The Conservatives want to talk about how a budget is balanced

Many questions about five words Justin Trudeau said

Last month, shortly after the budget was tabled, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau appeared in a pair of television interviews in which he made the same basic comment on balancing the budget.

On CPAC, he was asked about how committed he would be to a balanced budget right now in the “current climate.” “The commitment needs to be a commitment to grow the economy and the budget will balance itself,” Mr. Trudeau responded. “This way they’re artificially fixing a target of a balanced budget in an election year and they’re going through all sorts of twists and turns and bends to try and get it just right and the timing just right and the announcement. And that’s irresponsible. What you need to do is create an economy that works for Canadians, works for middle class Canadians, allows young people to find jobs, allows seniors to feel secure in their retirement.”

On CTV, he was asked whether Liberals would be willing to put off a balancing the budget for the purposes of aiming to stimulate the economy. “If you grow the economy, the deficit will—the budget will balance itself. And that is the approach that they haven’t taken, because they’re working on an artificial timeline of wanting to balance the budget at all costs on an election year. And they’re going through some very difficult calisthenics and stretches to try to get there and that’s not in the interests of helping Canadians who are concerned.”

The Conservatives took particular interest in five of those words—”the budget will balance itself.” And now that phrase is the focus of a Conservative TV ad.

Mr. Trudeau’s sentence in its entirety—”grow the economy and the budget will balance itself”—is somewhat unnuanced, but if you cut it in half it can be made to seem particularly silly. And it just so happens that making Mr. Trudeau seem silly is a priority for the Conservative side.

But how silly was this statement?

If you take Mr. Trudeau’s statement as a suggestion that he believes no effort is ever required to manage the nation’s finances, then that statement seems pretty silly. On the other hand, if you take Mr. Trudeau’s statement as a suggestion that with normal economic growth the budget will return to balance—that, essentially, there is not currently a structural deficit—the statement seems slightly less than ridiculous.

If you wanted to be serious about this matter, you could ask various questions of each side.

Why has the government chosen to return the budget to surplus by 2015? How exactly is it planning to do so? Why are billions of dollars in spending cuts being made? Would the budget have eventually returned to balance with economic growth or are some of those cuts necessary to return the budget to balance? Does the government agree that it created a structural deficit? Are the cuts that are being made sustainable? Has Parliament been able to sufficiently scrutinize those cuts?

As for the opposition parties, are they committed to maintaining the government’s austerity plans? As Stephen Gordon has noted, the surpluses disappear if the government’s plans for restraint and savings aren’t implemented. Would they reverse any of the government’s cuts? In the long-term, does the federal government need more revenue to do what it should be doing? In the short-term, should the federal government be spending more at the risk of not balancing the budget by 2015?

Those are the questions you might ask if you want to have a conversation that lasts longer than 15 seconds.

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