The Conservatives’ inflation argument is flawed – but it may still work

The Conservatives' inflation argument is flawed - but it may still work

Given the hassle of going to a grocery store with a full security team and motorcade (and the fact that prime ministers generally aren’t responsible for home repairs at official residences), it’s easy for a prime minister to get tripped up on such questions. Which means the Prime Minister’s Office might have to start preparing a daily brief on how much a carton of milk costs on Rideau Street.

“The cost of government is driving up the cost of living,” Poilievre said. “Almost a half a trillion dollars of inflationist Liberal deficits mean more dollars chasing fewer goods, driving higher prices.”

Trudeau seemed unimpressed by the clever wordplay. “While the Conservatives play silly partisan games,” he said, “we are focused on Canadians. We know that what Canadians are facing is a serious situation.”

Poilievre punctuated his point with a play on words, describing the current situation as “Justin… flation.”

Story Highlights

  • To start, the Conservatives accused the Liberal government of having no plan to deal with higher prices. Then they suggested Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doesn’t know how much it costs to buy a package of bacon or a two-by-four. 

  • Eventually, the Conservatives sent up their finance critic, Pierre Poilievre, to bring their arguments full circle — to claim that, in fact, Justin Trudeau is the approximate reason inflation is happening.

So here is the first real question of the new Parliament: to what degree is the Liberal government to blame for the inflation Canadians are experiencing?

Global causes, local effects

Frances Donald, the global chief economist for Manulife Investment Management, was asked recently about inflation during an appearance on former Liberal strategist David Herle’s podcast. She pointed to a number of factors that have nothing to do with the Trudeau government’s fiscal policy: global supply chain disruptions, COVID-19 policies in China, global droughts, pent-up consumer demand. Informed explanations from the United States also point to an array of international factors, many of which are linked to the pandemic. The New York Times’ Paul Krugman has written that this bout of inflation seems more like what happened after the Second World War than the chronic inflation of the 1970s.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rises during question period in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press) “I am impressed to see the high esteem in which the member for Carleton seems to hold me, that I was able to create a global inflation crisis with our initiatives to support Canadians throughout this pandemic,” Trudeau said in reply to Poilievre.

In an interview with CBC’s Power & Politics on Tuesday, former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page also pointed to a number of factors driving inflation — but did suggest that government support was boosting consumer demand. He also said that inflation could be short-lived but that it should factor into the government’s decisions about future stimulus spending. Watch: What’s driving the rising cost of living in Canada? What is driving the rising cost of living in Canada?Kevin Page, president and CEO at the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy, joined Power & Politics Tuesday to break down what is behind the rising cost of living in Canada and what can be done about it. 7:18

Maybe the Conservatives could find examples of excess to point to. But in what ways would they have spent significantly less? Inflation wasn’t an issue during the election campaign

The Canadian Emergency Response Benefit accounted for $81.6 billion. The Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy has so far provided $97.5 billion. The federal government says an additional $19.9 billion has been sent to the provinces and territories. While Poilievre likes to point to the amount of money the federal government spent during the pandemic — the big number at the bottom of the balance sheet — Conservatives might not want to get into a debate about exactly what the money was used for.