A coaching friend of mine likes to say, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
So, what to make of Andrew Scheer’s balanced-budget wish?
When the Conservative Leader laid out his economic plan in a pre-election speech last week, the one glaring thing absent was a timeline to eliminate the federal budget deficit. He said he wants to do it. He criticized the current Liberal government for having no plan to balance the books, as he has many times before. He even waxed nostalgic about his own roots growing up in a struggling middle-class household in south Ottawa, saying that his parents taught him the importance of living within one’s means.
Yet, conspicuously, he proposed no concrete plan, no time frame in which, if elected, he would eliminate the deficit.
We have to ask what this omission means. When Mr. Scheer was running for the Conservative leadership in 2017, he was crystal clear – he promised to balance the budget in two years. The Liberals seem intent on holding him to this earlier promise; Finance Minister Bill Morneau referred to it last week, when he called Mr. Scheer’s balanced-budget pledge “risky” and argued that it would require deep spending cuts.
But the reality is that Mr. Scheer, in a key speech laying out the foundations of his party’s economic platform, left that critical detail out. For all his criticism of the Liberals’ lack of a balanced-budget timetable, he’s now avoiding it himself.
Perhaps, as his chances of winning this fall’s election improve, he’s grown wary of making deficit promises he might have a hard time keeping. His Conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper, twisted his government like a pretzel to make good on an election promise to wipe out the deficit before the next election, refusing to back away even as the country slipped perilously close to recession in 2015 – and he lost that fall’s election. Justin Trudeau abandoned his promise to run only short-term deficits and return to balance by 2019 – and lost precious credibility. With the economy already deep into its expansion cycle, Mr. Scheer must be aware that any promise to wipe out a deficit could be jeopardized by an economic downturn in his first term in office – at which point you either break the promise or break a fragile economy trying to keep it.
Perhaps he knows that merely railing against spendthrift Liberals, and talking about living within your means, is enough to pull on a reliable thread with the Conservative voter base. One of Mr. Harper’s greatest political achievements was his ability to convince his supporters that he was the country’s greatest balanced-budget defender while running deficits in each of his last eight years in office. (His government never did quite wipe out the red ink, although it came very close.)
Maybe Mr. Scheer understands – although God forbid he would ever say so out loud, as the Liberals have – that actually having a balanced budget is really not that important. He must see enough reports from private-sector economists and debt-rating agencies to know that the vast majority of experts consider the levels of deficits under the Liberals to be modest and manageable. He must be aware of this expert opinion even as he warns, as he did in his speech, that "another four years of [Liberal] runaway spending” will put Canada into “an economic crisis” – an assertion that Mr. Morneau, rightly, called “absurd.”
But while describing the Liberals’ spending as “runaway” is certainly hyperbole, Mr. Scheer does have a point. Program spending in four years under the Liberals has increased 22 per cent. The government’s 2019-20 budget, tabled in March, has $27-billion more in program spending than the Conservatives’ final budget (in 2015) had projected for 2019-20.
Those projections in the Harper government’s final budget kept program spending a shade below forecast growth in nominal gross domestic product – a common proxy for growth in government revenue capacity. Had the Liberals done likewise, we wouldn’t have any debate about the need to balance the budget. We’d pretty much already be there. And indeed, Mr. Scheer believes that much of the deficit could be wiped out through slower spending growth, rather than program cuts.
Perhaps, then, Mr. Scheer’s non-specific balanced-budget pledge is really more a commitment to keep a closer eye on the purse strings. The Conservatives aren’t really promising much different from the Liberals in terms of fiscal management. The difference boils down to degree (does the deficit really have to get to zero, or just shrink as a share of GDP?), and to credibility.
But Mr. Scheer himself has argued that if you want your government to control its spending and reduce its deficits, you need the discipline of a firm, ambitious timeline. If his promise is any more than campaign rhetoric, he needs a timetable. He needs a plan.