Hébert: Trump makes a handy cover for Ottawa’s myriad problems

Over his first 15 months as a rookie MP and Canada’s finance minister, Bill Morneau has mastered the art of the platitude. That could come in handy when he presents his second budget this month.

It does not matter what curve balls his opposition critics throw at him in question period these days, his answers never stray from the generic talking points that usually pass for government responses in the House of Commons.

Morneau is no more enlightening in his exchanges with the media.

About the budget he is set to unveil on March 22, the minister had this to say Tuesday: “We want to move forward on our agenda and continue to be ambitious in helping Canadians.”

In the case of budget 2017, discretion may well be the better part of valour.

Based on the government’s pre-budget chatter, this year’s instalment is not destined to be a watershed document.

For weeks, Liberal spin doctors have been dampening expectations. To hear them, it would be best to treat the second budget of the Trudeau era as a non-event.

It is widely expected to leave more questions unanswered about the fiscal course of the government than it addresses.

Morneau and others point south of the border and blame the uncertainty that is attending the arrival in the White House of an unpredictable administration to account for the government’s tentative approach to its upcoming budget.

Indeed, since Trump’s inauguration, the finance minister has spent an unusual amount of time in the U.S. on what the government has described as fact-finding missions.

There is no doubt that Donald Trump’s presidency is a wild card about whose impact it is hard to come to an informed assessment.

But it is also true that it offers convenient cover for a government that is as long on ambitious talk as it is short on revenues to finance its promises.

Long before Trump’s potential arrival in the White House was seen as a credible threat, it was clear that whatever big-ticket items had not made it into last year’s first Liberal budget would be unlikely to find pride of place in subsequent ones.

The sluggishness of the world economy precedes Trump’s victory. So do the forecasts for a string of double-digit federal deficits that could easily stretch – if you believe Canada’s parliamentary budget office – into the next mandate and beyond.

Morneau did not wait for Trump to win to start to shovel some federal spending forward.

Take health care. To make the pill of a 50-per-cent reduction in the rate of increase of the health transfer to the provinces easier to swallow, the federal government upped its offer of more cash for mental health and home-care services last fall.

In total, it is committed to sweetening the provincial pot to the tune of about $12 billion over 10 years.

But the six provinces that have signed accords with Ottawa so far will see little of that funding upfront.

Based on the one-on-one deals negotiated to date, Le Devoir extrapolated that Ottawa is poised to hand over not 10 per cent, but rather less than 3 per cent of the 10-year envelope over the coming fiscal year.

It is not just on the budgetary front that the Trudeau government may be overstating Trump’s impact on Canadian policy for its own reasons.

Take the refugees that have been showing up in greater numbers at various points along the border. Trump’s determination to ban citizens from a handful of Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States has propelled them into the spotlight.

But when The Canadian Press investigated the phenomenon, it found that the trigger for the steady increase in the number of people crossing into Canada to apply for refugee status was Trudeau’s arrival in power and the adoption of a more pro-refugee federal tone.

There is a legitimate government discussion to be had over the impact of Trump’s agenda on Canada’s economy and a prudent government would keep its options open enough to be able to adjust to whatever challenges arise from the policies of the new U.S. administration.

But it is nevertheless fair to ask whether the Trump White House is providing the Trudeau government with much-needed political cover for problems of its own making.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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