Another week, another poll showing B.C.'s New Democratic Party cruising to a healthy majority in the pandemic election.
That’s little surprise, given the ease with which the governing party has been tossing around money of late.
This week, NDP Leader John Horgan said a proposed $3.1-billion light-rail transit system in the vote-rich suburbs of Surrey and Langley would move ahead quickly if his party is returned to office. Making that happen will cost $1.5-billion – but Mr. Horgan said he’d try to persuade Ottawa to help out with the tab.
And if it says no? Well, the province is on the hook for it all. But hey, as we emerge out of the pandemic, the province will need undertakings like this to get the economy going again, right?
While Mr. Horgan and his party have taken justifiable criticism for calling an election one year ahead of schedule – and amid a horrible health crisis, too – he hasn’t paid a price for it. In fact, he’s been able to weaponize COVID-19 to his party’s benefit.
Governments everywhere are amassing debt to help keep businesses and individuals afloat. Suddenly, money is no object because – well, there’s a pandemic! Fuelling massive deficits has become the trendy thing to do; there isn’t a politician in his or her right mind offering to rein in spending right now. So every politician gets to live out a dream: being able to promise anything to anyone, without any of the accountability that normally comes with making such pricey pledges.
Mr. Horgan perpetrated one of the worst examples of this a few days ago, promising that his government would pay $1,000 to B.C. families and $500 to individuals, in the name of COVID-19 relief. The one-time, $1,000 payment is available to families with household income under $125,000 annually. (Households with income up to $175,000 can still get a reduced amount). Other than that, there is no means test. You just have to be breathing to get it.
“We want British Columbians to know that we’re not just throwing money [around] to try and buy votes,” Mr. Horgan declared.
Imagine the practice it must have taken to deliver that line without cracking up.
The fact that this promise will cost the province $1.5-billion was revealed with nary a tinge of regret or concern – because, well, there’s a pandemic! This is just what’s expected of governments these days.
The BC Liberals, predictably, slammed the offer as a bribe. Normally, they’d have a pretty compelling case to offer on that front. The only problem? The Liberals themselves had already made a pretty blatant bribe to voters just the week before: a provincial sales-tax relief plan that would give British Columbians a one-year holiday from the 7-per-cent tax. After that first year, the tax rate would go up to three per cent, before reverting to the normal rate – all at a cost of somewhere between $10-billion and $11-billion.
“This is not the time to worry about the details,” Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson said when he was asked how he would pay for the measure.
Well, of course it’s not the time – there’s a pandemic! So what if it represents a potentially massive jolt to the treasury? This is what the people expect, dammit!
Mr. Horgan released the government’s stimulus package on Sept. 17, which included $1.5-billion in new spending and an additional $660-million in tax relief for small businesses. Four days later, he called an election. If that isn’t politicizing a pandemic, I don’t know what is.
But he, and many of our other political masters, seem to be getting away with making promises with few strings attached. The mantra now is “spend, baby, spend” – without paying any political cost.
But trying to exploit a crisis can have real-world consequences. This week, The Globe and Mail’s Justine Hunter revealed that funds from the B.C. government’s $2-billion pandemic economic recovery plan aren’t likely to start flowing until the end of the year – despite the fact that many businesses are struggling to stay afloat right now.
The reason behind the delay? The (unnecessary) election, of course. Ballots need to be counted, ministers need to be appointed to their portfolios, and relief applications need to be scrutinized before money can start moving. Who knows how many operations will close down before then?
There is no question that the pandemic has created a need for some stimulus relief. But trying to take political advantage of that demand is simply wrong. The bills being racked up now are going to have to be paid at some point – by somebody.
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