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Canada’s federal government disregards its own fiscal rules—unlike Sweden


5 minute read

From the Fraser Institute

By Grady Munro and Jake Fuss

During the 1970s and 1980s, Canada and Sweden both saw a deterioration in government finances. However, hard times in the early 1990s transformed the approach to fiscal policy by governments in both countries, including reducing spending and borrowing, and ultimately returning to balanced budgets. While Swedes have carried on the legacy of fiscal responsibility in subsequent decades, Canadians seem to have forgotten the hard lessons of recent history and have fallen back on the fiscal approach that got us into trouble in the first place.

In his recent book, Swedish economist Johan Norberg explains that for most of its modern history Sweden has been a testament to the success of the free market, rather than a model socialist economy. The country only experimented with socialism for a short period, with disastrous results.

Sweden’s socialist experiment during the 1970s and 1980s saw substantial income redistribution and the introduction of a large welfare state. As a result, the size of government doubled as a share of the economy (measured by GDP). Yet despite increases in taxes, particularly targeting corporations and the wealthy, the government could not raise the funds to pay for such a sizable expansion of the welfare state. Instead, Sweden ran deficits in every year from 1970 to 1987, government debt rose from less than 18 per cent of the economy (GDP) in 1970 to over 70 per cent in 1985, and the private sector completely stagnated.

This approach brought about a financial crisis in the early 1990s that saw interest rates briefly rise as high as 500 per cent. In the wake of this crisis, the Swedish government declared the socialist experiment a failure, and the country saw substantial reform that emphasized balanced budgets, lower taxes, and an open business environment. Rules were set in place to ensure fiscal discipline, and as a result the country has enjoyed consistent surpluses and government debt has fallen from 83.2 per cent of the economy in 1998 to 58.8 per cent in 2021, despite still maintaining a large welfare state.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Canada also experienced a deterioration in government finances. Canada’s issues stemmed from a substantial expansion in the size and role of government in conjunction with rising interest rates. The federal government ran uninterrupted budget deficits from 1970 through to the mid-1990s. Federal government debt rose to over 70 per cent of GDP during this period and debt interest costs were consuming more than one-third of federal government revenues.

By the early 1990s federal finances were in shambles and the economy was stagnant. A new federal government was elected, led by Jean Chrétien, which implemented significant fiscal reform in 1995 based on spending restraint, balanced budgets and lower taxes. The provinces enacted similar reforms, and from the late 1990s through the 2000s, Canadians enjoyed consistent surpluses, debt reduction, and strong economic growth.

While there are clear parallels between the countries, unlike Sweden, Canadians has since reverted back to the risky fiscal approach of the 1970s and 1980s. Since 2015, Canada has seen historically high federal spending, and a string of federal and provincial budget deficits. Consequently, government debt and its associated costs have grown substantially.

Since the 1990s, both Canada and Sweden have had fiscal rules in place to help ensure the health of government finances. But while the Swedish government has largely stuck to its surplus goal by being disciplined with finances, Canada’s current federal government has consistently disregarded its own commitments. Indeed, it has violated its own fiscal anchors several times since 2015, and rather than adopt the discipline necessary to get back on track, the government simply moves the goalposts.

Simply put, Swedes have learned their lesson from their experience in the 1970s to 1990s, whereas Canadians appear to have forgotten. This raises the question—do Swedes have better memories?

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Doubling Down on Missing the Mark

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By Chris Gardner

President, Independent Contractors and Businesses Association

Earlier this year, public opinion research company Leger published the results of a nationwide poll. One result stood out: 70 per cent of Canadians agreed with the statement: “It feels like everything is broken in this country right now.”

To young people, families and business owners struggling to buy or stay in a home, find a doctor, pay for gas and groceries, hire people, worried about how unsafe our streets have become, or having to navigate a never-ending web of red tape to get projects approved, a deep sense of helplessness has set in.

Over the past few years, Canada’s long slow decline has become the subject of an avalanche of scrutiny and by every measure of social well-being and economic competitiveness, Canada is coming up short among its global peers. Canada’s ability to generate opportunities and long-term prosperity for its people is now at serious risk.

But anyone reading the 9th budget of the Trudeau Government looking for some relief from the big challenges that Canadian families and entrepreneurs are facing, will come away sorely disappointed.

It seems that every day there is a new report telling Canadians what they already know – buying or staying in a home has never been harder in this country. Just last week, RBC reported that it is the ‘toughest time ever’ to afford a home and that the share of household income needed to cover ownership costs is now 64% in Canada and an almost inconceivable 106% in Vancouver and 85% in Toronto.

CMHC estimates that we need to build 800,000 homes a year between now and 2030 to meet demand, while CIBC says it’s closer to 1 million. Keep in mind that in 2023 we built about 230,000 new homes.

With the shortage of people across every part of our economy now acute, a central question asked by many is ‘who will build all these homes?’. Our labour markets are undergoing a seismic shift – absent immigration, our population is flat-lining and will start to decline. Indeed, in B.C., in 2022, for the first time ever, natural births exceeded natural deaths – and it happened again last year.

