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Opinion: Deciphering the spin of Canada’s federal budget

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Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre hit all the expected notes in a recent video filmed in Vancouver. It's pretty basic populist rhetoric, but it's effective.

Reading the foreword to Canada’s federal budget released on April 7—and nothing else—one might be left with the impression that everything is financially great in Canada.

The pandemic was tough, sure, but our government’s financial guidance was sound (according to our government), and now, “Canada has come roaring back.”

Whatever that even means for the average person and their grocery bill.

For some reason, possibly because I am an easily amused nerd, I can’t help but read some of the budget’s prepared text in the voice of an overdramatic movie trailer voiceover guy.

After “a shattering economic blow” it was entirely reasonable to fear that the pandemic would “hamstring us for years; that millions of Canadians would still today be without jobs; and that the task of rebuilding our country would be the work of decades,” the movie trailer voiceover guy says.

We knew we could not let that happen.”

Cue dramatic audio crescendo overlaid on B-roll of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, finance minister Chrystia Freeland and other federal figures assembling to secure Canada’s financial destiny.

Thanks to our government’s emergency COVID relief spending and a relentless focus on jobs, our economic avengers have saved the day, it sounds like.

It was an audacious plan,” the voiceover guy says. “And it worked.”

Our economy has recovered 112 per cent of the jobs lost in the early days of the pandemic, according to the budget, and our real GDP is “a full 1.2 per cent above where it was during the pandemic.”

Thank god. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to finally getting some sleep tonight after hearing this encouraging news about our real GDP.

I jest, of course. The budget foreword isn’t quite as delusional as I’m painting it, and if you read a bit further, it does make reference to the challenges real Canadians are facing—things like “snarled supply chains” driving up prices at the checkout counter, and the dismal state of Canada’s housing supply.

But taking in the general sense of optimism conveyed in the budget, does any of it resonate with Canadians? Does the average person care about job growth or GDP? 

In my experience, no. 

They care about the things they notice every two weeks: what they’re paying for rent, and the astronomical costs now attached to homeownership, or the cost of groceries and gas. 

In Whistler, they care about what they have to pay to ski (and, in recent years, they care deeply about whether or not Vail Resorts is going to honour their refund).

But the biggest financial concerns for most Canadians in April 2022 are likely related to housing.

Thankfully, our government gets it, offering up insightful wisdom like the following tidbits: “Our economy is built by people, and people need homes in which to live. But Canada does not have enough homes.” Yes, very good stuff here—but how to solve that?

“We need more of them, fast.”

Like I said. Our government gets it.

But while the budget includes $10 billion for housing initiatives over five years, along with policy changes around foreign buying and ownership, critics are saying its measures likely won’t have much impact, with some referring to it as “smoke and mirrors.”

In terms of housing, at least, the budget doesn’t get a passing grade, said Andrey Pavlov, a professor of finance at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business.

“It allocates a lot of money for social housing development and also for municipalities to update their building approval process. But that’s not what we need—there are already plenty of people who are willing and able to build more housing but are held back by red tape and long delays at City Hall pretty much everywhere,” Pavlov said in an email.

The budget is also disappointing in a more general sense, Pavlov said, noting it does not offer any tax cuts or red tape reduction.

“By maintaining the current overly intrusive and complex regulation, red tape, and taxes, the government is stifling the economic growth we need to service the debt we have accumulated,” he said.

“With all the talk about economic growth, it is not any easier to start or run any business today than it was two or three or five years ago. Growth from inflation is not real growth, as it really doesn’t leave Canadians better off in any way.”

Let me preface this next bit by saying I’m no fan of Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre. I consider him and Trudeau as two sides of the same disingenuous, opportunistic political coin, and in general I find partisan politics to be nauseating at best, stiflingly undemocratic at worst. I like to make my mind up issue by issue (a foreign concept to many these days, it seems), and my vote is never a sure thing.

All of that being said, watching recent videos put out by Poilievre, it’s clear that (whether or not he’s being genuine, or just saying the things he needs to say to get elected) he actually does get it, and that he knows how to speak to average Canadians in a way that matters to them.

Standing in front of a $5-million house in Vancouver in a video posted April 11, Poilievre explains in simple terms how he would address Canada’s housing crisis if elected: basically, stop printing money and cut down on municipal costs and red tape.

Whether or not his policies would prove effective is almost beside the point—listening to his language it’s clear he knows what notes he needs to hit: government fat cats are “protecting the wealthy;” the working-class stiff “who can’t actually pay his or her bills” is losing purchasing power; and “if you’re prepared to work hard, you should be able to own a house.”

It’s pretty basic populist rhetoric, and even though it’s rich coming from a 42-year-old career politician who was first elected at 24 years old and has never held a real working-class job, it’s effective.

I suppose that’s the advantage of being in opposition, particularly against a government approaching its best before date: you don’t have to worry about spinning bad news into good—you just have to speak confidently, and say what people want to hear.

Until the next flip of the coin.

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