Heavy on symbolism, light on detail.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer left Parliament Hill on Thursday for Toronto’s financial district to roll out his proposals for Canada’s economy, the second in a series of policy speeches meant to define his campaign to become the next prime minister.
He evoked the memory of gold magnate Peter Munk, who fled the Nazi invasion of his native Hungary to eventually come to Canada and become one of this country’s richest and most influential businessmen.
He flagged his own middle-class upbringing and gave a hat-tip to the suburbs of Toronto. He spoke of his parents having to make tough choices to make ends meet.
The message, of course, was that a Conservative government would get out of the way and allow regular Canadians to pull themselves up by their bootstraps like Munk, contributing greatly to the growth of the country. The Liberals, on the other hand, meddle with business and taxpayers’ money, to the detriment of the prosperity and fiscal health of the country.
“Canada must be a place where no ambition is too big, where no dream is out of reach, and where no government will stand in the way of people working hard to get ahead,” Scheer said.
The vision and its framing were unmistakably Conservative and a contrast to his political foes, setting the stage for an election-campaign showdown over the role of government in the country’s economic activity.
Scheer sketched out an energy-centric plan that would see growth hinging on an east-to-west corridor for energy resources, and making Canada energy-independent by 2030. Innovation and entrepreneurial spirit would be unleashed through the removal of red tape and the advent of smaller government. Government spending would be responsible, with all new initiatives funded from savings found elsewhere. He would have a lighter hand on real estate markets.
And indeed, the emphasis on energy independence, market-driven growth and smaller government differs greatly from the Liberals’ focus on government-led and deficit-financed initiatives that have come to dominate Justin Trudeau’s fiscal and economic policy. Government spending on infrastructure, picking winners for taxpayer-funded investment, and a noted willingness to use taxation and regulation to solve problems ranging from the real-estate market to controlling greenhouse-gas emissions would not be the Conservative way.
But leaving rhetoric and the many partisan attacks in Scheer’s speech aside, the details are scarce.
On the deficit, the key difference with the Liberals is the Conservatives’ commitment to eliminate the deficit. Scheer said he would keep an eye on spending increases. But like the Liberals, there was no firm timeline or mention of a target that would anchor what the government does with its money.
The Liberals are dedicating a bit more than 14 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product to program expenses these days. During Stephen Harper’s last years in power (after the frantic deficits of the Great Recession had passed), the Conservatives were at about 13 per cent. During the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin years, spending was at about 12 per cent.
A well-known string of deficits under the Trudeau Liberals has been the result, with a $19.8-billion deficit expected for this fiscal year shrinking gradually to $9.8-billion in 2023-24.
Scheer didn’t counter those numbers with a trajectory of his own. But his officials say that keeping spending increases to one per cent a year — well below the rate of inflation — would take the federal government two-thirds of the way to balancing the budget in four or five years.
“Drastic spending cuts aren’t necessary to balance the budget. Simply taking a responsible, measured approach to spending growth will go a long way. And that is what I will do,” he said, repeating earlier promises to cancel handouts to corporations, cut Canada’s $256-million contribution to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and get rid of the $35-billion Canada Infrastructure Bank.
On the cost side, he would also forgo revenue — about $2.5-billion a year, according to Conservative officials — by taking the tax off home heating and parental benefits.
And he committed to keeping some of the most expensive government spending lines intact: the Canada Child Benefit, benefits to seniors and transfers to the provinces.
All told, those commitments, along with putting a lid on spending increases, box the Conservatives in and imply that some tough choices lie ahead — akin to the kind that Scheer’s parents had to make way back when they lived in the end unit of a townhouse in south Ottawa.
Any hope for clarity in time for the election lies in the publication of clear, accountable numbers that all add up — something the Liberals, as the governing party, can point to in their last budget, but that Scheer has yet to produce.
Heather Scoffield is an economics columnist based in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter: @hscoffield