National Column: Treading water as the level is rising

by Chantal Hebert

If you subscribe to the notion that governments are meant to walk their talk at budget time, then Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are on a treadmill.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s second budget is, for the most part, a wordy rewrite of his previous one.

It adds up to a sea of words that almost manage to drown the inconvenient fact that, in most instances, he is
putting little or no money where his mouth is until just before the next election.

Take innovation, the self-declared theme of the 2017 budget.

As advertised, it has pride of place in the budget.

But that placement brings the government perilously close to indulging in false advertising.

Morneau’s strategy, to put it charitably, is a work-in-progress. The government is still in consultation mode on most of the plan. Legislation to set up a previously announced infrastructure bank has yet to be introduced.

The government says it is about to engage in discussions with the CRTC as to how to go about ensuring high-
speed Internet access for all Canadians.

That promise first surfaced in a Paul Martin budget in a previous century.

The government wants to make it easier for unemployed Canadians to get training through unemployment insurance.

But, if you are out of work this year, you may also be out of luck. The government is not planning to spend new money in its skills section of its innovation agenda until next year.

Moving on to social programs, we are again presented with a slow-paced rollout that will see dollars magically materialize in greater numbers just before the next campaign.

The budget devotes what may be an all-time record number of lines to social and affordable housing, but only 20 million dollars to the file this year.

It will be going up to almost a billion dollars in 2018-19.

On paper, the government is committed to helping the provinces create thousands of new child care spaces. But funds for the initiative will not start flowing until the last fiscal year of the mandate.

Ditto for culture. The Liberals would spend an extra two billion dollars over 10 years on support for the culture industry . . . with the first instalment scheduled for 2018-19.

In the same spirit, the provinces will not see the colour of most of the extra money they were promised for home-care and mental health before the next election.

There are plenty of understandable reasons why even a government as young as this one would go on a holding pattern.

It will take more time for the dust to settle in the wake of the advent of Donald Trumpís administration. (Indeed that dust may never really settle.)

Meanwhile, the future of Canadaís trade relationship with the U.S. and the countryís trade agenda, itself, are up in the air.

Trudeau’s government already has irons in the fire on a number of fronts

Its carbon-pricing plan has yet to be implemented. The future of the pipeline plans it has approved is uncertain. The clock is ticking on the promise to legalize marijuana as it is on the commitment to striking a new deal with Canadaís aboriginals.

The first Liberal budget was replete with big-ticket items, leaving it, over a period of uncertain economic growth, with little more than spare change to throw at other priorities.

Given all of the above, it is possible to construe Morneauís initial budget as a five-year spending plan and this year’s instalment as the outline of the next Liberal election platform.

Except that it was not just spending on defining items on the Liberal agenda that is being shovelled forward; the government has yet to determine whether to bite the bullet on defence spending and respond to American pressures to up its contribution to NATO. A continuing defence review will eventually shed light on that.

The government is still flirting with the possible privatization of airports. That could be fraught with political perils. Those perils will only increase as we approach the election deadline.

It has postponed a comprehensive tax reform to another day. The political price tag on that could, too, increase with every passing month until the next campaign.

Last, but not least, it has yet to turn its mind to charting a credible path to return to balanced budgets.

As former prime minister Paul Martin could testify from first-hand experience, the line between prudence and dithering is a fine one.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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