Budgets? Who cares.
These days, voters mostly don’t.
Polls consistently show distrust about everything government does and says – including budgets like the one released by the Trudeau government earlier this week. It’s the boy-cries-wolf effect on a grand, fiscal scale: citizens have been lied to so many times, they increasingly tune budgets out.
It’ll be noteworthy, in fact, if details about Chrystia Freeland’s 2023 budget are remembered by most folks by this time next week. If a majority of voters can recall a single salient factoid about this week’s federal budget – Freeland making some cuts, Freeland raising taxes (she actually did both) – it’ll be a political miracle.
Why? Because citizens simply don’t believe budgetary statements anymore. And not just in Canada. In Western democracies, everywhere, budgets are falling victims to what experts call the “fiscal illusion.”
Keynesian types say “fiscal illusion” is created by some governments, and how they deal with ballooning debt. The creation of too much debt – and the Trudeau regime are recognized experts at that – can, sometimes, stimulate the economy. Yes. But that’s all short-term.
The Trudeau approach creates a momentary illusion of prosperity, and thereby boosts consumer spending. But, sooner or later, the debt has to be paid – and that’s why Trudeau-style budgets are a fiscal illusion.
There are other reasons why Freeland’s budget won’t instill confidence. Here’s five.
- What’s in a billion? A pollster once told this writer 40 per cent of Canadians don’t know how many million are in a billion. Even if that’s an exaggeration – and it may not be, by much – one thing is true: most of us have never held a billion of anything. Which tells you that governments (and corporations) are literally expressing debts, deficits and dollars in a way that most folks don’t comprehend. So they tune it out.
- It’s never right. Going back to the Jean Chrétien/Paul Martin era – which was the last time, notably, that Ottawa actually made the cuts that needed to be made – the numbers that seep out of the Department of Finance, pre-budget, are often wrong. Martin turned this strategy into an art form – ensuring his budget day numbers would look better than the pre-budget leaks. After a few years of this sleight-of-hand, however, media and citizens tended not to believe any of the figures coming out of Finance.
- Too much, too often. For years, federal budgets have tried to reach too many different audiences too often. And when you have 1,000 different messages, you don’t have any messages at all. It’s simply too much for the average voter to comprehend. So, voters regard all of it as data smog and carry on with their day. Simplicity, repetition and volume work (ask Donald Trump). But too many federal budgets are too complex and convoluted.
- Consensus is gone. During the pandemic, many bad things happened.One of them was the collapse of consensus about certain basic truths – ie., public health is good, vaccines work, etc. The same phenomenon is at work with budgets: there too many opinions being offered, too often, by too many “experts” that are completely contradictory. Post-budget media coverage accordingly becomes a communications traffic jam. So, citizens choose not to believe any of it.
- It’s all B.S. As noted above – that Trudeaupian economics is based on a fiscal illusion – the one unassailable truth about budgets is this: there is no truth in budgets. Voters have been spun, or flat-out lied to, so many times that the budgetary credibility gap is bigger than Canada’s debt – by the time you read this, about $1,215,000,000,000 according to the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation. It doesn’t matter which party is in power anymore: an estimated 75 per cent of Canadian voters say they don’t believe in what governments say or do.
And that is the biggest problem of all: truth. For most of us, we don’t think budgets contain much. Debt and deficits, yes. Truth? Not so much.
Sorry, Chrystia Freeland. But it’s the truth.
Kinsella was Special Assistant to Jean Chretien