Bill Morneau goes long as Liberals recommit to big spending
Finance minister wants to be remembered for putting Canada on path to new, modern economy
Previous to Bill Morneau's appearance on Tuesday afternoon, the last time a finance minister delivered the fall economic update to the House of Commons was in 2008, when Jim Flaherty very nearly blew up the Conservative government of the day.
As the global economy wobbled and reeled, Flaherty stepped forward to announce his government was not yet ready to commit to anything substantial, but would, in the meantime, eliminate the per-vote subsidy for political parties, suspend the right to strike for public sector unions and limit the recourse for women seeking pay equity.
Long story short: This was not well-received and Stephen Harper only barely escaped to save his government with a stimulus budget two months later.
The Conservatives, perhaps superstitious, thereafter avoided presenting the fall update to the House.
It is surely nice to have the event back on Parliament Hill, but it is also somewhat fitting that it should be this statement — a vaguely significant and risky statement of intent — that heralds its return.
What Morneau announced on Tuesday was a multibillion-dollar recommitment to the Liberal economic agenda, the defining policy distinction of last year's election. Now with added ambition.
If the finance minister is lucky, it won't blow up his government. At least not until well into the next decade.
Back in 2008, the Conservatives were still clinging to the ideal of a balanced budget, a notion they would officially abandon with that stimulus budget.
Seven years later, they would revive the ideal of balance, only to be bested by Trudeau's campaign promise to set it aside because the economy was still struggling.
The economic update does not deviate from that signature course, in fact it figures that the accumulated debt of the next five years will be $32 billion more than projected in the spring.
The Liberals have complicated comparisons somewhat by abandoning the $6-billion "prudence factor" that was built into the spring budget, an accounting cushion that might be reintroduced for next year's budget.
But there is more than that.
"We need to think even bigger," Morneau told the House.
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The government plans to create an infrastructure bank to harness private investment in public infrastructure, establish a new agency to draw foreign investment to Canada, and launch new visa arrangements to make it easier to bring in "global talent" from abroad.
And while the Liberals are investing and reorganizing, they'll empower the parliamentary budget officer, expand the office's mandate to include political commitments, and reform the process by which Parliament reviews government spending.
All of which might at least enliven the debate about what the Liberals are doing.
How Morneau wants to be remembered
"Decades from now, when my kids tell the story of when their dad was finance minister," said Morneau, in his "ah shucks" way that drew some grumbling and heckling from the opposition side, "I want them to be able to look back and see our government's first year in office as the year Canada began its path towards a new, modern economy."
Even if one believes economic redirection is what's necessary, those are no small stakes. The investment was described as "unprecedented" and the changes as "transformative." That is legacy-building stuff. But it also involves the risk of spending, debt and trying new things.
The most ostentatious refrain was "progress" — seemingly an attempt to counter the reality that the national economy has yet to show obvious signs of improvement — but sprinkled throughout the prepared text was the word "future" and the phrase "long-term."
The subliminal message might be "patience" or "vision."
Decades from now, when my kids tell the story of when their dad was finance minister, I want them to be able to look back and see our government's first year in office as the year Canada began its path towards a new, modern economy.- Finance Minister Bill Morneau
There was some tittering from the opposition benches at Morneau's long timeframe, and it's certainly worth at least a raised eyebrow.
For the Liberals to deliver all of the infrastructure funding they put down on paper today, they will have to be re-elected at least twice. It might be nice if more of that money was to be spent sooner.
But they have perhaps now put down a significant portion of their 2019 platform, or at least put the Conservatives and New Democrats in the position of explaining why we shouldn't be spending this much on infrastructure.
For now, the NDP is eager to complain about any attempt to privatize public infrastructure (and if the result is road tolls, the Liberals might be in for some controversy), while the Conservatives are generally aggrieved at the spectre of deficit spending.
Sooner or later the government will have to worry about the deficit, but the Liberal riposte to the immediate concern is that this is what "confident, ambitious countries do: invest in our future."
That is very nearly a challenge to the nation's nerve.
But then surely the Liberals need to show enough progress in the next three years to justify carrying on — some evidence of a positive trajectory.
If not, the Liberals will be lucky to be in government long enough to see this statement through.