National Post

Can we swallow this humbug?


There was one goal above all others for Thursday’s Ontario’s budget: to halt the water that has been flooding into this Titanic of a government and keep it from sinking from sight.

This is a government that has been desperate for good news. Attempts to prevent Premier Kathleen Wynne’s poll ratings from dropping towards single digits have failed.

A much ballyhooed pledge to reduce astronomic­al hydro bills produced no bump in the ratings. Though much has been made of Donald Trump’s underwhelm­ing performanc­e in his first 100 days as president, and the growing sense of disillusio­n among his supporters, his 44 per cent approval rating is 32 points above Wynne’s standing in Ontario.

Finance Minister Charles Sousa’s budget had to stop the bleeding. There was simply no alternativ­e. By whatever means possible, a positive message had to be concocted that could be spun out over the province’s disgruntle­d inhabitant­s, somehow convincing them to give the tired, old Liberal regime yet another chance. It had to be simple, straightfo­rward, and bullet- proof enough that the local media could be gulled into repeating it in the headlines that are all most people will read when it comes to budget stories.

To that degree, Sousa succeeded. “Ontario balances budget, pours billions into health care,” the Globe and Mail announced, just as the government must have prayed. “Ontario Budget 2017: Balanced Books for Ontario, and free drugs for those under 24,” the CBC reported. The Toronto Star (well, we knew the Liberals could count on the Star) editoriali­zed: “Wynne government promises much-needed investment in child care.” The Star, as you’d expect, faithfully treats new government outlays as “investment­s” rather than more of the spending that has left the province $312 billion in hock.

There haven’t been a lot of noteworthy achievemen­ts in Western politics of late, but — as the budget demonstrat­ed — great strides have been made in understand­ing and manipulati­ng media messaging. Sure, most of the articles about Sousa’s plan eventually got around to noting the many gaping holes in the document. The budget claims to be “balanced” even though debt will rise another $ 26.4 billion this fiscal year. Debt servicing costs will again eat up $ 1 billion a month, topping all but the highest priority programs. Even to reach those dubious levels, a great deal of ho- cus pocus was required: billions of dollars in expenditur­es for capital projects are kept off the books; billions more in borrowing is shoved into the future; one- off asset sales like the Hydro One sell-off are used to make the numbers look better than they are.

But Ontarians who care already knew that state of affairs. And look at the goodies on offer: free abortion pills! A transit credit for seniors! More childcare spaces and … did we mention this already? … a 25 per cent cut to electricit­y bills, which is really a 17 per cent cut, and will actually cost the province billions down the road, but who’s counting? By this time next year will Ontario’s easily- swayed voters remember any of the dirty details of the budget or the flim-flam used to manufactur­e its bottom line? Not likely. But they won’t be allowed to forget the government’s claim to have balanced the books, because the Liberal party will spend heavily to keep it on the airwaves (possibly using public funds on the premise that the government has a responsibi­lity to keep residents informed of its activities).

Sousa insists the books will remain in the black for three more years, thanks in part to greater land transfer taxes from Toronto’s ballooning housing prices. The $ 3.1 billion a year he expects to gain might explain why the Liberals took so long to respond to demands for efforts to cool the market, which has even prosperous, fully-employed families struggling to find a home they can afford.

Many of the news reports pointed out that this was an election document, meant to present the government in the best light and win over voters even though the Liberals still have a year before they have to face voters. Of course it is. Its overwhelmi­ng purpose was to protect the interests of the Liberal party, even if it means chaining the province to the benevolenc­e of its lenders and gambling the future on interest rate levels.

That has long been the Liberal way, and it has kept them in power for almost 14 years. Against all the odds they might even stay there, as long as Ontarians continue to swallow the sort of humbug they were presented with Thursday.


 ?? CRAIG ROBERTSON / POSTMEDIA NEWS ?? Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Charles Sousa at the reading of the budget at Queen’s Park.
CRAIG ROBERTSON / POSTMEDIA NEWS Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Charles Sousa at the reading of the budget at Queen’s Park.
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