As winter has set in across Canada and federal members of Parliament return to the House of Commons, public interest in fiscal policy seems to have waned. While newspapers continue to be filled with articles surrounding the implications of the new carbon tax plan, healthcare negotiations with provincial governments, Prime Minister Trudeau’s cross country tour, and the plethora of events being planned to celebrate our country’s sesquicentennial, discourse surrounding the federal deficit has been scarce.
While the Federal Conservatives still continuously deride the Liberals over allegedly irresponsible fiscal management on social media and during Question Period, these concerns no longer crowd every inch of editorial and opinion pages, nor do they remain the most overtly polarizing topic in Canadian politics. Instead, recently abandoned electoral reform, overheated housing markets, the implications of a Trump presidency on Canada, and the continued need for Reconciliation, have emerged as the political soupes du jour.
Despite taking a backseat after the election, it is unreasonable to conclude that Canadians are fiscally indifferent. Leading up to the 2015 Federal election, the potential for a federal deficit was amongst the most discussed campaign topics. In fact, both the Conservatives and the NDP weaponized the proposed $10 billion Liberal deficit, making it central to each of their cases for the public’s support. The prospect of a federal deficit inundated public discourse so much, that in the Globe and Mail’s October 2015 Leaders’ Debate on the Economy, the three leaders used the word ‘fiscal deficit ’ 41 times, which made it the third most commonly used word behind only ‘taxes ’ and ‘jobs ’. Moreover, between the October election and the federal budget announcement last March, every journalist, economist, and business magnate loudly weighed in on the deficits implications. Yet, despite the clear ubiquity of the fiscal deficit in public discourse one important demographic remained problematically quiet: Canada’s youth.
The absence of Canadian youth from a discussion on fiscal deficits makes little logical sense. Intergenerational transfers of wealth –or debts- are naturally a product of the current generation’s appetite for saving versus spending, which is a point that only Tom Mulcair alluded to during the October debate, when he denounced the younger Trudeau’s plan to leave insurmountable debts for future generations like his to deal with, seemingly reminiscing on Trudeau’s father’s fiscal record. And while it is now glaringly evident that the NDP’s youth calculus was off for the 2015 election, (an April 2016 Abacus Data poll suggested that 45% of those young Canadians aged between 18–25 voted for the Liberals compared to only 25% for the NDP) Tom Mulcair highlighted an issue that often goes overlooked: there is an inherent cognitive dissonance when current leaders enact fiscal policy with effects that unduly impact future generations. All too often, it is the future generations who bear the eventual brunt of sustained deficits, representing a mere and ephemeral afterthought in conversations that are too focused on the near term. Even more worrisome, however, is the fact that many politicians capitalize on future generations as useful talking points, without actually consulting them directly on the policies that impact them most.
Harvard historian Niall Ferguson explores this disconnect in his book, The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die. In particular, he establishes the need for a ‘partnership between generations when discussing fiscal policy. Deficits, he says, represent a breakdown of this partnership, where older voters and the political class live at the expense of the country’s young and future voters. Critical to this argument, is the assertion, as rational actors, young voters would never voluntarily vote for a government planning on running budget deficits.
Oddly, however, Ferguson’s hypothesis experienced; the prospect of deficits failed to deter the youngest voters before heading to the polls. The Conservatives, arguably the party whose staunch opposition to running deficits seemed most believable in the run up to the election, received just 20% of the youth vote, implying that Canada’s youngest voters are not critically concerned with a perpetually balanced budget. While the pessimistic few will argue that these youth voters are incapable of gauging the economic implications of the Liberal’s plan, is it not time to give Canada’s most educated generation more intellectual credit?
The Trudeau government appears to be doing just that. In a move that was initially very well received across social media, the Prime Minister has announced the formation of a non-partisan Youth Council. Including 30 individuals aged 16–24, the Prime Minister seems characteristically interested in receiving advice from Canada’s next generation on a number of issues, including clean growth, employment, and access to education. While the details surrounding the Youth Council do not distinctly mention a role in advising the government on fiscal policy, it seems only fair for Canada’s next generation to be included in those discussions. Armed with university educations, young Canadians are prepared with strong opinions on needed spending, potential cutbacks, and revenue neutral tax mechanisms such as pairing general corporate tax hikes with project specific breaks.
While the government’s creation of the Youth Council is commendable, it ultimately remains the responsibility of Canada’s youth to make its fiscal opinions known. University campuses are typically characterized by their impassioned social activism, with fiscal policy rousing only a few zealous lone wolves. But given the ‘partnership between the generations’ that fiscal policy represents, as well as its interrelationship with social causes, education, and the future, it remains crucial that Canada’s next generation demands that all policy makers take the impacts of today’s policies on tomorrow’s Canada seriously.