Kelly McParland: Trudeau and Morneau need a plan to stop spending

Someone has to tell Justin Trudeau it’s time to stop the cash free-for-all.

For more than 50 days the prime minister has held daily briefings at which he avoids answering direct questions while unveiling the latest plans for blanketing the country with borrowed money.

In the early days of the pandemic there was a certain logic to this. No one was quite sure what we were facing, how serious it would prove to be or how long it would last. The economy looked to be in serious danger of cratering. Millions of jobs were at risk. Unprecedented measures were needed.

Now, into our third month, we have a better grasp of the situation. Far from perfect, but better. Several provinces are already moving into a cautious reopening. Yet the prime minister is still turning up at every opportunity to distribute new largesse hither and yon.

Sometimes it’s only a few hundred million. Other times it’s a billion or so. Occasionally it’s tens of billions. Often there’s little evident rhyme or reason to the numbers or the recipients. And there’s no sign Trudeau is prepared to stop. His approval ratings have soared as the spending piles up. A chart in The Economist this week indicated he’s the world’s second-most popular leader, just behind Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison (who just a few months ago was being heckled in public for vacationing while the country burned). No surprise that he wants to keep spending, but still, it’s time to quit.

Last week Ontario police stopped an 18-year-old who’d been clocked at more than 300 kph in his father’s car. That’s a tragedy just waiting to happen, and the problem with tragedies is they can’t be walked back for another try. Trudeau’s spending takes the same approach: the money, like the car, isn’t his, but he’s spending it with little thought for the consequences or the future. The kid in the car had another teen with him. In Trudeau’s case we’re the passenger, stuck with whatever mistakes his actions land us.

Don’t expect Morneau to suggest his boss pull back on the binge

Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux says his estimate of a $252-billion deficit was “optimistic” and the shortfall could be $300 billion. The debt could pass $1 trillion. Economists and financial pundits say Canada can afford it because interest rates are really low right now. But $300 billion doesn’t get chipped away over night. It takes decades, and the last time economists accurately forecast interest rates 10 years out, much less 25 or 30, was … never. How many financial experts predicted a virus started by bats would sweep the world?

But the prime minister is clearly not keen to stop. On Thursday “fish harvesters” got $469 million, because “you can’t harvest lobster from inside your house.” (He didn’t mention that, despite 70,000 unemployed New Brunswickers, lobster processors can’t fill job openings created by restrictions on foreign workers. Why bother when Ottawa is sending $2,000 a month to stay home?) Before that it was $962 million for regional development agencies to sprinkle among small businesses that weren’t already getting money from CERB or LEEFF or CEWS or any of the other big-money programs. And last week’s big announcement: $2.5 billion to be sent off in $300 or $500 dollops to seven million seniors.

The only requirement is that a recipient must be eligible for the Old Age Security payment, or, for the larger amount, the Guaranteed Income Supplement. That means anyone 65 or over who spent most of their life in Canada. You don’t even have to apply. No doubt there are many seniors who could use the help, but rather than limit the money to those who need it, Ottawa is spraying it all across the landscape. Retired corporate chieftains fatted with stock options will get it. Thousands of public employees living on secure, generous pensions with cost of living allowances will get it. Former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, who already rates a government pension of $140,000, has billed over $1 million in expenses since her tenure ended and once spent $4 million on a single tour, no doubt qualifies. Paul Martin, perhaps the wealthiest man ever to serve as Canada’s leader, presumably has his OAS payments clawed back because his income is so high, but can still look forward to an easy $300 in the mail. Tax free.

So determined is Ottawa to borrow and spend that officials have been told to ignore instances of obvious fraud in applications for benefits. Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau say they’ll get around to cheats later. An update from Morneau’s department reveals it doesn’t even know how much one of the biggest programs — the Large Employer Emergency Financing Facility — will cost. And the fact applications for another of the headline programs, the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, are a small fraction of the number expected, hasn’t curbed Ottawa’s enthusiasm. In fact, the prime minister says it will be extended.

Don’t expect Morneau to suggest his boss pull back on the binge. Since the 2015 election Morneau has happily blown through every spending cap he set for himself. He acknowledged last week that someone, sometime will have to “face up” to unspecified “challenges,” but that too, is being put off. Trudeau won’t even commit his government to a rough outline of a fiscal strategy. They’ll just keep playing it by ear.

This has gone beyond alarming. It passed scary some time ago. Someone has to tell Trudeau to stop.

National Post

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