The Inside Agenda Blog

The cost/benefit of election economics

by Hilary Clark Wednesday September 21, 2011

To look out across the election campaign so far, you’d hardly know that these are tough economic times for the province. While there’s plenty of talk about what government needs to do to make life more affordable for people, a quiet consensus seems to have emerged that seriously confronting the province’s economic fundamentals can wait. Parties tout tax cuts, credits and breaks almost as though 2008 didn’t happen here.

Deficit spending is back across the spectrum with nary a bold policy prescription to either attack or defend it, as we wind on to balanced budgets not in the coming mandate, but in the one after that, in 2017-2018. Jobs, jobs, jobs sounds a familiar electoral refrain, but the 800-pound gorilla that is the buckling global economy gets barely a mention, to say nothing of what a double dip recession might do to all the shiny promises. 

After using up the word boondoggle in the last sitting of the legislature, the Progressive Conservatives now hammer away at the “Tax Man” and McGuinty’s spending increases, but they neither offer to rescind much of that new tax revenue nor present a serious tally to reduce spending, the deficit of the $215 billion net debt this province carried as of fiscal 2010-2011. As Jeffery Simpson put it in the Globe: “The Conservatives’ identified cuts are so limited that, when placed against their spending promises, the financing of their entire platform is a joke.”

Not to be outdone, the NDP sees the Tory bet on taking the HST off heating and raises them by removing it from gasoline too. If once upon a time an NDP platform could be expected to argue that a stimulus package financed with progressive taxation would see the province out of dark days, this NDP “helps people keep more money in their pockets.”  To their credit, they say they’ll pay for their promises by raising corporate taxes, but even that is safely nestled in stats showing Ontario will still be a lower tax jurisdiction than the U.S.

For their part, the Liberals' platform tries to leverage its incumbent advantage by bracketing the most difficult questions and fudging some of the others. As the Auditor General of Ontario tells Steve off the top of tonight’s program, the Liberal spending projections are “optimistic” – surely a euphemism for “almost certainly ridiculous.” How they’ll keep spending at barely the rate of inflation isn’t spelled out in their platform, but one suspects that a lot rides on what Don Drummond’s commission to find cost savings in public service delivery recommends… after the election, that is. Health care savings, labour cost constraints, service consolidation, privatization and such won’t be part of an adult conversation had by the electorate this time around.

Perhaps it’s for the best. Perhaps an electoral conversation about economic fundamentals merely or inevitably leads to the kind of lockjaw ideology that has arisen in other jurisdictions recently. Given that Ontario politicians have yet to work up the inclination, will, or chutzpa to present big economic arguments to the voters this time, it's because past rewards and punishments for doing so prove that not talking about it is exactly the way the voters want it. What do you think? Is an election a good or a bad time to talk economic and budget specifics? Do taxpayers evaluate platforms differently than citizens? Do voters really want to weigh their options, when the options aren’t much fun?