Chrystia Freeland delivers a budget for anxious times

Federal budgets are not generally prescribed as cures for anxiety, especially in the political hothouse of Parliament Hill, where budget day tends to create more stress than it resolves.

But Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland could not deliver a budget in 2022 without addressing the anxiety that runs through all the big political debates of this year — anxiety about the cost of living, the price of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine.

“We bent but we did not break,” Freeland said as she opened a budget speech peppered with references to what has been testing Canadians’ nerves since March 2020: the “shattering” economic damage of COVID-19 and the “dark morning” not so long ago when Russia invaded Ukraine.

It was all this instability, we’ll remember, that prompted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh to make the deal that was expected to define this budget — the one that ensures Liberals will not be tossed into an election before 2025.

For a couple of weeks now, Conservatives have been sounding the alarm about the wild spending to come from the “spend-DP” government. It is not exactly that budget, early reviews indicate.

As Freeland explained at her news conference on Thursday, the government used that agreement with the NDP to shift its gaze from short-term politics to long-term policy ambition.

“This is therefore the first of four budgets,” Freeland said. “You are not going to see every single thing we have an ambition to do in the first budget. So we are building and this is the first of four chapters. So yes, we will do more things over the next three budgets.”

In normal times, this would not be a remarkable thing for a finance minister to say — a government planning for the long term.

But the Trudeau government has not ruled in normal times. Ever since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, it has been forced into reactive mode. This is a government that has been defined by how it reacts to unprecedented crises. It’s become almost a cliche now for Ottawa to say it is in uncharted waters.

So the mere idea of charting a path, steadying the ship of state in those choppy waves, is in itself unusual in 2022. Liberals were hinting broadly before this budget that they were getting “back to basics.” By that, they clearly meant: doing what they intended to do before the world started pummelling them with unexpected events.

What is that, exactly? It is, no question, an activist, ambitious government, which believes that the state does have a role in citizens’ lives. The “pillars,” as the budget writers like to call them, rest in housing initiatives and a transition to a green economy.

“Our government is very, very ambitious,” Freeland acknowledged in her post-budget interview with the CBC’s Vassy Kapelos.

But the plan for 2022 does set out a path to rein in the astronomical spending seen in Canada (and around the world, to be fair) during the pandemic. It’s time, Freeland said, to change gears.

One big question being asked before this budget — and one that will be asked in the days and weeks to come — is whether the Liberals are venturing back to the centre of the political spectrum. It is no secret that “blue Liberals,” the more fiscally minded types, were nervous about all the activist ambition and most recently, that deal with the NDP.

This is not an unimportant issue with the federal Conservatives going through their current leadership race and questions about whether they will tack farther right or more to the political middle, to scoop up all those disaffected Liberals.

This 2022 budget looks like the Liberals are betting that the Conservatives are going to go farther to the populist right — and that it’s time for the Trudeau team to get reacquainted with those anxious blue Liberals.

Normally, this being the 21st century and all, the colour of a finance minister’s suit, especially Canada’s first woman finance minister, wouldn’t merit much mention. But when Freeland walked into her news conference and then Parliament in a bold, blue suit — not her usual red one — speculation about symbolism quickly ensued.

Was this a message to the business world? Interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen suggested in the House that it was the finance minister’s attempt to cloak an “irresponsible” budget in a sensible, conservative hue.

It was not. Freeland, a Ukrainian-Canadian, was wearing Ukraine’s colours — blue suit, yellow buttons, to honour that country in the midst of its brutal invasion.

And that again is a reminder that this may always be a government that has to grapple with those unexpected, uncharted events. Budget 2022 may not be an immediate cure for the anxiety they create, but it didn’t whip up any more either.


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