Fiscal transparency would help

Way back before the COVID-19 crisis came upon us, the federal government had planned to deliver a budget this week.

The plan was to focus on climate change, deal with the economic downturn in Alberta and perhaps nudge Canada closer to the digital economy’s cutting edge.

One day, the government will probably return to those priorities, but from a very different fiscal position than it was in just a few months before. Back then, the deficit probably would have been between $20 billion and $30 billion.

Now we’re talking $200 billion, and even that’s merely an estimate tossed around by economists and government insiders. It’s certainly not backed up by rigorous math — because there is none.

Since we have had no budget or public accounting of the cost of Ottawa’s COVID-19 response, or its effects on the economy, it’s almost impossible to tell how well-positioned the government will be to tackle its pre-coronavirus goals once we emerge from the current crisis.

More than that, the information vacuum threatens to prolong that crisis.

At a time when transparency is the key to so much that is productive — from crowd-sourcing materials, to inventing new ways to produce ventilators, to having confidence in a government’s ability to slow the pandemic — a clear reckoning of our fiscal situation is a useful tool in inspiring and then pooling the best ideas for how to muddle through to the other side.

We already have lots of proof that a public exposure of the facts and figures reaps rewards.

It’s the kind of thinking that led Dublin-based Medtronic PLC on Tuesday to publish the design specifications for its ventilators, so manufacturers around the world could borrow the recipe and make their own.

The company is already working with Tesla to produce and ship them for free.

In Canada, the stark admission from Quebec Premier Francois Legault that his province would have only enough medical equipment for a few more days, prompted Ontario Premier Doug Ford to volunteer information on how Quebec could find more.

On the health side, publication of raw data on who the virus is hitting, where and how hard, has led to a widespread number-crunching exercise on social media and academia, helping individuals to behave in the public interest.

On the fiscal side, wage subsidies are a case in point. Last month, when the federal government introduced plans to subsidize 10 per cent of company payrolls, the public seized on the idea — and pummelled it.

Economists, opposition members, labour advocates and business groups looked at the tsunami of unemployment and made a spontaneous plea to the government to increase that funding dramatically.

So it did. Last Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an increase to 75 per cent that would target small businesses. On Monday, Trudeau said it would apply broadly, for all companies.

Now, it’s time for a reckoning of what it will all cost — probably about $80 billion, unless the timeline is extended beyond the summer — and how to insulate the program from abuse.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau is scheduled to roll out those details on Wednesday.

But the missing piece is the big picture: How much will all the measures announced over the past three weeks weigh on the federal books, how will they be financed, and is the burden something that Canadians can carry without too much financial stress?

Beyond the $200 billion in rumoured deficit, Trudeau is also looking at a bailout for the airline, tourism and oil and gas sectors, which would add even more to the deficit. And government revenues from taxpayers will undoubtedly be way, way down for months.

Meanwhile, the government’s need to borrow from financial markets to pay for its new programs is poised to soar.

If we had an idea about the scope of the cost, it might be daunting at first, but digestible after some public debate and understanding of how it would be financed over time.

There’s a public consensus that the government needs to do whatever it takes to get Canadians through the pandemic, and a public realization that the cost will be very large.

And there’s a lot of goodwill and creative thinking coming from business, academia, labour and political circles — goodwill that, if Ottawa opened its books, could be put to good use in crowd-sourcing solutions toward an eventual recovery.

Heather Scoffield is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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