WEATHER ALERT

Liberals’ budget procrastination is unacceptable

When your banker tells you this is not the right moment to explain what he did with your money, it’s not a good sign. It’s budget time in Ottawa, but the ruling Liberals are quietly letting it be known they won’t produce a budget this month. Maybe April. Maybe later. This is worrisome news.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/03/2021 (694 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When your banker tells you this is not the right moment to explain what he did with your money, it’s not a good sign. It’s budget time in Ottawa, but the ruling Liberals are quietly letting it be known they won’t produce a budget this month. Maybe April. Maybe later. This is worrisome news.

A budget enforces a certain amount of discipline on the federal spending. It shows where the government intends to spend our money for the coming year, where they plan to find that money and what results they expect to achieve. There’s always a thick crust of partisan malarkey on the top, but when you scrape that away there are also numbers, and the numbers have to add up.

It’s been two years now since the Trudeau government produced a budget. They were going to produce one in the spring of 2020, but then the pandemic came along and the government preferred to borrow heavily, splash money around and never count the cost.

Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press FILES Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland produced a budget update three months ago that estimated $100 billion in pandemic recovery spending over the following three years, without getting into the awkward details of how that money would be raised and where it would be spent.

This minority Parliament, elected in October 2019, is approaching the usual lifespan of minority parliaments. Holding an election in the midst of the pandemic would have been extremely difficult, but COVID-19 infection rates are declining now and immunization has started. The Liberals’ polling numbers are looking good enough that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might easily decide an election this year would serve the national interest.

If Ms. Freeland plays her cards strategically, she can produce a spring budget just in time for dissolution of Parliament and the start of an election campaign. In that case, she could drift through the exercise on optimistic assumptions about government revenue and borrowing costs. Any fiscal chickens coming home would reach the roost after the election.

If the government had good news to give the nation about the state of the federal finances, one would think they would be delivering it at the first opportunity. Instead, we are getting anonymous remarks by a senior federal official who has suddenly discovered that the House of Commons will sit this week and then the week after next and then not again until mid-April. This unfortunately prevents Ms. Freeland from explaining herself this month.

The pandemic has created a kind of off-leash park for them, and they’ve been running unrestrained for so long they may be forgetting what accountability feels like.

The ruling Liberals are adjusting well to the art of governing through a pandemic. Parliament is severely curtailed by the need to protect the health of the members. Ministers address the public in daily televised news conferences without those pesky opposition members getting in the way. Spending programs can be launched on the spur of the moment without the need to stay within a budget, because there is no budget.

It may be tough bringing these Liberals back under control and attaching the leash that ordinarily compels good behaviour. The pandemic has created a kind of off-leash park for them, and they’ve been running unrestrained for so long they may be forgetting what accountability feels like.

It’s gotten so bad that now they’re saying it’s not convenient to produce a budget just now, so they’ll leave it until later. The federal finances are probably in a catastrophic state, so they’ll talk about something else — and who’s to stop them?

Pandemic or not, the government should present a budget. The current strategy of convenient procrastination is unacceptable.

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