Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Canada's Debt and Deficit History

With the Harper Government about to unveil their latest budget, I wanted to look back at a bit of history.  As I did in the case of Ontario, this posting will examine the recent fiscal history of Canada to see how we ended up in a situation where Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is being forced to take measures that will finally reign in the federal government's overspending habits.  As was the case in yesterday's posting, I am sourcing my data from a TD Bank publication.

First, let's look at Canada's political history, listing Prime Ministers and their political party affiliation:

1980 to 1984 - Pierre Trudeau (Liberal)
1984 to 1984 - John Turner (Liberal)
1984 to 1993 - Brian Mulroney (Progressive Conservative)
1993 to 2003 - Jean Chretien (Liberal)
2003 to 2006 - Paul Martin (Liberal)
2006 to 2011 - Stephen Harper (Conservative - minority)
2011 to present - Stephen Harper (Conservative - majority)

Let's open by looking at a chart showing Canada's fiscal history since 1986 - 1987:

Out of the past 27 fiscal years, Canada has run a surplus for only 11 years or 41 percent of the time, with all of them but two under the leadership of Paul Martin as either Minister of Finance or Prime Minister.  Canada's best fiscal year was in 2000 - 2001 when the federal government ran a $19.891 billion surplus (those were the days!) and its worst fiscal year was in fiscal 2009 - 2010 when the federal government ran a $55.598 billion deficit, erasing all of the gains that had been made between fiscal 2001 - 2002 and 2007 - 2008 in one fell swoop.

Now, let's look at a graph showing how Canada's surplus/deficit history looks in graphical form, showing quite quickly how much of the time our federal government has spent living well beyond its means:

In this last graph, we'll see how Canada's net federal debt has grown since 1986: 

At first glance you'll notice a relatively rapid rise in the level of Canada's federal debt between 1986 and 1997, followed by a gradual decline which is then followed by a rise after 2008, similar to what was experienced in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  In the past two and a half decades, the debt has grown from $281.8 billion to $641.8 billion in fiscal 2011 - 2012, an increase of $360 billion or 127.8percent.  During the Martin era, the debt actually dropped from a peak of $609 billion in fiscal 1996 - 1997 to a low of $516.3 billion in fiscal 2007 - 2008, a drop of $92.7 billion or 15.2 percent.  However, under the guidance of Mr. Flaherty (and yes, I know that we needed some stimulus and tens of thousands of Economic Action Plan signs and television commercials to prevent an even deeper recession), the debt has grown by $116.6 billion or 22.2 percent in just four fiscal years.  That is quite clearly an unsustainable growth level and is particularly alarming given the world's current economic picture.

Unfortunately for Canada's economy, over the past six months, the news out of Europe has not been particularly uplifting.  The Eurozone is Canada's second most important trading partner after the United States, accounting for 10.5 percent of Canada's external trade, with Canadian exports to Europe reaching €20.1 billion in 2010.  This trade is dominated by high-value goods including machinery, chemicals and transport equipment, the type of exports that keep many Canadians working.  Since it appears that the Eurozone economy is flirting with recession, this will have a direct impact on Canada's economic growth and ultimately on Ottawa's corporate and personal tax revenue.

Let me sidetrack for one moment to put Canada's current situation into perspective based on something that Mr. Harper said when he was a Reform MP.  He was addressing the issue of Alberta Premier Ralph Klein's attempts to balance the province's budget and reduce debt.  Here is the quote:

"Although I can't speak of the details because it is not my area of expertise, what Mr. Klein is doing in Alberta is, in principle, what governments need to do.  He is taking a look at a situation that is unsustainable financially and he is taking the steps necessary through expenditure reductions to eliminate that financial uncertainty on a permanent basis within the life of a single Parliament.  That is the only way it ever gets done.  Any politician who says he is going to do it over two Parliaments is never going to do it.  That's the golden rule.  That's something that you can learn from Ralph Klein." (my bold)

Apparently, that's a lesson that has gone unlearned in the past four Conservative budgets.  I guess history can rewrite itself given enough time.

From all of this data, it is quite clear that, unless the Harper government changes its spending ways very, very soon, Canadian taxpayers could well find themselves stepping up to the plate and helping Ottawa fund its ever-rising and painful debt levels with higher taxes.  We could quite easily find ourselves in the same situation that we were in during the early part of the 1990s when interest rates peaked and our sovereign debt situation looked increasingly shaky.  Let's hope that our politicians in Ottawa exhibit behaviour that shows that they can be fiscally responsible for a change.  Perhaps this time, Mr. Harper will remember the importance of his "golden rule".


  1. It is no accident that a countries debts expand during conservative governments. It is simply wealth redistribution from the tax payers to the rich from whom the government borrows money. The Republicans (and I suspect Harper too) would like nothing more than to bankrupt the nation so they can eliminate all social safety nets.

