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Jake Fuss: The Trudeau government’s terrible economic record can’t be brushed aside

Commentary

As the federal Parliament returned this week, there’s been a renewed debate about the Trudeau government’s economic record and the state of Canada’s economy relative to its peers. A comprehensive evaluation—including key metrics such as investment, income growth, and living standards—demonstrates an overall record of economic stagnation. 

Recall that the Trudeau government was first elected in 2015 based in part on a new approach to government policy, which promised to boost Canada’s economy through a combination of temporary borrowing to finance a limited increase in government spending, lower taxes for most Canadians (except higher-income earners), and a more active approach to economic development. After eight years in office, the government has not only failed to live up to its promises to reduce taxes and limit borrowing, but its overall mix of policies has contributed to the country’s poor economic outcomes. 

A policy agenda of rising spending, taxes, deficits, and debt 

Start with program spending. Since taking office, the Trudeau government has greatly increased federal spending (excluding interest costs) from $256.3 billion in 2014-15 (the year before it took office) to $448.2 billion in 2022-23—an increase of 74.9 percent. After adjusting for inflation, the Trudeau government has recorded the five highest years of federal spending per person in Canadian history. Put differently, it has spent significantly more than past governments did during the Second World War or the 2008 financial crisis or other emergencies in the country’s history. Post-COVID levels of spending have still not returned to pre-COVID levels. 

Most of this spending growth has been deficit-financed. The government has recorded eight consecutive deficits and its latest fiscal projections anticipate more deficits for at least the next six years. This deficit spending has come with a big cost. Not only has it led to the accumulation of nearly $1 trillion in new federal debt, but it’s come with rising interest payments that are paid through tax dollars. Federal debt servicing payments currently stand at $46.5 billion in 2023-24 which amounts to more than one in every ten dollars of federal revenue. 

For perspective, federal interest payments now represent more than total spending on childcare benefits (Canada Child Benefit and $10-a-day daycare) and almost the same amount as Ottawa provides the provinces through the Canada Health Transfer (figure 1). 

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

Tax increases have also been used to finance growing federal spending. In 2016, the federal government increased the top personal income tax from 29 percent to 33 percent which now means that the combined top personal income tax rate (federal and provincial) exceeds 50 percent in eight provinces (with the remaining provinces only slightly below 50 percent). In 2022, Canada had the fifth highest top tax rate out of 38 OECD countries. 

And while the Trudeau government reduced the second lowest personal income tax rate, it has also eliminated several tax credits that have offset the tax savings. According to our estimates, the net effect is that 86 percent of middle-income families are paying higher personal income taxes than they did before. 

Lower-income families have also seen an increase in their tax bills. Specifically, 60 percent of families who are in the bottom 20 percent of earners are paying more in personal income taxes following the changes made by the current government. 

An economy in stagnation 

The political debate cited earlier is fundamentally at its core about whether the Trudeau government’s policy agenda has produced positive or negative outcomes. The evidence is pretty clear: it has led to stagnation rather than greater prosperity for Canadians. 

The broadest measure of living standards is GDP per person (adjusted for inflation over time), which calculates the total value of all goods and services produced in the economy in a given year on a per-person basis. In the pre-pandemic period between 2016 and 2019, growth in per-person GDP (inflation-adjusted) was an anemic 0.9 percent. One study in fact found that Canada’s per-person GDP growth from 2013 to 2022 (0.8 percent) was the weakest on record since the 1930s (figure 2).  

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

Since the Trudeau government was first elected there’s been 32 quarters with data on per-person GDP growth (up to the third quarter of 2023). For thirteen of those quarters, Canada experienced negative per-person GDP growth adjusted for inflation, including before and after the pandemic. Moreover, the latest numbers show that we haven’t recovered to peak pre-pandemic levels—inflation-adjusted per person GDP in 2023 was still 2.2 percent below the levels in the second quarter of 2019. 

