Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION
Who's stupid enough?
I rarely cover the same ground here that I do in dead-tree columns
, but there is a fascinating debate raging about Bill 38, the NDP's amendments to the Balanced Budget Law, and quite frankly I'm not sure I could sell my editor on back-to-back Bill 38 columns for the newsprint edition. So, operating on the basis that I didn't explain myself properly the first time, some additional thoughts.Does Bill 38 provide the NDP, or any government for that matter, with a free pass to increase spending? It does allow for deficit financing but the argument is whether the NDP, or any government, would actually do that? In fascinating email exchange with a senior Tory staffer that went on for most of Friday, it was mutually decided this was the central issue with Bill 38 - is it just a tactic to allow a government of the day to deficit finance on the operations side, and hide it with surpluses on the consolidated financial statement side found in the gaudy reserves of crown corporations?The Tory staffer said yes, it would definitely do that. And you could count on it happening because, well, the NDP were in power and they are famous for deficit financing. Just look at what they did in the 1980s. Personally, I don't think you can stamp the double-ought version of the NDP with that label. It's as fallacious as, let's say, claiming that all Tory governments, including one led by current leader Hugh McFadyen
, would drastically cut spending on health care and education because that's what former Tory Premier Gary Filmon
did.Provincial governments govern for the times. In the 1990s, it was all about slaying the deficit. Ottawa did this by cutting transfer payments for health care and education. The provinces followed suit (what could they do?) and cut spending on health care and education. I do not for a minute believe that Filmon believed this was the best thing to do; it was the only thing he could do under the circumstances.If this was 1985, and Gary Doer
was Howard Pawley
, then you could see a NDP government rushing to take advantage of this new opportunity to overspend. But it's not. And without inflating anyone's sense of self-worth, the media (mainstream and alternative) are not about to let any government get away with deficit financing on the operations side. Forget about Balanced Budget Law - consider how the electorate would punish a government that spent without good justification. General elections are the litmus tests of government policy. If you can't justify a decision to spend excessively, you're likely to get turfed.And for those leaping to their feet to claim the NDP is overspending wildly, I'll sugget you look at the provincial budgets for the other nine provinces over the past decade. As Ottawa has increased transfer payments, the provinces have spent that money. It is certainly reasonable to debate whether that money earmarked for health, education and social services should have been used to lower taxes or pay debt, but you should acknowledge that it is now fashionable for the provinces to spend the money for what it was intended. Just as it was fashionable (or necessary) to cut spending in the 1990s.One last point. Several "alternative" media commentators have suggested this theory is flawed (fair enough) because the electorate is essentially too stupid and uninterested to hold anyone accountable. One even went so far as to call voters "uneducated" and thus unable to make an informed decision about government finances. To those commentators, I humbly point out that you're on a slippery slope.Implying that the great unwashed is too stupid or uninformed to know what's going on is supposed to be a classic mistake made by the mainstream media. You know the refrain - mainstream media is solely focused on the limited opinions of the chattering class because the public does not understand an issue well enough to make an informed comment or decision. I think the allegation is actually quite valid in some areas of the mainstream media.However, this admittedly mainstream commentator believes this IS an issue the public understands. And while I join alternative commentators in lamenting the poor turnout in elections, we still have hundreds of thousands of passionate, informed people casting votes every four years. What has the alternative media come to when it turns on the very people it claims to serve in ways the mainstream media cannot? Shame.I have wagered a bottle of 15-year-old Scotch with the Tory staffer that the NDP are not stupid enough to run up deficits on the operations side, which I believe would give the Tories a free pass to victory in the next election. He thinks they are that stupid, and he comes by his opinion honestly. One of us is going to be delightfully drunk on the next election night.-30-