    1. Are you for real?

    2. Agree, exactly what Ronald Reagan

    3. Funny this article and information starts at 1986 when it should have started at 1968. I think this was intentionally done as it would have shown that this mess was created by trudeau and the liberals. Canada had very little debt when trudeau took power (approx. 11 billion) but he ran deficits most years in power to grow the debt to over 200 billion. Because of this and his other policies the interest rate skyrocketed and the debt ballooned even further because of the tens of billions in interest. By 1986 it was out of control and kept getting worse until drastic measures were taken in the late 90s such as taking 40 billion from the public service, RCMP and military pension funds, over 50 billion from the unemployment insurance funds and cuts to the transfers to the provinces. If you go back and look at all the fiscal data objectively, starting with the trudeau years, you can clearly see where the blame lies!

  2. Isn't it odd that both of these Parties affiliate themselves with the small government mantra yet, they are generally responsible for an expansion in government spending?

  3. APJ, your ABC bias is showing through once again...

    ...This will be the first con budget with them as a majority. Remember that the liberals encouraged the Economic Action Plan back in 2008.

    The reason we are in this situation is because the elitist party of canada GAVE UP! Trudeau or Rae will never be a Paul Martin.

    Would you be here complaining if Harper pulled a 1991 Paul Martin move?

  4. But isn't the elephant in the room consumer debt? It stood at 134 billion in the early 80s'; today it stands at 1.5 trillion.

    And if provincial governments are limited by how much they can tax, what about consumers? Salaries will never rise fast enough. And when you consider that consumer spending is such a high (60%) part of GDP...

  5. It is little bit worrying to see all these numbers in one table because growth of the debt was really huge.
    On the other hand, it is important to look at them in broader context. Expansion of the debt in the last years was caused more by global recession than by conservative government. Yes, we can say that somebody else would have handled this situation better, but nevertheless, indebtedness of almost all countries in the world has increased during the recession regardless of political affiliation of their leaders.

  6. Is it possible to get the surplus / deficit for all years?

  7. In times of recession, I think Immigration numbers need to be reduced by 80% (because immigration costs at its current level cost 23 billion per year), and cut foreign workers program (a ridiculous number of nearly 200,000) needs to be reduced by 90% to ensure that Canadian employment is protected, and reduce defense spending by 75% (Canada doesnt really have enemies so why we spending 30 billion on it per year anyway?). Just by those 3 things, Canada can reduce its deficit by 50% or more. While i welcome immigration on a moderate level immigration during recessions are a burden.
    And on a side note, politician pay needs to be reduced by 20%, and politician pensions and benefits need to be reduced by 75% PERMANENTLY. And add things like an unhealthy food tax and healthy food rebate to reduce healthcare costs.
    Those things i mentioned could potentially bring Canada into a SURPLUS even in these "tough economic times".

    1. I don't think you understand immigration. Immigration allows Canadians to share there debt burden. Immigrants take low paying jobs and buy goods, consuming almost 100% of their income thus creating growth. Immigration is a net benefit to the economy, I don't know where you are getting cost of $23 billion/year. You are missing some facts or making up BS, look into it a bit more.

    2. Not sure where you are coming from, but the country ends up having to support a lot of immigrants through their social programs, although I'm not sure what the % is, I would venture to say that it is fairly high, in addition to things like using our health care system when they have not paid for it (not here long enough), etc.

  8. I was looking for some information on the impact the GST has had over the years when I found this post. Normally I ignore such things, but this exemplifies how partisan we have become as a people. To place such importance on a leader or political party is short sighted to say the least. To turn things around, I could say this:

    The debt rose over %1000 under Trudeau. Mulroney inherited a mess, and sacrificed her political party to implement the GST which played a large role in stabilizing Canadian financials. Cretien did a great job at managing the economy (with the help of the GST), but did so during boom years, when even the US was posting surpluses. Harper took over right before one of the worst financial crisis in history rocked the globe. Even so, under Harper Canada has weathered the storm better than any other country.

    Dislike Harper for his policies. Dislike him for tinkering with systems (such as EI) that are fine as they are. Please don't devalue the field of statistics any further by hand picking data and asserting a conclusion based on nothing more than the most basic correlation.

  9. When a government runs a deficit or surplus, it isn't a correlation. This is cause and effect. Decision and result.

    They table the budget. They vote it in. They are in direct control of taxation and spending. Sure, there are variables, but they choose how much time and effort is put into accurately forcasting the variables. They choose how to react to those variables. They sign the cheques. Deficits aren't random like rainclouds over wheat fields. We don't have to ask ourselves why they happen.

    They happen because someone decided to spend more money than they took in. I'm sure sometimes that's necessary, but I suspect it has more to do with priorities and competency. A certain federal party keeps trumpeting that they are the most competent and motivated party to reduce public debt, yet consistently provides the exact opposite result.

    The idea of right wing fiscal responsibility is a myth (or ancient history, if you feel charitable), yet it keeps getting trotted out every federal election.

