Well before tabling this week’s budget, Premier Christy Clark had signalled that it would be balanced. She was staking her party’s future on it.
Ms. Clark is well aware of the long odds her Liberal government faces in May’s election.
The Premier’s party is weighed down by the political baggage a government invariably accumulates after 12 years in power. Its only hope – and it’s a faint one – is persuading a skeptical populace that, despite its many short-comings, the free-enterprise coalition the Liberals represent is still the best option for creating jobs and managing the province’s finances.
That is why, after four successive deficits, Ms. Clark needed to head into the spring campaign boasting that she had balanced the books.
Beyond that, she even had a plan, highly speculative as it was, to eliminate the provincial debt using riches from a booming liquefied natural gas industry.
But to have any hope of winning, the Liberals also need help from the New Democratic Party, which has held a seemingly unbeatable lead in the polls for months.
The governing party not only requires NDP Leader Adrian Dix to stumble in the harsh glare of an election campaign, but also needs his party to scare voters.
Presenting an election platform that somehow underscores the Liberals’ claim that a New Democratic government would create a fiscal debacle might do just that.
Now the Liberals believe they may get their wish.
Given the degree to which the New Democrats trashed Finance Minister Mike de Jong’s budget as unfairly raising taxes, not spending enough in health and education and several other areas and using unsold Crown assets to help balance the books, it seems the NDP would be prepared to spend more at the expense of squaring the ledger sheet.
In other words, it looks like the NDP will campaign on a program that includes a deficit budget for this year and maybe beyond.
This is precisely what the Liberals were hoping for.
Remember, the Liberals want the May 14 election to be about the economy and who’s best able to run the treasury. The NDP wants it to be about credibility and trust.
Given the vast collection of mistakes and scandals the Liberals have amassed in their time in power, the New Democrats certainly have a better chance of defining the final ballot box question.
The NDP is likely buoyed, too, by the results of the first post-budget poll, which showed only 12 per cent of British Columbians believe the Liberals’ financial plan actually was balanced.
The same Ipsos-Reid poll of 1,200 eligible voters also found that only 13 per cent of respondents said the budget made them more likely to vote for Ms. Clark’s Liberals while 24 per cent said it made them less likely.
Those results, you would think, would make the NDP more comfortable about presenting an election platform that includes a deficit budget. And they were certainly the numbers that were highlighted in media reports about the poll. One other result, however, got less attention than perhaps was warranted.
When asked if the province’s financial situation would be better or worse with Adrian Dix and the NDP running the province, only 23 per cent said they felt B.C. would be much or somewhat better off, while 40 per cent said it would be worse or somewhat worse off.
Which brings me back to the Liberals’ faint hope of making this election competitive. It rests almost entirely on trying to persuade the electorate that the New Democrats would go on an unsustainable spending spree that would lead to successive deficits and a ballooning cumulative debt.
Ms. Clark is sure to point to the six successive deficits to which Mr. Dix was linked when he was chief of staff to Glen Clark during his time as finance minister and then later as premier. An NDP election manifesto based on a deficit budget, with perhaps the promise of more to come, could help the Liberals reinforce the notion that New Democrats aren’t to be trusted with money.
Of course, the Liberals have just finished running a string of deficits of their own, although they could, and likely will, argue they were in good company thanks to the Great Recession. And that they have returned to balance quicker than most provinces in Canada.
Right now, it would appear that the public isn’t prepared to give the Liberals another chance regardless of any arguments or excuses they put forward. But B.C.’s governing party believes the New Democrats may yet breathe life into prospects that look completely dead.