Tax, Spend, Repeat: 55 Years of Public Finance Data for Canada

Michael Smart

Nick Mahoney

Today, Finances of the Nation releases an updated and expanded version of its Government Revenue, Expenditure, Assets and Liabilities (REAL) data. Covering 55 fiscal years from 1965/66 to 2019/20, the REAL data give a detailed picture of the finances of federal, provincial, and territorial governments in Canada.

There are other efforts to create historical time series data based on federal and provincial public accounts, notably by Ron Kneebone and Margarita Wilkins, and by the federal Department of Finance. But the public accounts of different governments in Canada do not use a uniform convention about what functions are part of government. For example, funds collected or spent by a government department in one province may reside with an off-budget agency or Crown corporation in another province, making accurate comparisons between provinces impossible. Statistics Canada has long been addressing these issues, presenting fiscal data of different governments on a comparable accounting basis. The FON REAL data project aims to assemble various Statistics Canada data sources and make them comparable over time in turn. The user guide to the data explains how this was done.

As well, the REAL data offer more detailed coverage of revenue sources than existing efforts, currently comprising 35 separate subcategories of revenue – see Table 1. In contrast, the REAL data report total expenditure and total operating expense of governments, but currently offers no detail on how funds have been spent. (Users interested in functional categorization of provincial spending should consult Kneebone’s and Wilkins’s data.)

The REAL data will be updated annually, based on annual releases of the Statistics Canada and our other data sources as they become available. As well, we plan to extend the dataset in future to include local government, consolidated provincial-local government sectors, and consolidated general government for all of Canada.

The REAL data come with a handy visualization tool, allowing subsets of the data to be displayed facilitating comparisons across governments or across tax bases. (The data and visualizations are freely available, provided you cite Finances of the Nation as the source.) The data give users a detailed look at the business of government in Canada, and the broad sweep of its changes over 55 years – offering new perspectives on the fiscal challenges facing governments today. Look for more commentary and analysis based on the data at Finances of the Nation in the months to come.