By 2015, Harper will have shrunk government to smallest size in 50 years

Posted on November 19, 2013 in Governance Policy Context – news/politics
Nov. 18 2013.   Bill Curry

By the time of the 2015 campaign, Conservatives will have shrunk the federal government to its smallest size in over 50 years.

This milestone accomplishment is buried deep in the pile of fiscal numbers released over the past few weeks. As a percentage of the economy, federal taxes are now at their lowest levels in decades.

Government spending is on a similar path and is projected to hit a record low two years from now.

Finance Canada tracks government revenue as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, with comparable data going back as far as 1958. It is a better measure than using dollar amounts when comparing historical trends because it accounts for inflation and economic growth.

In that entire period, the most recent year is the lowest level ever recorded for government revenue at 14.1 per cent of GDP. It was 16 per cent in 2006-07, the first full year under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Total expenses hit a record low of 14.8 per cent in 2008-09 as the recession hit. Spending spiked to 17.7 per cent of GDP the next year because of stimulus, but the recent economic update forecasts a new record low of 14.3 per cent in 2015-16.

For such a significant change in policy, it has received surprisingly little attention. For fiscal conservatives, statistical proof of record low taxes can be trumpeted as a central accomplishment.

For those who see a broader role for government in the lives of Canadians, the data could bolster arguments that Ottawa’s current tax levels are outside the historical norm and could be raised to cover new spending. It could also translate into calls for future surpluses to be spent on programs rather than tax cuts.

Raising taxes is a tough sell in politics, which means the Conservatives have slowly and steadily tied their opponents’ hands.

“It’s a very interesting story and one that I suspect a lot of people are completely unaware of,” said Brian Lee Crowley, who monitors historical spending patterns as managing director of the Macdonald Laurier Institute, a fiscally conservative think tank. He credits Liberal finance minister Paul Martin for starting a trend of more sustainable spending that the Conservatives continued until the 2008 recession temporarily knocked the trend lines off course.

“Until the recession, we were on track to actually have a smaller federal government in Ottawa than America has in Washington, which is something that’s not been seen in 50 years,” he said. “I’d like to say that we have basically a strong political consensus now. We’ve had Liberal and Conservative governments pursue these policies almost without interruption now for basically 20 years and the payoff for Canada has been huge.”

The government’s response to the 2008 recession obscured the longer term trends that were locked in before the recession hit.

There are several factors behind the lower revenue, including the Conservative government’s decision to lower the Goods and Services Tax from 7 per cent to 5 per cent, the seven-point drop in the corporate tax rate from 22 per cent to 15 per cent and lower personal income taxes.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has mused about reversing the corporate tax cut. Liberals, meanwhile, were highly critical of the Conservative GST cut, but have not campaigned on raising the GST in subsequent elections.

Using Finance Canada’s year-end tables and budgets, here’s how key sources of tax revenue have changed between 2006-07 and 2012-13:

Labour economist Jim Stanford of Unifor said Canadians are increasingly aware that smaller government and tax cuts come with consequences, such as less generous transfers for health care.

“I think the Conservatives have signaled quite clearly they’re going to channel the surplus into more tax cuts,” he said. “In that regard, I think the next election will be a pretty fundamental choice: Do we want to pay less taxes and get less back for it, or do we want to shore up the programs that are important to our quality of life?”

Bill Curry covers finance in Ottawa. 

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12 Responses to “By 2015, Harper will have shrunk government to smallest size in 50 years”

  1. Zak says:

    It’s better to look at spending in nominal terms

  2. […] science-related spending are particularly egregious, they extend into other areas, as well. As reported by the Globe & Mail4, the Harper administration plans to shrink the government to its smallest size in 50 years by […]

  3. K- says:

    Wow, some of these follow-up comments. Apparently wanting to take care of the mentally ill makes you a “raging socialist”, and apparently Canada’s health care is “bloated” and “full of waste”, despite every piece of data showing that the US system of entirely-private healthcare is more wasteful.

  4. John says:

    @Courtney Anderson
    We know exactly what’s at stake, less money for government which wastes billions of dollars, and more money for those who earn it. Canadian Health care is nothing to be proud of, it is a dysfunctional, inefficient and bloated bureaucracy full of waste. You are missing the big picture. Welfare programs have not solved poverty, nor achieve income equality – they have only served to take away the incentive for people to work and have created the cycle of poverty. They create dependency on society. The poorest people in free market systems are better off than anybody in a socialist systems.
    Socialism failed everywhere in the world it has been tried – U.S.S.R., China, North Korea, Cuba and many others. Socialism requires a free market system in order to exist in the same way as a parasite requires a host.
    The trade-off that you and other Socialists prefer is to give up freedom for income equality. Without freedom, there is no life.

  5. David says:

    Government workers(mid to upper end employees-because the workers low on the totem pole are under paid)need to have their pay cut and future pension packages have to be amended.

  6. Tony Van Eyk says:

    @Courtney Anderson

    You said: ” … because cutting taxes means having less revenue for social programs such as health care, education, and pension plans.”

    Given that over 75% of expenditures here are for wages, I think we need to start talking about maintaining services by – wait for it – cutting your wages. The eco-rapacity of various gov’t sector unions, professional monopolies, and State sanctioned blackmail must come to a quick end.

    You also said: “It is my opinion that many people want tax cuts only because they see the extra money in their pocket-book – there is little realization of what is being lost.”

    I think Canadians realize what is being lost, but I think they would prefer maintaining service levels by ending your annual pay increases.

  7. […] in Canadian society, as well as the use of scientific evidence in making policy. According to an analysis by Bill Curry published by the Globe and Mail, the Harper government will reduce the size of the […]

  8. […] by the contempt the Conservatives have for anyone or anything that might question their vision of a smaller government in which public service employees merely execute the missions assigned to them by elected […]

  9. […] par les ténors conservateurs pour tout ce qui pourrait remettre en question leur vision d’un état canadien amoindri dans lequel les employés de la fonction publique sont relégués au rôle d’exécuteurs des […]

  10. Timmy says:

    @Courtney Anderson
    i was going to write a proper response to you but you come off as a raging socialist so there is no point.

  11. Consider Canada’s mental health strategy…or Canada’s lack of a mental health strategy. Canada spends less than 6% of its health care dollars on mental health, even though mental illness comprises about 15% of the burden on the health care system (1). Mental illness costs Canada approximately $51 billion per year due to health care costs and lost productivity (1) . In any given week, an estimated 500,000 Canadians are unable to work due to mental health problems (1). If Canada’s health care system could help Canadians with mental health problems more efficiently, and more effectively, these people could get back to work. These examples put mental health into a social capital model – hopefully the capitalists can take notice.


  12. Are Canadians proud of a smaller government? Are Canadians proud of our national health care system? You cannot be proud of both, as having one cancels out the other. The Conservatives play a dangerous game with smaller government and more tax cuts, because cutting taxes means having less revenue for social programs such as health care, education, and pension plans. It is my opinion that many people want tax cuts only because they see the extra money in their pocket-book – there is little realization of what is being lost. But, as Jim Stanford said in the article, Canadians are becoming more aware of that relationship. Now the question is, what are Canadians going to do about? Continue on the path of capitalist free-trade enterprise of less taxes, smaller government, and more pressure on families to foot the bill, or change the system to what most Canadians really need. Keep the taxes and create the social programs needed to help Canadians get back on their feet.


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