In Brief: From Commons Committees to Senate hearings, from commentaries to research papers, AIMS was talking about fiscal imbalance before it became the hot topic at the first ministers’ table. As this article that appeared in newspapers across the country indicates, political and economic analysts are just now catching up on a topic AIMS helped bring to the national agenda.
OTTAWA — It’s a subject equally likely to inflame passions or make eyes glaze over.
However you feel about the reputed fiscal imbalance between the federal government and provincial treasuries, you’re going to be hearing a lot more about it in the weeks and months to come. Nine premiers and three territorial leaders were knocking at 24 Sussex Drive late Friday afternoon in what promises to be just the first of a long series of discussions with Prime Minister Stephen Harper over rebalancing the nation’s finances.
“I think we have to face the fact that Ottawa is rolling in tens of billions of dollars in surpluses,” the Conservative leader said during the election campaign, “at the same time as provinces and municipalities are having trouble meeting the essential core services without going into debt.”
It was a recognition welcomed both in the country’s richest and poorest provinces.
After an eight-year gusher of federal black ink, there’s consensus across a broad spectrum that Ottawa is taking in more revenue than it needs – overtaxing, in other words.
But that’s just about where agreement ends.
Should Harper transfer billions from federal coffers to provincial treasuries? Give tax points to the provinces? Or simply cut federal taxes and let other jurisdictions pick up the slack?
And what if the fiscal imbalance doesn’t really exist?
Convincing arguments have been made by a wide array of economists that the whole concept is a provincial myth.
“The provinces have the means to fix their fiscal problems and we see little reason why Ottawa should do the job for them,” Brian Crowley and Bruce Winchester, of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, argued in a submission to the Commons finance committee last February.
Their brief was particularly hard on Quebec, which has led the cries of fiscal imbalance for years.
The have-not province already gets favourable treatment on equalization and bloc transfers relative to most others, and has consistently spent more – in most cases much more – on its public sector than any other province over the past decade. As most provinces have scaled back public-sector expenditures relative to GDP, Quebec has not.
Two examples in the news today are Quebec’s expansive subsidized day-care program and its rock-bottom tuition fees, the lowest in Canada.
Winchester and Crowley call this “a perfectly legitimate democratic choice . . . . It is certainly not an argument for taxpayers in other parts of the country to subsidize that political choice.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Ontario, by far the largest contributor to Canada of any province, although second to Alberta on a per-capita measure.
Ontario trails many provinces in certain social-service indicators – such as hospital beds and nurses per capita – but has also sharply cut provincial income taxes.
A report by Ontario-government sponsored Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity argues that federal tax relief and business incentives are the answer.
Ottawa sending cash to have-not provinces has simply perpetuated the dependence cycle, the institute argues.
“The federal government has been spending much more of this ‘found’ (surplus) money in transfers to the provinces and other expenditures that consume current prosperity rather than investing in future prosperity or reducing taxes and debt,” Roger Martin, the institute’s chairman, said last year.
Currently, Quebec Premier Jean Charest and Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty are shoulder-to-shoulder on the idea of fixing the fiscal imbalance.
But can they agree on a common cure?
The simplest measure for Harper to address any perceived imbalance would be to sharply curtail Ottawa taxation and a leave it to provinces to fill the vacuum – if they dare.
As McGill University economist William Watson wrote last month in the National Post, “Harper had plenty of chances to argue that, but didn’t, during the marathon election campaign.
“If he tries it now, the provinces will balk. And if they do move into any tax field Ottawa vacates, taxpayers will balk.”
Expect to hear a lot more about the fiscal imbalance in coming months, whether it exists or not.