It was the $43.9-billion question Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland refused to answer.
During her testimony before the Commons finance committee Tuesday about the federal budget that she tabled in Parliament on March 28, Freeland was asked a simple question by Conservative MP Adam Chambers.
It was the amount of interest taxpayers will pay in the 2023 fiscal year (April 1, 2023 to March 31, 2024) on Canada’s $1.22 trillion public debt.
It wasn’t a trick question. The numbers are in Freeland’s budget.
Interest on the federal debt will cost Canadians an estimated $43.9 billion in 2023 on $1.22 trillion of public debt; $46 billion in 2024; $46.6 billion in 2025; $48.3 billion in 2026 and $50.3 billion in 2027, when the total federal debt will be $1.31 trillion.
Instead of answering the question, Freeland accused Chambers of “fiscal fear-mongering” — in the tone of voice she frequently adopts that sounds like she thinks she’s lecturing a wayward child.
Here’s how the exchange went:
Chambers: Tell the committee and Canadians how much we’re spending, or projected to spend, on interest on the debt this upcoming fiscal year. Just looking for the number.
Freeland: Let me just say because I think it’s important to put things in context, that in both …
Chambers: Minister, my time is very limited. I’m asking if you know the number? You have a lot of officials beside you. Will you tell Canadians how much we’re going to spend on servicing the debt next year?
Freeland: Here’s what I think, that it’s really important to put numbers in context, without context numbers are meaningless. Our debt service charges are low in Canada’s historical context and they are low compared to what our peers in the G-7 are paying.
Chambers: Thank you for the context, what’s the gross dollar value we’re going to spend on interest on the debt next year?
Freeland: And let me again, I really am opposed to fiscal fear-mongering by the Conservatives and so the important point to make for Canadians is that in historic context, our debt service charges are reasonable and sustainable and lower than they have been in many previous years. That’s why S&P (credit rating agency Standard and Poor’s) reaffirmed our Triple A rating.
Chambers: I’m asking will you tell Canadians how much we’re spending on the debt? It’s in black and white in your book, do you just not want to say?
Freeland: I think it’s important to put all numbers in context.
Chambers: Thank you minister. I’ll move on to the next question.
Freeland: Do you not agree that in historic context our debt service charges are absolutely handleable?
Freeland’s argument was, of course, logically flawed in that if you want to provide context to a number, you have to say what the number is.
Providing context without stating the number is arrogant and suggests Freeland, for some reason, thought saying it out loud, even in context, would be politically damaging.
Freeland also accused Conservative MPs of trying to “bully” her by launching a two-week filibuster before her appearance because they wanted her to testify for two hours instead of one — which ended up being 80 minutes of testimony.
Then again, we shouldn’t be surprised.
After all, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doesn’t answer the questions he’s asked all the time — whether from opposition MPs in question period or by reporters in media scrums.
So it’s hardly surprising Freeland does the same.