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For the first time in 12 years, government debt costs will surpass GST revenue

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Projections from budget 2024 show both revenues from the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and public debt charges match each other at $54.1 billion this year. This means that the 5-percent GST will simply to cover the government’s debt-servicing costs. This marks the first year since 2011 that GST revenues will be the same or less than public debt charges. 

The federal government’s debt interest payments have skyrocketed in recent years. They were just $20 billion in 2020-21. But this year they’re projected to hit $54 billion and reach as high as $64.3 billion before the end of the decade. 

Still, the Liberal government’s budget and its proponents have rightly emphasized that although public debt charges have risen significantly in absolute terms, they remain low in relative terms. For instance, at about 1.8 percent of GDP today, they’re far lower than they were in the 1980s and 1990s when they hit as high as 6.5 percent. 

While these debt-servicing costs are manageable, they do come with opportunity costs for the government. Scarce public dollars must be dedicated to servicing past debt, rather than, for example, investing in the country’s long-term productivity capacity. 

In the coming years, the government estimates that GST revenues won’t even fully cover its swelling public debt charges. In 2028-29, for instance, the GST is projected to generate $61 billion in revenue. Meanwhile, public debt charges will reach $64 billion. 

A historical look at the relationship between GST revenues and public debt charges shows that GST revenues have consistently exceeded public debt charges for the past decade by an average of around $11 billion per year.

The Trudeau government keeps blowing past its own spending projections

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Yesterday’s budget continues a Trudeau government forecasting tradition: its projected program expenses keep exceeding those of past budgets. 

Since COVID-19, the federal government’s budgets have cumulatively upwardly revised program spending projections in a major way. Between budgets 2021 and 2024, program spending projections for the three fiscal years between 2022-23 and 2024-25 were consistently revised upwards by a cumulative amount of $142.8 billion. 

This included an increase between budgets 2021 and 2022 for projected year 2025-26 by as much as $26.4 billion. In the three years between the 2021 and 2024 budgets, projected program spending for year 2025-26 rose by $69.6 billion.

Program expenses represent total government spending on programs and services. Federal program spending includes transfer payments to provinces for healthcare and social services, transfers to individuals and families, and other federal programs. It doesn’t include public debt charges.

Over the past near-decade, the Trudeau government has significantly increased program spending. This year for instance program expenses are projected to be $480.5 billion compared to $248.7 billion in the final year of the Harper government.

The Trudeau government’s program spending projections have consistently changed budget-over-budget in an upward direction. Take the current year, 2024-25, for instance. The 2021 budget projected program expenses would be $414.4 billion. The 2022 budget then revised the projection upwards to $439.2 billion. Last year’s budget adjusted it up to $463.3 billion. Yesterday’s budget put it at $480.5 billion. That amounts to a $66 billion increase (or 16 percent) within four budgets.

Each dotted line in the graph above represents the projected expenses across the Trudeau government's eight budgets. The solid line shows real program expenses reported in each annual budget. (The major spike is due to pandemic-related spending.) As each year’s budget projects higher program expenses than the previous budget, the dotted lines become progressively higher.

The trend described above for the current fiscal year is evident in other years as well. Take next year, 2025-26. Budget 2021 projected program spending to be $426.7 billion. Budget 2022 increased the projection to $453.1 billion. Budget 2023 revised it upward to $475.9 billion. Today, the latest budget now puts next year's program expenses at $496.3 billion. That amounts to a nearly $70 billion increase (or 16.3 percent) in the government's own projections for a single year.

“There is a very significant, measurable, empirical shift from a smaller government under both the Conservatives and the [previous] Liberals…to today,” says Ian Lee, professor in the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University, referring to the previous government of prime minister Stephen Harper and the Liberal governments of prime minister Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin lasting from 1993 to 2006. 

David Gray, professor of economics at the University of Ottawa, gives the government some grace, partially attributing the sizable revisions to program expense projections to the post-pandemic transition and the cost of a growing population.

However, he says the Trudeau government should take a page from the Chrétien government's playbook. During Canada's fiscal recovery in the 1990s, that government would project almost too conservatively.

“It was almost the mirror image of what we’re seeing here,” said Gray. The result, he describes, was a perceived surplus and a more favourable trading environment for Canada.  

Correction: The original version of this article stated that Ian Lee was a professor of public policy at Carleton University. He is in fact a professor at the university's Sprott School of Business.