Debt Hawks Need a New Narrative
Those of us in Canada who are concerned about rising government debt levels need to recognize something; we’re losing the battle.
It’s not that our message isn’t important, far from it. The problem is our standard talking points just aren’t resonating with the public. We need to rethink our strategy and switch to a more emotional message that communicates the consequences of high debt levels in tangible terms.
Election campaign after election campaign in this country has wrapped up with barely a whisper about rising government debt levels. Whether we’re talking about the most recent provincial elections in Alberta, Ontario and Manitoba, or the recent federal election, government debt has largely been a non-issue.
In fact, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, openly campaigned on a commitment to increase the debt by $30 billion.
Had government debt been more of a concern with the public during the aforementioned campaigns, we would have seen politicians spend more time talking about the problem and trumpeting their solutions.
During the 1990s it was a different story. Government debt in Canada was off the charts and so were the interest costs. The public grew so concerned about government debt levels, and rising taxes, that we saw a wave of political parties (from coast-to-coast) promise to “balance the budget” and get spending under control.
So why aren’t Canadians concerned about government debt levels right now? The answer is likely due to three words: “low interest rates.”
As interest rates have been quite low for years, governments have been able to foolishly pile on mountains of “cheap” debt without having to raise taxes substantially.
Instead of talking about billions being added to government debt levels, and the impact if interest rates rise, debt hawks need to communicate with the public on a more emotional level – just like those who are running up the debt.
For instance, Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley recently accused the Wildrose Party of wanting to make “draconian cuts” to health care and education in order to get the province’s deficit under control. Her message is simple, full of fear about an emotional topic and it’s easy to conceptualize. Who wants to visit a hospital only to discover it’s closed?
Instead of talking about the need for “fiscal responsibility,” those of us who are concerned about high debt levels need to flip the argument Notley made on its head. We too should communicate on an emotional level – “Rachel Notley is putting health care at risk by racking up lots of debt. We all know governments cut health care when they run into debt problems.”
Debt hawks can point out that debt problems left the Greek government with no choice but to cut health care services. Closer to home, the State of Illinois’ debt problems were so dire that gas stations turned away state police cars. Why? The government wasn’t paying its bills. No doubt there are many other good anecdotes that highlight the problem.
One thing is clear; if debt hawks don’t start to utilize a new strategy, don’t be surprised if politicians and the public continue to ignore the issue until we too reach a crisis level.
- Craig works for the Manning Centre and is the author of The Government Wears Prada
This column was published in Sun Newspapers across Canada on November 24, 2015