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In the year 2018

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One thing that’s puzzled me this campaign is Hugh McFadyen’s promise early on that he’ll need to 2018 eliminate the province’s budget deficit.

What’s so special about 2018? Why that date? Why take that long when the NDP cheerfully admit they’re on track to balance the books four years earlier?

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I get the Progressive Conservatives strategy—they wanted to shed the image early in the campaign of being slashers and burners to government services. They wanted to kibosh the image that if they form the next government, they’ll take a chainsaw to government services and programs to tighten spending.

That image was crafted by NDP before the campaign started, that McFadyen sat on the knee of Gary Filmon when the former Tory premier fired a gadzillion nurses with a stroke of pen during recession of the 1990s.

But why 2018?

Here’s what may be behind the Tory thinking:

  • as mentioned, they want to soften their image to voters of being blue-suited, nickel-and-dime bean counters.
  • they’ve made a lot of costly promises during the campaign -- $9 million per month in family allowance payments to Manitobans, for one – and taking until 2018 allows them to fulfill those promises if they’re elected.
  • 2018 takes us past the next election -- Oct. 6, 2015 under our fixed election date legislation – and so it allows the Tories to campaign then that they’re well on their way to slaying the deficit.

Jared Wesley, formerly of the University of Manitoba and now a political science professor at the University of Alberta, said what’s also at play is that while the 2018 deadline may run afoul of their Conservative base, who want government spending and the debt trimmed now darn it, it will help McFadyen more than hurt him.

"It smacks of what (former premier Gary) Doer did back in 1999 in going against his base had to say about campaign finance reform, about MTS privatization, about things like that, as a means of saying to voters, ‘Look, I’m not a dogmatic or ideological as people may think. I’m more reasonable. I’m more pragmatic.’ "

In the 1999 election, as we all know, Doer’s NDP was swept to power. The NDP has increased its grip on power in two more elections.

"To me, it’s an example of what we call inoculation," Wesley said the PCs 2018 deadline. "If the New Democrats were going to attack them as hackers and slashers, that pretty much took it off the table."

Did it work?

We use FPinfomart to search out past stories. By searching ‘McFadyen’ and ‘2018’ you can track the number of web and print stories that have appeared in both Winnipeg dailies. The first of the 17 stories (I guess this one makes it one more) appeared Aug. 29 in the Free Press. There was a subsequent flurry of stories and opinion in the following days, but it soon fell off as the campaign and media moved on to other topics.

I’m not sure how reliable this is, but FPinfomart also measures the ‘tone’ of the coverage on it: 58 per cent is neutral, 29 per cent negative and 11 per cent positive.

Wesley said what’s also noticeable in the campaign now is that talk of balanced budgets not only isn’t on the radar—it’s not even airborne.

Just two years ago, it was. Premier Greg Selinger, the former finance minister and the architect of 10 balanced budgets, was very proud of how the NDP ran the books. But that was before the recession. It changed things dramatically, and caused the NDP, like other governments, to introduce its five-year economic recovery plan and the use of deficit spending to boost the economy.

Now, talk of balancing the books and possible future deficit spending is not a big election issue, if one at all. Things like the privatization of Manitoba Hydro are.

Wesley wonders if that’s good for democracy, and good for us as another recession could be headed our way, never mind that the future of federal transfer payments to the provinces being also up in the air.

"With all of those uncertainties I don’t blame any political party for not talking about this stuff," he said. "But it could be problematic from a democratic perspective. There are critics that would say we should be talking about this. We should know what each party plans to do with the budget.

"It’s interesting as soon as that (Tory) pledge was made we haven’t heard a whiff of balanced budgets from either party."

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

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