committed to "building stronger communities and neighbourhoods" for the next fiscal year is just $20 million. Indeed, across the entirety of this new budget, there is a mere $1.3 billion in "new" announcements and much of that is covered by reallocating funds that were previously committed.

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    "There's not a lot of new, new money in the budget," remarked one reporter when Morneau was presented to the journalists who spent the day locked up with the budget book. "Is it that you overspent in the last one?"

    "Our plan is very much about a long-term vision," responded the finance minister.

    "We set about as soon as we got into office, dealing with middle class anxiety, increasing confidence in Canadians. We also set out long-term objectives for investment. And that's what we're identifying today, the long-term vision."

    Few numbers to throw around

    A government official had actually already answered that reporter's question ahead of Wednesday's budget. "The budget's a public policy document and I think the story will be much more into where the country needs to go as opposed to dollar amounts," the source told The Canadian Press earlier this week.

    Budget has long since become a loose term, in Ottawa anyway. The annual spring exercise functions as more of an elaborate announcement of government priorities with big numbers attached than a detailed accounting of how public funds will be allocated.

    But in this case, the government was very much limited in how many numbers it could throw around. First, by the commitments it has already made. Second, by its reluctance to raise new revenue.

    A review of the tax system's various credits and exemptions, completed internally last year, holds the potential for new funds and Morneau warned that changes could be coming. "Let me be clear," he said. "All Canadians must pay their fair share." But for now the tweaks are relatively minor.

    That tax review joins a science review, a defence policy review and an expert panel's report on youth employment in remaining to be seen. Throughout the budget are references to other items and details that will become clear in the "coming months," including a whole new organization to deal with skills development. A review of government spending is promised for next year's budget.

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    Still to be seen too, of course, is how Donald Trump will impact economic policies and tax rates in the United States. If the president is successful in dramatically reducing American rates, for instance, it might be harder for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Morneau to justify asking for a higher share here. Unless, of course, the economy significantly improves. 

    All of which leaves this budget feeling something like a placeholder, even while it does any number of potentially interesting things.

    Superclusters, smart cities and AI

    There are more than 60 pages on skills development and innovation. There is a suggestion that 40,000 child-care spaces "could" be created in the next three years. And, in perhaps the government's bravest move of the day, the non-refundable public transit tax credit is eliminated: one of the Conservative government's inventions, the Liberals are scrapping it on the grounds that it doesn't result in significantly more people using public transit.

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    There are also a half-dozen measures that might be regarded as quintessentially Liberal.

    A "gender statement" is attached to the budget to analyze how the government's measures will impact women and men differently. Funding is committed to create an LGBTQ2 secretariat within the Privy Council Office to assist the prime minister's LGBTQ2 adviser (Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault). A "Prime Minister's Gold Medal" in scientific excellence will be created. About $350 million is committed across several initiatives to help the government and its agencies collect more and better data.

    Sprinkled within are references to "superclusters" and "smart cities." There will soon be a "Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy." 

    But including last year's promises, it remains to be seen how much of it will be completed or demonstrable by October 2019, when the next election is scheduled to be held. The promised infrastructure bank is now scheduled to be up and running by late 2017. And much of the promised infrastructure spending is scheduled for the next decade.

    The Liberals look to 2025

    On its signature commitment to infrastructure, the government cast its eyes to 2025. To see that day, the Liberals will have to be re-elected twice more. And for all that progress to seem secure, the federal government will also probably have to figure out how to balance the budget.

    A vision is, by Morneau's account, part of what Canadians previously lacked (in addition to policies that addressed their stresses).

    "People were left without a clear vision for growth at a time of unprecedented change," he told the House of Commons on Wednesday. 

    So the Liberals are selling the vision thing.

    Now they have just 2½ more years to make that seem like something more than a hazy dream.


    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.


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