It happened in the last Nova Scotia election. It happened in the last New Brunswick election. It’s happening in the Ontario election.
The happening is the systematic refusal of all political parties to level with the voters by intelligently discussing fiscal circumstances.
Shortly after the Nova Scotia and New Brunswick elections, the newly elected governments told the truth – but only after the elections were over. During the campaigns, they had made the usual assortment of good-news promises that all serious observers knew would be delayed or scrapped. Sure enough, very shortly after taking office, the new governments said: Our provinces are in dire straits, and we’ll need serious spending measures and/or tax increases to escape.
Ontario’s last budget forecast deficits for another five years. Within the past eight years, the province’s debt has skyrocketed by 85 per cent. The province’s unemployment rate is now higher than Quebec’s, and so is the provincial deficit. But whereas the Quebec government has been facing the fiscal music, Ontario’s has been whistling past the graveyard. The result has been the fiscal enfeeblement of Ontario and the fiscal strengthening of Quebec.
The last provincial budget was built on sand. It forecast extremely optimistic growth – well over 3 per cent this year and beyond. Today, it would appear that Ontario will be lucky to see 2 per cent, and things might be worse.
Slower growth means higher deficits and more debt, unless something is done. Instead, the parties have been making spending promises and promising reductions in taxes or fees.
The exception is the NDP, which proposes raising corporate income taxes, in some cases. If, however, companies hire people or invest in new technology, the NDP suggests a tax reduction. This is a thoroughly madcap scheme. In some instances, companies would have hired or invested anyway, so under the NDP policy they would be favoured for doing something they had intended to do anyway. Others may fiddle their hiring or investing to get the break. Imagine the legion of civil servants checking thousands of companies to monitor their behaviour. It would be a new definition of bureaucratic nightmare.
The Liberals have been weak stewards of the public purse, pouring money into programs but running up the deficit and debt. When interest rates eventually rise, Ontarians will find the cost of servicing this swollen debt to be a millstone around the neck of the government.
The Conservatives, as has been widely noted, are proposing fairy tales: lower taxes plus lots of new spending, all paid for mythically by unidentified spending cuts and a few identified – but small – cuts. It’s the old pig-in-a-poke routine. Their budget, like that of the Liberals and NDP, is based on growth forecasts now at the bottom of the trash barrel.
The next Ontario government, whatever its political composition, will be doing a variation of what happened in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick: fessing up after the election. And, of course, if the Canadian economy as a whole takes a dip or a dive, throw all the platforms out the window.
The question therefore arises again: Why can’t politicians, while sketching out their thinking, trust voters enough to tell them some hard truths?
In health care, for example, no party will do anything but promise more, without saying how the more is to be paid for. With a magic wand, the NDP proposes to cut emergency wait times in half! How this miracle will be accomplished remains unspoken.
In both education and energy, parties are desperately trying to shield voters from higher costs: in the Liberals’ case by lowering university fees; in the NDP’s case by freezing student fees and taking the HST off hydro and home heating; in the Conservatives’ case by removing the HST from energy.
The answer for the absence of straight talk is that the politicians do not trust us, the voters, to accept hard truths. They have conducted endless focus groups and polls to discern our thinking, and have concluded – in this election as in many others – that straight talk won’t sell.
Only after the election, apparently, can the straight talk begin.