The senior civil servants of Ontario did their job. They laid it on the line last year for Premier Kathleen Wynne and her Liberal government.
The government was going to miss its deficit targets for the next two years, the civil servants warned in a leaked memo – if it did, the next government would have no choice but to undertake the country's most aggressive program spending cuts to balance the books.
Politically, this truth proved too tough for the minority Liberal government. Ms. Wynne's party was in a pre-election frame of mind. Like old-style Liberals, they couldn't find enough ways to spend money, figuring from their focus groups that Ontarians didn't care about the deficit and accumulating debt. Instead, Liberals would promise to shower money around Ontario and simultaneously pledge to balance the books by 2017-18.
Shameless political pandering was married to unrealistic economics to produce a budget that managed to raise taxes and increase the deficit. The civil servants were right, and still are: Forget the budget the Liberals are campaigning on.
The budget and the Liberal platform rest on figments of a fertile political imagination, notably that the injection of funds into everything from propping up the bedraggled horse-racing industry (a sinkhole for a few rural votes) to just about every other industry looking for a handout, plus the construction of highways and public transit, will miraculously produce new revenues from new jobs to balance the budget. Ratings agencies already smell a rat. Get ready for a downgrading of Ontario's standing if the Liberals win and actually try to implement this budget.
The Liberals, in office for 11 years, should justifiably be turfed from office – if not for the fact that their Conservative and NDP opponents have also been floating on a sea of illusions, a situation that must leave many voters in despair. The Liberals have been beset by scandals and project cost overruns. They've managed to drive up the province's debt-to-GDP ratio from 26.6 per cent to 40.3 per cent during their tenure. In the past seven years, they have added $120-billion to Ontario's net debt.
With stewardship like that, does any voter seriously believe the Liberals will take a $12.5-billion deficit in 2014-15 to a balanced budget in three years? If so, they should make book now on the Toronto Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup. In fact, given the records of the two organizations – the provincial Liberals and the Leafs – it would be a close race as to which of those two prizes will come first.
The Liberals are also peddling the idea that they can break Toronto's traffic gridlock without tolls or tax increases. This, too, is an illusion. Two expert groups that looked into the gridlock mess said what is palpably obvious but what all political parties are ignoring: that improvements will be very costly and require new revenue streams. Unless, of course, a government wants to borrow all the money, which, given the Liberals' propensities, they might just want to do.
The Liberals are exceptionally good at adding new government programs; they are congenitally bad at eliminating or scaling back old ones. Which is another way of saying that they hate making choices, if those choices are not about doing and spending more. Which, in turn, is another way of saying they are rather spineless and unwilling to prepare the public for difficult decisions, let alone to make them.
What the Liberals are good at is whining about the province's treatments at the hands of a Conservative government in Ottawa. Ontario governments of all stripes have taken to it – Bob Rae's New Democrats and Mike Harris's Conservatives alike. Ontarians themselves remain stubbornly indifferent.
Ontario is like the proverbial frog in warm water that has not yet reached the boiling point. The frog is actually reasonably comfortable, despite the occasional ache and pain. This is what Ms. Wynne is counting on: comfort today with the promise of even more tomorrow. This is leadership?