Overall, inflation-adjusted GDP per person has only grown by 1.9 percent since 2015.  The United States, by contrast, grew by 14.7 percent during the same timeframe. 

Prospects for the future, given current policies, are not encouraging. Not only are we falling behind our most important trading partner, but the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) projects that Canada will record the lowest rate of per-person GDP growth among 32 advanced economies from 2020 to 2030 and from 2030 to 2060. Countries such as Estonia, South Korea, and New Zealand are expected to vault past Canada and achieve higher living standards by 2060.

A key source of this disappointing performance on living standards is our declining business investment. Business investment (inflation-adjusted), excluding residential construction, declined by 16.3 percent between 2014 and 2022, or by 1.9 percent on average annually. 

One way to think about the consequences of declining business investment is to compare investment per worker between Canada and the U.S. According to a 2023 study, between 2014 and 2021, business investment per worker (inflation-adjusted, excluding residential construction) decreased by $3,676 (to $14,687) in Canada compared to growth of $3,418 (to $26,751) in the U.S. (figure 3). Put differently, in 2014, Canadian businesses invested 79 cents per worker for every dollar invested in the United States. By 2021, that level of investment had declined to just 55 cents per worker. 

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

The flow of funds into Canada by foreigners compared to the outflow of investment by Canadians to other countries tells a similar story. In 2008, the two levels were roughly comparable—$65.7 billion in foreign direct investment in Canada versus $84.6 billion in investment by Canadians outside of the country. A big shift started in 2015 (figure 4) and by 2022, the foreign direct investment in Canada ($64.6 billion) was significantly lower than Canadian investment abroad ($102.3 billion). 

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

There are various explanations for the decline in business investment. Some may reflect broader global developments but many stem from government policy itself. 

Since 2015, the federal government has implemented a series of policies that have cumulatively harmed the country’s investment environment—particularly for the energy sector. Bill C-69, which instituted a complex and burdensome assessment process for major infrastructure projects, and, Bill C-48, which prohibits producers from shipping oil or natural gas from British Columbia’s northern coast, are two examples. 

These policy choices have had tangible negative effects on projects such as the Northern Gateway pipeline, the Energy East pipeline, the Mackenzie Valley pipeline, Teck Resources’ proposed Frontier oilsands mine in Alberta, and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. It’s no surprise therefore that investment in the Canadian oil and gas sector fell from $95.5 billion in 2014 to $35.1 billion in 2023 (adjusted for inflation)—a drop of 63.2 percent. 

More recent policy proposals, including forthcoming regulations on electricity production, clean-fuel standards, single-use plastics, and a hard cap on GHG emissions in the oil and gas sector, will only further weaken investment in Canada. While there are many contributing factors behind energy investment, Canada’s unattractive policy environment must be understood as a major deterrent.

In the “Canada-US Energy Sector Competitiveness Survey 2023,” senior executives in Canada’s petroleum industry pointed to uncertainty regarding environmental regulations, as well as duplicative and inconsistent regulations, as deterrents to investment. Indeed, 68 percent of respondents for Canada are deterred by the uncertainty concerning environmental regulations, and 54 percent of respondents are discouraged by regulatory duplication and inconsistencies. Less than half of American respondents were deterred by those same factors in their jurisdictions. 

As for Canada’s labour market, the top-line numbers hide some concerning trends. For example, between February 2020 (when the pandemic began) and June 2023, private-sector job creation (net) was fairly weak at 3.3 percent compared to 11.8 percent job growth in the government sector (figure 5). 

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

Another concern is the labour force participation rate is declining because of the country’s aging population. Since 2014, Canada’s labour force participation rate has decreased from 66.3 percent to 65.6 percent. As the population ages, Canada’s labour force will continue to shrink and cause the unemployment rate to be lower than it otherwise would be with stable participation rates. For perspective, there are 3.0 million Canadians aged 15 to 24 in the labour force compared to 3.5 million Canadians aged 55 to 64, which represents a ratio of 0.87—down from 0.97 in 2014. 

