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Why Canada's Definition of Austerity Is All Wrong

02/27/2013 08:05 EST | Updated 04/29/2013 05:12 EDT

The word "austerity" just won't go away. Early this year, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives held a seminar on a "post-austerity vision for Ontario." The Council of Canadians devotes a whole page of its website to "Canada's austerity agenda." On January 12, progressive activist Deirdre Pike wrote about the horrors of Canadian austerity in the Hamilton Spectator. At a February conference, Canadian Union of Public Employees President Paul Moist did an interview about his union's "pushback against austerity." In Sunday's Toronto Star, the usually sober Alex Himelfarb, the former clerk of the Privy Council, suggests that, in Canada, "austerity has been implemented in slow motion, in increments..."

I'm not the first observer to point out that this rhetoric bastardizes the English language. One online dictionary defines austerity as "difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure." Pike's article defined austerity as "enforced or extreme economy." Either definition is a problem for anyone who's shouting about "austerity" here in Canada, since most Canadian governments aren't actually reducing public expenditure.

On the contrary: government program spending is still growing from sea to sea. Virtually every government in Canada is spending more in current dollars from one year to the next. Many are spending more in inflation-adjusted dollars, too. If they aren't, they're generally coming pretty close.

Take the target of the CCPA's wrath: Ontario. In its first downturn-era budget in 2009-2010, the Ontario government planned to spend $99.6 billion on programs. As of the fall economic update in October 2012, program spending was expected to be $115.8 billion by year-end. Some austerity.

Even after the anticlimactic Drummond report, neither Premier McGuinty nor his successor have ever committed to cutting total spending. In her most recent comment on the issue, Wynne said she planned to limit overall spending growth to "1% below GDP growth" until Ontario's debt-to-GDP ratio is back to pre-recession levels.

Things aren't so different in the rest of the country. When the PQ government tabled Quebec's latest budget in November, it planned to spend 1.8% more, a rate of increase marginally below their projected inflation rate for 2013. That's after more than a decade of spending increases at a much faster rate. British Columbia's 2013 budget plan will increase spending by an average of 1.5% over each of the next three fiscal years. In Saskatchewan (where the budget is balanced), the 2012-2013 spending plan is up by almost 5% over the previous year's budget.

In federal politics, any use of the word "austerity" to describe the current situation is pure hysteria. Let's consider the federal government's "austerity" that Himelfarb so bemoans. Ottawa's 2008-09 budget projected annual program spending of over $206 billion; by 2011-2012, the federal government had already added another $37 billion to the pile. The most recent numbers in the fall update project that from the end of this fiscal year to 2015-16, program spending should grow annually by an average of over 2%. Even with the risk of lower revenues, the most recent signal from the Finance Minister was that he saw no need to "slash and burn."

It's true that there's a legitimate debate about actual austerity in other places around the world. Greece is struggling to pay unsustainable debts and remain in the Eurozone at the same time. To meet these conflicting goals, the Greek government has made significant spending cuts in real terms.

Greek hospitals and pharmacies are short of key medications. Pensions were cut. Greek unemployment rates are at record highs. Whatever you might think about Greece's policy choices, it's at least fair to use the word austerity to describe the outcome.

In Canada and the United States, the misuse of the word "austerity" has become so common that even Matthew Yglesias - a liberal writer for Slate.com - found time to mock it on Twitter. On January 2, he wrote that "liberals have started using the word 'austerity' as a free-floating signifier for 'budget provisions I disagree with.'" That's clearly the case in Canada as well.

And it's not helpful. We can't have an adult debate about policy choices if we're unwilling to acknowledge the vast range of alternatives between running off billions of dollars on a printing press on the one hand, and Dickens-style poorhouse austerity on the other.

In present-day Canada, there isn't a single government that can fairly be accused of falling under either of those extremes. Finance ministers are trying to contain debts and deficits with what can barely be called restraint - and only barely. Remember that reality whenever you next hear another 'progressive' lobby group carelessly throw around the dreaded "A" word.