By Mia Rabson in Ottawa
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s 2023 federal budget promises “transformative investments” in Canada’s green economy as the country tries to maintain its place in the global clean tech revolution and realign its supply chains toward allies who won’t use energy as a political weapon.
“Together these two great shifts represent the most significant opportunity for Canadian workers in the lifetime of anyone here today,” Freeland said Tuesday in the House of Commons.
She is also using the budget to provide another top-up of the GST rebate, styled this time as a grocery rebate, to low-income Canadians who are feeling the pinch of inflation and keep making good on pledges in the confidence-and-supply agreement with the New Democrats.
There are also some measures reacting to political fires that have been burning around the Liberals in recent weeks and months, including some money to combat foreign interference, and to make airport security screening better.
In all the 2023-24 spending plan will cost $490.5 billion, including public debt charges, with $8.3 billion in new program spending. The projected deficit is $40.1 billion, which is greater than the $30.6 billion deficit for this coming fiscal year forecast in November’s fiscal update.
Over the next five years the government expects to spend $59.5 billion more than before. Nearly half of that will go to increase health transfers to the provinces and territories and further expand the national dental-care program the Liberals are creating as part of their deal with the NDP.
Dental care is expected to cost more than $13 billion over the next five years, about a $7-billion increase from what the government said it would cost when it was introduced in last year’s budget. It is now expected to cost $4.4 billion per year to keep it going beyond that.
Dental care was one of the NDP’s top demands from the Liberals when the opposition party entered into a confidence-and-supply agreement in March 2022 to back the minority government on key confidence votes, such as budgets, through to 2025.
“I’m really proud that we were able to force this government to expand dental care,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said after the budget was tabled.
Singh said that while he is disappointed the budget lacks new measures to help make housing more affordable, his party will still vote for it. That will give the Liberals enough votes to pass the budget and continue governing.
The budget addresses a number of other NDP asks outlined in the deal, including anti-scab legislation and a new forum to better address the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre dismissed the budget as a high-spending plan that will drive up the deficit, make inflation worse, and subsidize major multinational companies. His party will not be voting for it, he said.
“Today’s budget by the costly coalition of the NDP and Liberals is a full-frontal attack on the paycheques of hard working Canadians,” he said.
More than one-third of new spending is wrapped up in Canada’s targeted response to keep pace with the United States Inflation Reduction Act, which last year promised to direct US$370 billion at clean technology and electric vehicles over a decade.
Over the next 12 years, Canada expects to spend more than $80 billion on investment tax credits to spur development of clean electricity, hydrogen, carbon capture and storage systems, critical minerals, and the electric-vehicle supply chain.
The budget warns of the ramifications of not investing in the low-carbon economy, with significant hits to the GDP and jobs in the next 30 years, even as it acknowledges the enormous amount of money it’s going to take.
“The scale of the required investment is massive,” the budget said.
Almost one-third of the investment tax credits will be for clean power, including finally aiming to connect Canada from coast to coast with power lines.
Hidden somewhere in the budget figures is the money Canada has promised that helped lure major auto companies to build battery plants in Ontario, including Volkswagen and Stellantis. The details of those are expected to be made public in the next few weeks.
All of the plans are looking to develop the new industries with supply chains connected to allies like the U.S. and Europe. Freeland said in her speech that this would help to end what Ursula Von Der Leyen, president of the European Commission has called Europe’s “dangerous dependencies” on authoritarian economies.
That includes Russia, which has used its oil and gas exports as a political lever in Europe, and China, which is dominating the electric vehicle and battery supply chain sectors.
Not quite one-tenth of the new spending is directed at making life a bit more affordable for some Canadians, including the second GST rebate top-to low-income Canadians up in a year, and increases to grants for post-secondary students.
While inflation is coming down, the budget predicts it will remain above the Bank of Canada’s two per cent target until at least the second quarter of 2024. Food prices are a key part of what is keeping it elevated.
“We all know that our most vulnerable friends and neighbours are still feeling the bite of higher prices,” Freeland said in her speech.
All the new spending, and a $17-billion increase in the cost of interest on government debt over five years, has eliminated Freeland’s hope for a balanced budget on the horizon.
In November, she forecast a $4.5 billion surplus by 2027-28. Tuesday’s budget says that year will now log a $14 billion deficit.
She is promising to find $15 billion in savings over five years by scaling back government travel, its use of outside consultants and asking most federal departments to cut their spending three per cent.
Freeland uses positive language to describe Canada’s current economic situation, but the budget makes clear the upheaval created by the pandemic means the country is still at risk of seeing its finances take a turn for the worse by the end of this year.
Mostafa Askari, the chief economist at the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa, said his first takeaway from the budget was simple.
“There is a lot of spending,” he said.
He is wary of the government being able to find $15 billion in savings, particularly given that the promises are vague, with no specific understanding of what money will not be spent.
“Every government, every budget has had some efficiency game,” said Askari. “It’s very unlikely they’re going to get these savings.”
Askari also said there are significant risks of a deeper economic downturn later this year than predicted in the budget, which could upend all of Freeland’s economic assumptions, lowering government revenues and making the deficit even bigger.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 28, 2023.
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