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«SURPLUS RECYCLING AND THE CANADIAN FEDERATION: Reassessing the Allocation of Money and Power by Thomas J Courchene* tom.courchene Adjunct ...»

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Reassessing the Allocation of

Money and Power


Thomas J Courchene*


Adjunct Professor

School of Policy Studies


Senior Scholar, IRPP April 2013 Institute of Intergovernmental Relations School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University Working Paper 2013 - 03 I: INTRODUCTION1 In his 2011 book, The Global Minotaur: America, the True Origins of the Financial Crisis and the Future of the World Economy, Yanis Varoufakis makes a convincing case that effective surplus-recycling mechanisms (SRMs) are essential for maintaining the internal stability and resiliency of macro-economic systems.

While his analysis both novel and insightful, it is nonetheless the case that the role of surplus-recycling mechanisms has long been centre-stage in ensuring international macroeconomic equilibrium. Arguably the most familiar SRM was the “rules of the game” under the gold standard or, more instructively, under the pricespecie-flow mechanism. Countries running balance-of-payments surpluses will experience inflows of gold (specie) that in turn will increase domestic wages and prices thereby eroding their balance-of-payments surpluses by decreasing exports and increasing imports. Balance-of-payments-deficit countries will experience the opposite impacts, with the result that the system will re-equilibrate. However, if the balance-of-payments-surplus countries sterilize the gold or specie inflow, then the surplus-recycling mechanism is stymied and the burden of adjustment is shifted to the deficit countries in the form of austerity or exchange-rate depreciation, both of which significantly increase the political and economic adjustment costs, and undermine the principles of the system.

By way of an ongoing example, Varoufakis argues that the euro version of a SRM likewise undermines the entire system. In effect, while Germany runs an overall surplus with the other euro countries (especially those in the southern core), it invests these surpluses in the dollar area, not in the euro area. This perpetuates the euro-related German surpluses and it effectively transfers the adjustment back on to the deficit countries, an adjustment that without access to exchange rate depreciation will almost certainly exacerbate the likelihood of recovery in the short term and may eventually for the exit of these countries from the Eurozone.

*An early version was presented to the Queen’s Institute of Intergovernmental Relations 2012 State of the Federation conference “Regions, Resources, Resiliency”.

The US-China relationship presents another example, one where China’s trade surpluses are indeed cycled back to the US but in a manner that has served to perpetuate the US fiscal and balance of payments challenge. Specifically, China has pegged its Yuan to the greenback and in spite of its huge trade surplus with the US it has essentially maintained the peg. However, this requires China to become the buyer of last resort of any and all US treasuries that, in turn, effectively removes the US budget constraint and serves to entice the US to defer setting its fiscal house in order, even to the point where US indebtedness is now endangering its very economic future. Readers will recognize that China’s approach is a modern version of reneging on the gold standard “rules of the game.” With this as brief backdrop relating to the concept of surplus recycling, the role of this paper is to identify and assess the efficacy of some of Canada’s surplus recycling mechanisms as relate to interprovincial and federal-provincial fiscal and economic stability. In the present paper attention will be directed toward three areas where our surplus recycling mechanisms appear inadequate or at least are not operating as effectively as they might. The first of these is the constitutionally mandated equalization program that is designed to ensure that the fiscally weak provinces have access to revenues sufficient to mount reasonably comparable provincial public goods and services. The key conclusion here will be that the equalization is too generous to the traditional have-not provinces (PEI, NS, NB, QB and MB) whereas it falls short with respect to Ontario.

The second recycling system, or lack thereof, is also interprovincial but it focuses on the high-fiscal-capacity provinces, essentially the resource-rich provinces. Here the challenge is to ensure that these provinces do not veer too far off in the direction of becoming tax havens or the providers of superior provincial public goods and services. However, simmering just below the surface are several complex and loaded policy issues – ensuring that a hydro-carbon/hydro-electric industrial strategy will benefit all of Canada; managing the so-called Dutch Disease and the associated manufacturing-resources tug-of-war; stewarding resources to ensure that they will benefit future and well as current generations, among others.

The final SRM addressed in the ensuing analysis is federal-provincial. With their open-ended or demand-driven expenditure responsibilities in the context of a rapidly aging population (such as those relating to medical practitioners, hospitals, home care, pharmaceuticals and, to a lesser, degree,) the provinces will find it progressively difficult to provide adequate public services across their current range of constitutional responsibilities. Arguably, Ottawa is in the opposite position.

In other words, Canada will soon need to consider creative processes and/or programs relating to the re-allocation of money and powers in the federation.

Readers will recognize that these are highly explosive issues: they embrace the high politics of altering the division of powers; they tamper, albeit indirectly, with provincial entitlements; at the inter-provincial level they are inherently zerosum games; they embody empirical assessments that are both complex and controversial, and so on. Phrased differently, there can be no first-best solutions. As such, the policy recommendations cannot consist of doctrinaire remedies, but rather must of necessity take the form of a series of options or avenues for improving the operations of these three macro-equilibrating mechanisms. Indeed, the primary contribution of the paper may well lie not in providing solutions but, rather, in shedding political and empirical light on some existing inadequacies of the status quo in respect of the ability of these SRMs to provide the resilience and stability that the Canadian federation requires.



There are many programs that recycle revenues/incomes/benefits across individuals and provinces. Employment Insurance serves to transfer benefits at the individual level from the employed to the unemployed and at the interprovincial level (via the special regional provisions relating to entry qualifications and benefit duration) from low-unemployment provinces to high-unemployment provinces.