Part of the answer is immigration. However, our immigration system is failing us. Last year we added a city the size of Calgary to our national population, and we are on track to do the same in 2024. Two major challenges have emerged. First, we have failed miserably to assess the skills gaps in our economy – doctors, nurses, technicians, teachers and trades workers – and attract them to Canada. Case in point: only 2% of all permanent immigrants in 2023 will pursue a career in the construction trades. Second, the torrid pace of our population growth is crushing affordability and overwhelming the infrastructure in our major centres. In 2021 there was a total of 1.3MN non-permanent residents in Canada; today we have 2.6MN. We must find a better balance – attract the people with the right skills to power our economy and in numbers that our schools, hospitals, transit systems and housing stock can reasonably absorb.

Canada has a remarkable competitive advantage in its natural resources – energy and minerals in abundance and in high demand. And, harnessing them provides some of the highest paying jobs in the country. Budget 2024 offered barely a passing reference to this enormous potential for Canada. No one should be surprised. Leaders from Germany, Japan and Greece have visited Canada and received the diplomatic equivalent of a cold shoulder at the suggestion that Canada supply their economies with much needed energy. One federal minister stated that Ottawa is ‘not interested in funding LNG projects.’ He missed the point completely – no one was asking Ottawa to fund anything; they simply want Ottawa to get out of the way.

Finally, last year, the CD Howe Institute reported that for every dollar that an American business spends on training, technology and capital – the essential ingredients for innovation – a Canadian company invests 58 cents. Business investment in Canada from 2015 to 2023 ranked 44 out of the 47 most advanced economies, according to the OECD. This matters because the more innovative Canadian firms, the more they spend on upskilling their people and on adopting new technology, the more they can increase the size of paycheques for workers. Canada’s lagging productivity is to the point where the Deputy Governor of the Bank of Canada said, “You know those signs that say, ‘In an emergency, break the glass?’ Well, it’s time to break the glass.”

After reading the budget it’s hard not to come away with the feeling that Canada is not a serious country, and the Trudeau Government is incapable of addressing the big challenges facing the country.

Why do so many people feel like everything in this country is broken? Because so much is breaking all around us.

Chris Gardner is the President and CEO of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association.

The Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA), the largest construction association in Canada, represents more than 4,000 members and clients. ICBA is one of the leading independent providers of group health and retirement benefits in Canada, supporting nearly 170,000 Canadians, and the single largest sponsor of trades apprentices in B.C. ICBA is Merit Canada’s affiliate in B.C. and Alberta.

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Federal government remains intransigent on emissions cap despite dire warnings of harm

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From the Fraser Institute

By Kenneth P. Green

In the face of heavy opposition from Canada’s premiers to Prime Minister Trudeau’s carbon tax, one might have hoped that the prime minister would moderate some of his government’s extreme climate policies. But alas, on a recent swing through Alberta, he threw cold water on any hope of moderation.

When asked in a meeting with a who’s who of Alberta’s energy sector if he might drop the forthcoming cap on greenhouse gas emissions specific to the oil and gas industry, Trudeau reportedly replied “not a chance.” That’s a shame, because it was an opportunity for Canada (and Alberta) to dodge another bullet aimed at its economic heart, and an opportunity to reduce some of the rancor between the West and Ottawa.

And in fact, there are many good reasons to drop the GHG cap.

In a recent report, the Conference Board of Canada estimated oil and gas production cuts due to the cap would lead to a permanent decline in Canada’s real GDP of between 0.9 per cent (the report’s most likely outcome) to 1.6 per cent (its least likely outcome) relative to the baseline in 2030. Which means a loss of $22.8 billion to $40.4 billion in 2012 dollars. In Alberta, real GDP by between 3.8 per cent and 6.7 per cent (or $16.3 billion to $28.5 billion). These are devastating impacts, hand-waved away by the prime minister.

Moreover, the report estimates total employment declines nationally by between 82,000 and 151,000 in 2030. A large part of this unemployment will land in Alberta where the report estimates total employment in the province would decline by between 54,000 and 91,500 jobs. And between 2030 and 2040, employment in Alberta will be between 66,300 and 102,600 lower per year (on average). Again, these are huge economic damages disregarded by the prime minister.

Lastly, as shown in a 2023 study published by the Fraser Institute, even if the proposed cap achieved the emissions reductions government predicts, the reduction would equal four-tenths of one per cent of global emissions, a reduction unlikely to have any impact on the climate in any detectable manner, and hence, to offer only equally undetectable environmental, health or safety benefits.

The Conference Board report, and other studies of the likely high costs and non-existent climate benefits of the pending cap on oil and gas emissions, would offer cover for the prime minister if he backed away from what’s clearly an ill-considered climate policy poised to wreak massive economic harms to Canada, particularly in the West. Apparently, however, he’s unwilling to acknowledge reality and change course.

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