The trouble with deficits and character
It’s hard to blame the tow truck driver when the car you bought with a bad cheque gets repossessed.
But that’s what the opposition will be doing next week when they rant over the “draconian” measures in Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fedeli’s fall economic statement.
For over a decade successive Liberal governments have debt financed generous public sector wage increases, increases in transfers to municipalities, universities, schools and hospitals (the MUSH sector) and any number of “progressive” new programs.
Now the bill has come due and with it the unhappy news that you can’t keep the car when the cheque bounces.
When Fideli presents his economic update to the Legislature there will undoubtedly be a chorus of wails from the large cadre of folks who have benefited from government largesse.
It might be better if some of that anguish was aimed at the governments who made spending commitments way above the level of taxes they were willing to collect.
A systemic deficit is a lie told to taxpayers by a government that lacks the courage to face its spending problem.
Fedeli and company now stand squarely in the face of a $15 billion dollar systemic deficit inherited from the defeated (finally) Liberals.
There is no easy way to quickly reduce that amount of overspending.
The Ford government is clearly committed to fulfilling promises made during the recent election, even if those promises are difficult or controversial (see sex-ed curriculum).
But two cornerstone promises are now in conflict.
Balancing the budget without reducing the size of the Ontario public sector might have been possible if the deficit was, as the Liberal government projected, $6.7 billion.
But we now know the real deficit is more than double that amount.
Which leaves Fedeli with a big problem. Reducing that huge deficit over four years requires some shrinkage in the public service. It is pointless to reduce or eliminate a program without reducing redundant staff.
Similarly the MUSH sector will soon face the imperative to find more cost effective ways of delivering services. The status quo option is bankruptcy.
The alternatives are stark. The government must either cut or outsource a significant number of public service jobs or negotiate an extraordinary agreement with the public sector unions to reduce costs.
Either path won’t be easy. The journey to one of those outcomes begins with the economic statement.
But that’s next week. Last weeks political news deserves a comment.
During the first few tumultuous months of the Harris government my then wife Valarie and I decided to go our separate ways.
It wasn’t an easy decision and it wasn’t particularly great timing.
Some months later a colleague asked me if I thought the split was caused by political life. I replied that I thought politics didn’t cause the breakup but that the pace of public life probably sped it up.
Politicians are changed, for better or worse, by the experience of living a public life because politics is ultimately a test of character, passed or failed in full view of the public.
Those fortunate enough to enjoy the (sometimes uncomfortable) support of family and true friends can emerge from the experience more self aware, and usually more than a little humbled.
Last week two good friends, Tony Clement and Jim Wilson, stumbled into the political spotlight.
Undoubtedly they will be changed by the experience. One can only hope that change will be for the better.