The trou­ble with deficits and char­ac­ter

Toronto Sun - - COMMENT - JOHN SNOBELEN Snobelen was a cab­i­net min­is­ter in the Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment of On­tario premier Mike Har­ris from 1995 to 2002

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.

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