Federal finances sustainable over the long term—but most provinces and territories are not

The Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) today released his assessment of the long-term sustainability of government finances. The assessment reflects all measures in recent federal and provincial-territorial budgets.

The PBO’s Fiscal Sustainability Report 2021 finds that current fiscal policy, if maintained over the next 75 years, is not sustainable over the long term for the government sector as a whole. Increasing government indebtedness is primarily driven by the provincial-territorial sector, which will more than offset the fiscal flexibility at the federal level.

“Relative to the size of the Canadian economy, total net debt would ultimately rise above its initial level over the long term”, says Yves Giroux, PBO. “That being said, government indebtedness is projected to remain well below its peak observed over the last 30 years.”

Based on the PBO’s latest assessment, the federal government, and the provinces of Quebec, Nova Scotia, as well as Ontario, all have some fiscal room to increase spending or reduce taxes. Status quo fiscal policy is not sustainable in the remaining provinces and the Territories in light of the demographic projections.

The assessment identifies Canada’s ageing population as a key pressure for all provinces and territories. “Healthcare makes up a large share of provincial and territorial spending and it will continue to outpace growth in the economy as the population ages,” adds Mr. Giroux. “In most jurisdictions, the Canada Health Transfer will not keep pace with rising healthcare spending.”

According to Mr. Giroux, “Given their temporary nature, federal COVID-19 support measures do not have a material impact on long-term fiscal sustainability.” The estimate of federal fiscal room is effectively unchanged from the PBO’s November 2020 assessment and reflects an improvement in the medium-term outlook for nominal GDP and revenues.

The PBO’s Fiscal Sustainability Report is designed to identify whether changes in current fiscal policy are necessary to avoid unsustainable growth of government debt and estimate the magnitude of those changes using the fiscal gap.