Tim Hudak is not the first politician to take voters for chumps, and he certainly won't be the last. But the Ontario Conservative Leader's platform, on which he'll fight the fall election, is based on so many dubious, to say nothing of false, premises that he must be counting on the electorate's ignorance for victory.
Like many politicians before him, Mr. Hudak refuses to face facts - or, rather, refuses to tell voters anything remotely resembling the truth. And the truth is that, whichever party wins the election, the provincial budget will have to be cut severely. It's a truth the governing Liberals also prefer to avoid.
Mr. Hudak, who visits Ottawa on Thursday, promises to spend more on health and education, which together take about three-quarters of all government program spending. He can do nothing about rising payments on the debt. So he's left with the threadbare promise to cut spending on what remains by 2 per cent yearly, saying this can be done by not filling public-sector vacancies as they arise.
This is bad math, cleverly disguised. Even if possible - and the reductions aren't possible without cutting or scaling back whole programs - the reductions would be smaller than Mr. Hudak would need to balance a budget to whose deficit he'll add by a series of tax cuts and new spending commitments.
As in, $35-billion for new infrastructure, mostly on roads. As in, $6-billion for health care. As in, $2-billion for education. As in, income splitting and a tax cut of 5 per cent on the first $75,000 of taxable income. As in, handing over some provincial tax revenue to the municipalities.
Even these numbers deceive, since $6-billion for health care over the next four years would mean an increase of only 3 per cent yearly, or about half the increases of the past decade. Where's Mr. Hudak going to find the savings in health care while he spends another $6-billion a year?
Mr. Hudak also excoriates the Liberals for introducing the HST and health-care premiums. He calls Premier Dalton McGuinty the "tax man." But it turns out Mr. Hudak would abolish neither tax (except for the HST on electricity), because to do so would worsen Ontario's already fragile fiscal position. So the "tax man" charge is a ruse.
Ontario is a fiscal weakling. It appears neither party will explain that truth to voters and what needs to be done about it.
From 2010-11 to 2016-17, both the Liberals and Mr. Hudak plan to run deficits. No other province proposes such a leisurely and costly return to a balanced budget. The other provinces will have returned to balanced budgets before Ontario.
Even Ontario's leisurely stroll to balance is predicated on uninterrupted growth of 5 per cent a year starting in 2013-2014 and halving the yearly increases in health care. Both are extremely dubious assumptions. From 2006-2011, Ontario's average annual economic growth was 0.6 per cent after inflation. Just what miracle are the Liberals and Mr. Hudak anticipating?
The Canadian dollar looks set to remain strong, making life hard for Ontario's exporters. The U.S. market, Ontario's principal export target, is going to stay soft, with the housing sector weak and overall growth extremely modest. The Great Lakes states will be an especially slow-growth area.
The Conservatives can fairly blame the Liberals for being big spenders. The Liberals drove up spending at an unsustainable 6 per cent a year before the recession, just as the Harper Conservatives did. They handed out generous public-sector wage settlements beyond what the province's collective wealth could afford. Liberals might lose the election in part over justified public anger with these settlements that extend to the upper reaches of the public service, where salaries are offensively high.
In retrospect, the Liberals ought to have used the prerecession period to hold down spending. But they, like the David Peterson Liberals some years ago, let spending rip in boom times, so the province was constrained in bad times.
Now along comes Mr. Hudak, leading in the polls, with a platform built on illusions, bad math and the avoidance of hard truths.