Progressive tax systems combined with proportional expenditure systems transfer benefits from high-income individuals (and provinces) to lower-income individuals (and provinces). Within each province, tax-financed health care transfers benefits from rich and healthy citizens to poor and unhealthy citizens. And so on.

However, important as these transfers are in terms of creating an equitable and resilient society, they are interpersonal or interprovincial transfers to persons, whereas the surplus-recycling mechanisms that are the focus of this paper relate to transfers between governments and in particular to interprovincial and federalprovincial governmental transfers. While transfers like the CHT and the CST would qualify as SRMs –- indeed one of the policy options flowing from the ensuing analysis is that these transfers might play an even larger surplus-recycling role in the future -- the dominant interprovincial surplus-recycling mechanism is the equalization program, to which the analysis now turns.

II: A. Philosophy and Principles

From Section 36(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982:

Parliament and the government of Canada are committed to the principle of making equalization payments to ensure that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.

Canada’s system of equalization payments was introduced as part of the 1957 Tax Sharing Arrangements that transferred shares of federal taxes back to the provinces

-- 10% of federal income taxes, 9% of the corporate income taxes and 50% of succession duties. Since these federal abatements were allocated to the provinces on a derivation basis (i.e., on the basis of what was actually collected in the respective provinces) this generated larger per capita revenues in the richer provinces. In order to compensate for these differentials, Ottawa introduced an equalization program to equalize these three abatements. (Note that the current version of the equalization program includes all provincial revenues.) From the outset, equalization payments have always been unconditional transfers in that they can be spent as and where the recipient provinces please. This makes eminent sense in the rich provinces can obviously spend their revenues as and where they please.

While equalization payments are a key component of interprovincial surplus recycling, this recycling does not involve direct transfers of provincial revenues from rich to poor provinces. Rather, Ottawa makes these payments to the poorer provinces from its consolidated revenue fund (CRF). Although identically situated citizens, no matter where they reside, will contribute the same amount to the CRF, this nevertheless means that in aggregate residents of rich provinces will pay higher per capita revenues to Ottawa than will residents of poorer provinces. In this sense it can be said that Albertans (but not Alberta) contribute more per capita to the cost of equalization than say, residents of Nova Scotia, but this is also the case for National Defence or Old Age Security or any other federal spending program.

A final point merits airing, namely that equalization also benefits the richer provinces. Specifically, without the presence of an equalization program, there is no way that Canada would be as decentralized on the taxation front as we currently are, which clearly and hugely privileges the rich provinces.

Attention is now directed to the operations of the equalization program since fiscal year 2005-06, after which focus will turn to the performance of equalization in fiscal year 2012-13.

II:B. The Recent Evolution of Canada’s Equalization Program Table 1 presents per capita data on equalization (and the associated payments from the Offshore Accords) from fiscal year 2005-06 through to 2012-13.

While this period covers the operations of the program under the Harper era, the more important reason for this time frame is that it coincides with the introduction of the dramatic changes Prime Minister Paul Martin introduced in fiscal year 2004Although for completeness the table also contains the per capita values for Territorial Formula Financing for Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, the focus in this paper will only be on the provinces.

These last eight years rank among the most turbulent periods in the history of equalization. At the First Ministers’ summit on equalization in October of 2004, newly elected Prime Minister Paul Martin acted on the July 2004 Council of the Federation’s recommendation and restored total equalization to its historic high (i.e., to $10.9 billion). Then Martin fundamentally transformed the future of the program by introducing the so-called New Framework. Henceforth overall equalization would grow annually by 3.5% -- irrespective of the degree of interprovincial fiscal disparities -- so that the role of the equalization formula would henceforth only determine the allocation of this fixed pool and not the size of the pool. Further TABLE 1 The Evolution of Equalization Payments (2005-2013, $ million)

–  –  –

Source: Finance Canada: Federal Support to the Provinces and Territories; Major Transfers (http://fin.gc.ca/fedprov/mtp--eng.asp) complicating the operations of the formula was the implementation of Martin’s electoral promise (conferred privately) to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, namely that their offshore energy revenues would be protected from equalization clawbacks at least until 2011-121.

Recognizing that the equalization program had become increasingly arbitrary, Liberal Finance Minister Ralph Goodale in his 2005 federal budget established the Expert Panel on Equalization and Territorial Formula Financing, whose 2006 report will henceforth be referred to as the O’Brien Report, after the Panel’s chair Al O’Brien. Remarkably, the O’Brien Report’s recommendations were fully implemented in Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s inaugural (2007) budget. Among these new equalization provisions were: a return to the old regime where the formula would determine both the size and the distribution of the equalization pool; a reallocation of the 30+ tax bases into five bases (personal income taxes, corporate income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes and 50% of all resources revenues); a cap on equalization so that no receiving province could end up with more overall revenues per capita than the lowest of the non-receiving provinces); and the provision that the data entering the formula would be in the form of three-year averages lagged two years.

However, the open-ended nature of the revised program (i.e., open ended in that the formula would determine the total amount of equalization) fell into disarray almost immediately, thanks to the dramatic upward spike in the price of oil to the $150 per barrel range in 2008 and the resulting descent of Ontario into have-not status. Accordingly, and to control the overall growth of the program, the 2009 budget re-introduced the spirit of the New Framework by limiting the growth of equalization to the three-year moving average of nominal GDP (which would constitute both a ceiling and a floor), a provision that still exists.

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