Monday night’s English-language leaders’ debate produced a fresh flurry of media fact checking, a worthwhile effort to separate the credible wheat from the rhetorical chaff. Within the mainstream media, CBC has “Fact Check”, CTV “Truth Tracker”, Global has its “Reality Check” and the Canadian Press “Baloney Meter.”
Some of the work is quite straightforward, such as the CBC’s exposure of the lies the Conservatives are spreading about a Liberal plan to hit Canadians with the capital gains tax when they sell their homes. Andrew Scheer’s distortions about Canada’s foreign aid payments also registered high on CP’s Baloney Meter. Some reporters have also pointed out – but not nearly as often as they should – Scheer’s failure to acknowledge the rebates that will put more money in the pockets of many families than it will take out through the carbon levy.
But sometimes the claims made by parties are not so black and white, requiring some checking of the fact checking.
Poverty reduction over-stated
Take for example the Liberal claim, repeated again this week, that 900,000 Canadians, including 300,000 children, have been lifted out of poverty since 2015. The CBC did a fact check on that a while ago, and using numbers reported by Statistics Canada last February, concluded that with a slight clarification, the claim was accurate.
What the fact checkers did not report is that those good news numbers were partly the result of how the Liberals were measuring poverty, employing the Market Basket Measure (MBM) rather than the Low Income Measure (LIM), the international standard long preferred by anti-poverty campaigners.
More important, the fact checkers used Statistics Canada survey data rather than more recent and reliable figures from StatsCan showing much smaller decreases in poverty. As I reported in August applying the Census Family Low Income Measure to data compiled from tax returns shows there were only 37,210 fewer Canadians living in low income in 2017 than there were in 2015. The number of children in poverty did drop by 134,010, but that was partially offset in the overall totals by an increase in the rate among seniors.
Green pass failure
Another example of problematic fact checking concerns the Green Party platform. In Monday’s debate, Elizabeth May boasted about having “a full platform, (with) the budget numbers publicly accessible and approved as a budget that passes muster by Kevin Page and the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Democracy.”(IFSD)
Several news organizations, including CBC, fact-checked the claim about “passing muster” with Kevin Page, the esteemed former head of the Parliamentary Budget Office. They concluded that May’s claim was true, even though it took two tries to get approval. The first submission got an “F”, 1.6 out of six under the IFSD’s scoring system. But after providing additional information, Page and company gave the Green platform a bare pass, three out of six.
The additional information earned the Greens a better mark for transparency, but in focusing so much on the back and forth between the Greens and the IFSD, the fact checkers overlooked that the document still received a failing grade on fiscal responsibility. That failing mark was well deserved.
The Green platform has some attractive, but costly, promises: $26.8 billion for pharmacare, $16.4 billion for free post-secondary education, $8.3 billion for housing and municipal infrastructure and $3.3 billion for dental care. The commitment to some form of Guaranteed Annual Income, potentially very expensive, isn’t even costed in the platform.
The promises with a price tag add up to a $74.2 billion increase in federal spending next year alone, a jump of about 20 per cent. The Greens propose to maintain spending at that inflated level for four years while reducing the deficit to about $2 billion in 2023 and erasing it entirely by 2024-25. They claim they will achieve this miraculous feat by increasing revenue by some $380 billion, much of it coming from banks, large corporations and the wealthy.
Check the fine print
These revenue sources, the Greens acknowledge, are unreliable “due to the unpredictability of corporate revenue flows, or more likely, through aggressive tax avoidance.” In their do-over for Kevin Page and his Institute the Greens also allow as how the necessary progress in getting the country off fossil fuels will affect not just the oil and gas industry but “the overall values of many Canadian institutional investors and banks, and on the balance sheets and income statements of federal and provincial governments.”
This admission – that the capitalist goose may stop laying golden eggs – seems to have met the IFSD’s transparency standard. But the average voter would still need to carefully read the fine print to figure out that the Green platform is built on a fiscal house of cards.
And not only can the Green platform be challenged on its revenue claims and fiscal soundness, its expenditure side warrants closer examination. Anyone expecting a Green platform to be full of bold new spending initiatives aimed at protecting the environment will be disappointed. Over 80 per cent of the massive increase in federal spending is earmarked for pharmacare, free tuition, housing, dental care, health transfers, child care, pensions, affordable housing and indigenous reconciliation, long overdue initiatives that seem designed to out-flank the NDP on the left.
As far as putting money into averting the climate emergency, the biggest single item in the year one spending blitz is $3 billion plan to “invoke federal powers for peace, order and good government to develop non-commercial aspects of forest management, such as massive tree planting, creating fire breaks and fire suppression, for climate change adaptation.”
But in year three spending on that program drops to $1 billion. Meanwhile, the platform allocates only $550 million in year one and $2.75 billion over five years “to launch a massive energy efficiency retrofit of residential, commercial and institutional buildings.” It’s unclear how that relatively modest cost squares with the platform commitment to retrofit every building in the country over the next decade.
In the introduction to platform document, the Greens proclaim that it is not a one-issue platform, devoted solely to the environment. That’s a fact that checks out, and then some. Unfortunately, by glossing over the questionable contents of the platform and limiting themselves to fact checking the fail-or-pass wrangling with the IFSD, the media provided the platform with some unearned credibility.
 Platform says this represents a 21.5 per cent increase over the Parliamentary Budget Office’s costing baseline but my math comes up with 19.9 per cent
 The Greens fantasize getting over $80 billion of the additional revenue from a financial transactions tax, a measure the European Union has been struggling unsuccessfully to implement for many years.