Having watched the Liberal government avert a leadership crisis that would have plunged B.C. into chaos, New Democratic Party Leader Adrian Dix knows the spotlight will now once again be trained on him.
With the budget now passed and the start of an election just six weeks away, Mr. Dix will be hounded for details of the party's election platform. It will no longer be good enough for the Opposition Leader to criticize the government for its policies; he'll have to say, finally, what the NDP would do differently if it ascends to power.
Mr. Dix faces some miserable decisions.
He is well aware that the Liberals are trying to make this election about jobs, the economy and who's best able to manage the treasury. That is why they were so desperate to present a balance budget, even though it was mostly done on the back of Crown assets that they intend to sell. Factoring in revenue from prospective sales is not a kosher accounting practice in many jurisdictions. The $800-million the government says it will get from these properties is a best guess.
All told, the NDP figures there is about $1.2-billion of revenue in the budget that shouldn't be there. In other words, there is $1.2-billion, or thereabouts, that the NDP will not be able to use in the budget it imagines for the current fiscal year. That's the hole from which the party begins. There are other potential revenue challenges on the horizon – like a cut in federal health transfer payments – that make the downstream picture even bleaker.
It's almost a certainty that when the NDP does unveil its election manifesto, it will include a budget picture for at least two years out, possibly three. And it's just as certain that the first two budgets will include mid-to-small-sized deficits. I believe the hope is that the province's resource-revenue picture would have improved enough by Year 3 that the budget would return to surplus.
As difficult as the fiscal state the New Democrats would be inheriting is, it's not nearly as grim as the one bequeathed to the party in 1991 by the outgoing Social Credit government. Back then, the New Democrats discovered that it had been left with a deficit that was $2-billion greater than what the Socreds had let on – on an overall budget of $16-billion.
This time, the deficit (or the one the NDP believes it will be taking on) as a percentage of the overall budget for the current fiscal year is much less: that is, $1.2-billion on an overall budget of $44-billion. What this means is that an NDP government wouldn't be fiscally crippled for the first few years in the same way Mike Harcourt's government was back in the early 1990s.
That doesn't mean Mr. Dix isn't conjuring the difficult conversations he is going to have to have.
He is regularly visited in his legislative office by groups wanting to make their pitch to the man widely expected to be the province's next premier. And many are the kind of organizations that believe an NDP government will sympathize with their demands more than the centre-right Liberals. So they would be associations looking for a Quebec-style daycare program, for instance, and left-wing public policy outfits that want to see MSP premiums abolished. One group wants him to raise income assistance rates, and another wants him to build 10,000 new social-housing units a year for the next six years.
After one particular week of these types of meetings, Mr. Dix tallied up what it would cost the treasury if he acted on all of the requests. The number was between $6-billion and $7-billion. As I say, he has some difficult conversations ahead of him should his party win the May 14 vote.
But there are some pledges Mr. Dix has made that he can't get out of, such as one around child poverty. The New Democrats have feasted on this issue for years. It would be unconscionable for them not to act on it in some meaningful way if they gain power, most likely by raising income assistance rates. Attacking poverty is not cheap. The NDP also estimates there are five times as many 19-year-olds entering the Community Living B.C. system as there are leaving it. The costs associated with that demographic statistic are also significant, but the NDP is committed to properly funding the program.
It goes on.
Mr. Dix seems well aware, however, that if the NDP is going to design budgets for the next two years with what is deemed to be reasonable deficits, he is going to have to say no a lot. And to traditional allies that will be looking for a bone or two after years of getting nothing from the Liberals.
Expect to see an NDP platform in early April. It will reveal just how well Mr. Dix has done with some of those miserable choices.