By Geoffrey Stevens
“Whoever wins will be seen to have lied to the public,” David Dodge, governor of the Bank of Canada (2001-2008).
Now a corporate director and adviser to a law firm, David Dodge was talking in that September interview with Jacquie McNish of the Globe and Mail about the Ontario election and what he called the “impossible” promises being made by the three party leaders. Each was offering tax reductions and improved services in a province whose leaders, Dodge believes, should have been confronting the fact that Ontario’s tax revenue base is shrinking, not expanding.
Dodge knows whereof he speaks. Prior to 2001, he was deputy minister to Liberal Finance Minister Paul Martin. They inherited a record deficit from Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives and turned it into a surplus for Jean Chrétien’s government.
If any of the Ontario leaders took heed of Dodge’s warning, it was not evident from their campaigns. Each pressed ahead with their spend-more, tax-less programs. The Liberals published a 56-page document called “Forward Together” in which they made 45 new promises. Both Tim Hudak of the Progressive Conservatives and Andrea Horwath of the New Democrats attacked the harmonized sales tax. Both promised to remove the provincial portion (eight points of the HST) from home heating and hydro rates, although neither explained how they were going finance that or get it past the federal government.
Hudak also promised a $1.3-billion reduction in personal income taxes while Horwath said she would phase out the HST on gasoline.
Because the PCs and NDP lost the election, their promises can be assigned to the scrap heap of electoral history as fiscal follies that happily didn’t happen.
But Dalton McGuinty is another matter. He won the election. Will he be seen to have lied to the public, as David Dodge suggested?
The Liberals started the campaign by painting an unrealistically rosy portrait of the province’s finances – at least, the provincial auditor general said publicly he thought their picture was full of holes.
To his credit, I suppose, McGuinty did not make as many costly campaign promises as his opponents. But he did pledge full all-day kindergarten across Ontario by 2014, a home renovation tax credit for seniors, 60,000 new post-secondary places, new tuition grants for low- and middle-income students, a 10 per cent reduction in electricity bills, and all-day Go Train service. The Liberals claimed these commitments would cost $1.5 billion a year, which seems suspiciously low. Whatever the amount, it is not at all clear where the money is supposed to come from.
If prior post-election behaviour holds, the Liberals will chortle for a while longer over their “major minority,” as McGuinty calls the election result (an absurd rationalization if there ever was one). Then he and his finance minister, Dwight Duncan, with their financial gurus and spin doctors will assemble to devise ways to talk themselves out of promises they know they cannot keep.
Chances are they will “discover” the province’s books are in much worse shape than they had been led to believe. They will blame the world economic situation, European debt crisis, sluggish growth in Canada, the weather, political uncertainty south of the border, faulty forecasting, and anything else they can think of, up to, if necessary, sun spots on the former planet of Pluto.
So, sadly, they will not be able to keep all their promises. Oh, they still intend to honour them, but just not right now. Later, for sure – as soon as the economy improves and the deficit becomes more manageable. Or sometime between now and the end of the government’s mandate, whenever that may be (with a minority, you see, a government has to be flexible, to keep its options open).
But don’t call the Liberals “liars.” They meant what they said when they said it. It’s just that stuff keeps changing and what seemed perfectly feasible a few days or weeks ago, no longer does. You understand. That’s not lying, is it?
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
(published Oct 11, 2011 in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury)