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Ontario’s budget is a campaign pamphlet disguised as an economic document. What’s more, it’s a campaign pamphlet that has torn several key pages from the federal Liberal platform of three years ago.

But 2018 is not 2015, and Kathleen Wynne is not Justin Trudeau. Economically and politically, the boat for self-imposed deficits has sailed.

The budget tabled in the Ontario Legislature on Wednesday promises to return the province to deficits (nearly $20-billion over the next three years), reversing years of deficit reduction that had finally brought the budget back into balance. It promises to pour money into key priorities that had suffered from belt-tightening over the better part of a decade. It promised that the deficits would be modest and would be gradually reined in after three years, and eventually eliminated.

“Balancing the budget is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end,” Finance Minister Charles Sousa said in his budget speech. “We are choosing to put our strengthened fiscal position to work, to address the priorities of the people of Ontario.”

This is straight out of the election playbook the Trudeau Liberals ran with successfully in 2015. The notion was to embrace an activist fiscal agenda – to spend the dividend earned from years of penny-pinching to address areas neglected during all that purging of red ink.

It worked wonders for the federal party, whose ambitions for the fiscal dividend captured the imagination of many voters who had grown tired of the Conservatives’ single-minded pursuit of deficit reduction and smaller government. With Ms. Wynne’s provincial government floundering in the polls and an election just 10 weeks away, it appears they are gambling that the strategy might work again. If voters liked the Trudeau plan – in many cases, the same segments of the voting public that the provincial Liberals will need if they have any hope of holding onto power – then maybe they’ll flock to Trudeau: The Sequel.

Of course, what the federal Liberals promised was a distinct change from their opposition. The Ontario Liberals are offering a policy shift away from their own penny-pinching. Their own neglect. They’re campaigning against themselves.

The timing flies in the face of commonly accepted economic logic, which says you don’t expand your spending and deficits when the economy is relatively strong, you save up that ammunition for leaner times, when fiscal stimulus might actually be needed.

But the economic cycle does not align neatly with the election cycle, and it’s the election cycle that is in the driver’s seat here.

Unlike the federal government, Ontario isn’t reopening the public taps to load up on infrastructure – long-term investments aimed at propelling productivity and, by extension, economic growth. Much of the new red ink will be spilled on health-care initiatives – noble programs, but these are expenditures, not investments. But voters consistently tell pollsters health care is one of their highest priorities; again, this looks like more of an election strategy than an economic one.

The Liberals will deny it (indeed, Mr. Sousa said in his budget-day news conference that “these aren’t election-cycle decisions we’re making”), but this is a cynical budget aimed at wooing voters at the expense of years of well-considered fiscal strategy. The Liberals are in trouble in this election, and they needed to do something dramatic, even desperate, to get back in the game. This is the political equivalent of a Hail Mary pass.

And it won’t work. This Trudeau-lite strategy is likely to go over like a lot of sequels – old, tired and well past its best-before date.

Three years ago, the concept of putting the fiscal dividend to work was a long-overdue breath of fresh air. But after three federal budgets in which the promise of small, temporary deficits has deteriorated into a reality of deeper-than-expected budget gaps with no end in sight, voters have lost their patience with vague return-to-balance pledges, and their appetite for government promises written in red ink.

What’s more, the provincial Liberals may have just sacrificed the last strong card of goodwill they could have played with skeptical voters. Before now, at least people could have said the Liberals had promised to rein in deficits over their past mandate, and they were true to their word. Now voters can’t say that; the Liberals are the party whose commitment to fiscal discipline stops at the ballot box.

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