    1. You're right in that it has a lot to do with priorities, and that will not change until the government finally realizes that we can't afford to keep being politically correct, just being too nice - it costs us big time! You know what they say about those people with money - they're stingy, but they will never be poor! Another problem, unfortunately, is the lack of any kind of a method by which to evaluation or measure the benefits of the programs that are in place - the government has been trying to get one in place for years, however, it's pretty hard when when programs are all so different... so, no good way to measure the benefit of one against the other... to be able to make solid priority decisions...

  10. Without putting things in context of the era, raw numbers and conclusions based on them are naive, misinformed, foolish. Who would not factor in the Great Depression, WW1, WW2 for analysis of economics of those eras? The later part of the Trudeau era, all the Mulroney era, first part of Chretien era, Harper era since 2008, were all times of major world economic downturns. The Harper big deficit of 09-10, looks really small compared to stimulus in the US, UK, and others, and hence is a major achievement for him.

    1. I would suggest you look at what you're saying on a per-capita basis.

    2. Silly people, you completely forget the Clinton inspired world wide meltdown (bank de regulation)and the Liberal led "coalition of losers" demanding Harper spend or they would over throw him and allow the Bloc the balance of power. Look Harper has driven up the debt 20% Obama 70% and McGuinty 100%. Harpers terrible unless you compare him to Liberals,. By the way Trudeau drove the debt up 1200% and in today's money that's a little over a trillion. Never mind the cost of a Liberal war, re-equipping the military paying the interest on 448 b debt and spending 54 billion on stimulus. Harper has done an excellent job.

  11. Very well said...

  12. Why not enter some honesty in here. First, you ignore Trudeau's mess that Mulroney inherited. Mulroney brought the federal government into a position where tax revenues were paying for program spending. With Trudeau's debt legacy, the federal government would have been in fiscal surplus.

    Second, why not publish deficits and debt as a share of GDP to take into account the impact of inflation and a growing economy? Of course, that would destroy your hypothesis.

    Finally, why not look at how Martin and Chretien didn't really balance the books, but simple slashed transfers to the provinces shifting their deficits to other levels of government. Harper is maintaining transfers and even increasing funding for health during this time of dire economic condition in Europe and the US.

  13. As Macleans notes, increasing debt is one result of reduced revenues (2013/03/21). The Harper agenda is clear; reduce taxes and reduce government size. It's been done inefficiently, though, so that our debt, and debt payment as percent of government expenditures, has grown. We are now beginning to see the effects of a persistent deflationary approach: deflation. No surprise. We have 3 options for growth: export raw goods, production of secondary goods, and consumer demand. The Harper government has focused on signalling "bad times" to the public, and they are beginning to take the hint: increased retirement age, increased education costs, decreased retirement security, reduced provincial transfer payment and therefore increased provincial taxes, increased barriers to housing ownership, decreased support for small business. Could the message be clearer? One leg of the stool has been kicked out. We'd better hope somebody else's economy recovers because we're dependent on it now. We've spent money with no return. That's called bad debt.

  14. You don't mention the debt, deficit, GDP to debt ratio left by Trudeau in 1984.

    I recollect the debt in 1984 after 15b years and 4 months as PM was 160 billion, the deficit was 42 billion with a 50% GDP to debt ratio (400 billion).

    During his tenure there was many worldwide events that caused inflation throughout the western world; Arab/Israeli six day war (1974), Arab oil embargo(1974), Parti Quebecois Election (1976), Iranian Revolution (1979). These were all beyond the control of the Canadian government.

    When Mulroney retired after 9 years as PM I recollect the same 42 billion dollar deficit, 650 billion dollar debt and a 70% GDP to debt ratio (1 trillion dollar economy). In 9 years he increased the debt from 160 billion to 650 billion (3 times) while only increasing the economy from 400 billion to 1 trillion (1.5 times)partly through free trade.

    During Mulroney's tenure we had great economic times (remember the yuppies?) and no world events beyond his control except for a blip in the stock market in October of 1987. His Governor of the Bank of Canada, John Crowe I(appointed 1987)was credited with creating the "Made in Canada" recession by keeping interest rates at usury levels that affected us more than the rest of the Western world.

    I think Trudeau is often overrated as a Tax and Spend Liberal and Mulroney is underrated for the economic mess he left us after only 9 years in office.

    1. You need a better memory.

      Prior to Harper the debt peaked in 1997, 4 years into Cretins reign at $563 Billion. What wasn't mentioned was Trudeau handed over control of our money supply in 1974 to third party lenders. It's a little tough to manage a $200 Billion dollar debt at >10% interest when you only have a $400 Billion GDP to draw from. While I agree that Crow was a problem, those interest rates were global and hit the entire western world at that time and rose to over 20%, which, when armed only with a $400 Billion GDP to work with, makes it pretty difficult to manage the debt and interest. Hence in the second term he delivered NAFTA and the GST to take advantage of the service sector growth.

      Cretin finally moved Crow out and interest rates dropped below 6% but Mulroney did most of the heavy lifting.

      Your "blip" - "Black Monday", the largest one day stock market crash - Oct. 19, 1987. The Dow lost 22.6% of it's value that day

  15. Ok the chart says million at thee top but this article quotes Billions. big difference here Mr.