Declining participation rates, rising government sector employment, and weak private sector job growth do not equate to strong labour market performance including the conditions for sustainable, market-driven income gains. 

As an example, median total income (inflation-adjusted) for couples with children grew at a compound annual rate of 1.3 percent between 2015 and 2021 (latest year of available data). But if one backs out transfers from government, income gains in the form of employment-based wages and salaries are much weaker. In 2014, government transfers accounted for 6.7 percent of total income for couples with children. In 2021, they represented 11.8 percent of their total income (figure 6). 

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

It must be remembered that an increase in government transfers has been financed by government debt. It leads to basic questions about its sustainability since, presumably, the resulting public debt increases will need to be paid for through future tax increases or spending reductions at a later date. 

A better measure of income growth for Canadian families therefore is to look at the income of households before taxes and government transfers, referred to as market income. As shown in the table below, median market income for couples with children has grown by a meagre compound annual rate of 0.6 percent between 2015 and 2021. For perspective, the growth rate in median market income from 2005 to 2014 was almost triple (1.7 percent). As another point of comparison, government transfers for couples with children have grown at a compound annual rate of 13.6 percent during the Trudeau government’s time in office. 

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

Median employment incomes for individuals in Canada trail our American counterparts by a significant margin. In an analysis that compares 141 metropolitan areas in Canada and the U.S., the authors found only two Canadian cities in the top half of the overall rankings. The performance of Toronto is particularly concerning, as the median employment income in Canada’s most populous metropolitan area ranked 127th among the 141 jurisdictions analyzed. Vancouver and Montreal ranked 131st and 134th, respectively. 

Median employment income for Torontonians and Montrealers is nearly $20,000 below those of individuals in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area, whereas Vancouverites trail Seattle residents by nearly $24,000. 

The upshot of all of these facts and figures is that Canada’s economy across a wide range of metrics—including GDP growth, business investment, and incomes—is stagnant or even declining and that government policy has played a key role in these disappointing outcomes.

The first step in solving any problem is to admit that there is a problem. The evidence is clear: it’s time for federal policymakers to quit pretending we’re on the right track.

‘Pay attention to the basic needs of Canadians’: The best comments from Hub readers this week

Commentary

Dynamic discussions were had in Hub Forum this week as January ended and February began. Readers spent their time discussing pressing economic issues in Canada, how Pierre Poilievre might govern, Canada Pension Plan funding, as well as debating the big question: is Canada broken?

The goal of Hub Forum is to bring the impressive knowledge and experience of The Hub community to the fore and to foster open dialogue and the competition of differing ideas in a respectful and productive manner. Here are some of the most interesting comments from this past week.

Sign up for our daily Hub Forum email newsletter today.

Six charts that set the stage for Parliament’s return

Monday, January 29, 2024

“The charts highlighting our nation’s declining economic output are depressing enough. In the waning days of their coalition, though, the only chart catching the attention of the two parties that put us in this pickle is their sagging polling numbers.”

— RJKWells

Canada really is broken right now

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

“As I write in the article, obviously judgements about whether Canada ‘is broken’ are inherently subjective. But one does get the sense that there’s a broad-based view that something seems off. That the country’s economic and social conditions aren’t quite what we’ve come to expect. There are various factors behind this and it would be wrong to lay the blame solely at the feet of the Trudeau government. But it’s axiomatic in politics that governments claim credit for good outcomes and then try to absolve themselves of responsibility for bad ones. Polling suggests that Canadians believe that Ottawa is disproportionately responsible for today’s economic challenges. If one believes that we’re in the midst of a ‘lost decade,’ we need to be focused on how we get out of it.”

Sean Speer (editor-at-large at The Hub)

“I want a politics that has big and bold policy prescriptions because, at some point in time, we forgot that effective politics, and governing, means you’re going to annoy some part of the population to govern effectively for the vast majority. We need both incentives and penalties to get there.

