April 1, 2014
VANCOUVER, B.C.—Government liabilities include much more than direct debt, and when all federal, provincial, and local government liabilities are combined, each Canadian taxpayer owes $243,476, notes a new study by the Fraser Institute, an independent, non-partisan Canadian public policy think-tank.Total government liabilities in 2011/12, the latest year an estimate is possible, amounted to $4.1 trillion, up 20.9 per cent from $3.4 trillion in 2007/08.“When governments unveil their budgets, pundits and politicians usually focus on how much direct debt has been accumulated, but direct debt is just the tip of the liability iceberg, representing less than one third of total government liabilities,” said Charles Lammam, resident scholar in economic policy at the Fraser Institute and co-author of Canadian Government Debt 2014.The largest portion of total government liabilities is from programs such as the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), Old Age Security (OAS), and Medicare (Canada’s public health care system). The study estimates that the unfunded liabilities—the funding shortfall of promised future benefits—associated with these programs added up to $2.2 trillion in 2011, an 11.1 per cent increase from 2007.“The original demographic and economic assumptions that shaped the CPP, OAS, and Medicare no longer apply. We now have an aging population with fewer workers supporting more retirees. Failure to reform these programs today could result in reduced benefits, tax increases, or both for future generations,” Lammam said.Although unfunded liabilities make up the largest portion of total government liabilities, direct debt has re-emerged as a pressing issue as governments return to deficit spending. The direct debt of all three levels of governments increased to $1.2 trillion in 2011/12 from $872.2 billion in 2007/08.“Rather than kick the can down the road, Canadian governments, especially in Ontario and Quebec, should make balanced budgets a priority to help ease the burden on taxpayers,” Lammam said.The study also provides a breakdown of total liabilities by province that includes local and federal government liabilities. In 2011/12, Ontario ($1.6 trillion), Quebec ($955.7 billion), and Alberta ($559.6 billion) had the largest total government liabilities.When measured as a percentage of provincial GDP, all provinces (except Saskatchewan) had total liabilities in excess of 150 per cent. Quebec had the highest (276.8 per cent of GDP), followed by Nova Scotia (255.2 per cent), and Ontario (245.4 per cent). If the governments of Quebec and Nova Scotia taxed 100 per cent of all income, it would take those two provinces more than two and a half years to pay off all debt and fund all program obligations.“Governments must take decisive action to reduce the total liabilities facing Canadian taxpayers. Most pressingly, this means restructuring program obligations to account for an aging population,” Lammam said.