It’s time for a politics that is bold and optimistic because lord knows, you don’t beat malaise by sitting around in a circle and complaining about how broken everything is. We have a culture problem as much as we have a policy and government problem.”

— A Gen Z Subscriber

“I still think we are pretty lucky to live in such a great country—plenty to fix but doomsday thinking is not that useful. Polarizing one another is like poison. We should have different opinions and there should be more space for debate (not just yelling & spitting out one-liners). Canada still ranks high in many waysone of the best countries in the world, very safe, stable economy, plenty of resources, reasonable inflation compared to many countries, longer life expectancy, and yes lower cost of living than many countries.

So much more we could be doing and maybe we need more grassroots think tanks. Maybe we all need to hold our politicians (regardless of party) to account when they lie and twist facts.
So much more to be done if we could start off by listening to one another with robust discussions.”

— Cathy

“The question is not whether Canada is broken. The question is, can it still be fixed?”

— Jim R

“I agree with your assessment. Pay attention to the basic needs of Canadians and give us the opportunity to do meaningful work.”

Anne Phillips

How would Poilievre govern?

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

“Canada hasn’t had an effective opposition party for many years…so someone actually performing the role of presenting a cogent alternative is startling to many people and very threatening to a lot of interests that are benefiting from crony politics. Canada by all measures is suffering and they alone call for a new set of ideas and approaches.”

— John Williamson

“Converting slogans into effective policy is rarely as straightforward as Mr. Poilievre tends to suggest, and he needs to be perhaps a bit more circumspect in this regard.

As one example, I’d look at his housing policy suggestions: ‘build homes, not bureaucracy’. Great slogan. But most of the bureaucracy involved is at the municipal level, while some are at the provincial levelnot within the federal wheelhouse.

Mr. Poilievre lays out an approach that would ‘reward’ cities that met specific housing start numbers, and punish those that fell short. Yet he is also on record as wanting to be more respectful of jurisdictional boundaries than the current government. With regard to his housing policy, it seems hard to square one policy position with the other.

The sad reality is that our current housing situation results from decades of government fumbling and myopia. The disparity between house prices and income began in the early 2000’s and has continued, unabated, through four federal administrations, including under P.M. Harper. While the Trudeau government has managed to turbo-charge things with increased immigration during a period of (now reversed) extremely low-interest rates may be the icing on the cake, the problem long predates this specific policy fumble. Unfortunately, it is not a problem that will see a quick reversal. So Mr. Poilievre might want to be just a bit more cautious about positioning around this issue.”

— David Foster

“It is totally reasonable that the opposition party does not put out a platform until part of an election process. Conservatives that are being pushed by the press on what cuts they will make, or where is your climate policy should be aggressive in their response that no opposition party puts out their platform until election time. Also, their response to (you did this or didn’t do that) needs also to be simplethat was then, this is now and things have changed significantly.”

— Al Raftis

Should we spend some of Canada’s CPP funds?

Thursday, February 1, 2024

“With all the taxes this current government collects, there shouldn’t be any need for them to touch any funds within the CPP. Furthermore, legislation should be put in place to keep any opportunity from government to utilize any money within CPP.”

— Arthur

“If there is such a surplus, I would look first at how many middle to low-income Canadians need more future retirement and look to benefits before the other suggestions.”

— Lloyd Posno

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau address his national caucus during a winter caucus retreat on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.
All hail Canada’s aristocratic overlords

Friday, February 2, 2024

“The current immigration policy, or lack thereof, has put an unrealistic strain on the availability of housing, health care, and infrastructure.”

— Kim Morton

“‘Neofeudalistic’ is really just good old-fashioned inequality. It is a guaranteed outcome in political systems that allow wealth to garner political power, even democratic ones. It snowballs as more wealth begets ever more disproportional political power.

This is just an ongoing extension of those with wealth incrementally and steadily and legally rigging the game ever in their favor, despite tragically being against their own long-term self-interest.”

Paul Attics