Monday, August 20, 2007

On deficits becoming surpluses and fixed election date syndrome

Late last week, the Ontario Liberal government announced a $2.3 billion surplus for the province. Meaning, if Dalton McGuinty doesn't win the election this fall, at least he'll be leaving the books in a lot better shape than he found them: a massive (and hidden) $5.6 billion deficit left behind by the Conservatives, a legacy of the Mike Harris/Ernie Eves/Jim Flaherty years.

Naturally, the inheritor of that Harris/Eves legacy, John Tory, isn't giving the Liberals any credit for cleaning-up the mess his Conservative forefathers left behind. But that's politics. All parties, however, are certainly busy explaining how they'd spend the surplus, although Tory’s chicken in every pot platform (tax cuts AND service increases AND new spending), and his unwillingness to release any detailed costing, casts doubt on how long it will take for this Liberal surplus to become another Conservative deficit if he’s elected.

By the way, I got a chuckle out of this line from Tory:

Tory also questioned how Sorbara could have “found” an extra $2.3 billion — more proof, he said, that the public can’t trust the government’s numbers.

“Every time this guy who claims to be a finance minister puts on a new pair of pants he seems to find $2 billion,” said Tory, a former president of Rogers Cable. “I can assure you, having run a large organization before, you don’t just find $2 billion.”

Most organizations maybe, but looking at what I pay for Rogers, I wouldn’t be so sure. But the amusing bit was his comment that the public couldn’t trust the Liberal government’s numbers. I can see why he might be wary, after all, his Conservative forefathers do know a lot about releasing untrustworthy numbers, and he still hasn't given us any numbers for his platform. John knows of what he speaks.

That's not what I wanted to talk about though. Rather, I wanted to address the complaints by Tory and the NDP’s Howard Hampton about the Liberal government’s spending announcements of the last few months, accusing the government of a prolonged vote buying campaign. The government’s response is hey, we’re not going to stop governing for five months before the election.

Frankly, what we’re seeing is just a byproduct of a fixed election dates system. By setting a fixed election date all parties, by definition, know exactly when the election is, and they plan accordingly. For the government, as always, that means doing the unpopular stuff in the first year or two, then rolling-out the popular stuff in the second half to build popularity.

In a fixed election date system it’s that same process, but on steroids. The campaign lasts much longer than the fixed writ period: indeed it begins many months, if not a year, before the writ is ever dropped. All the parties have been in campaign mode for months. All the parties have released pre-writ campaign ads. All have been announcing policy, attacking opponents, and touring the province making spending commitments.

With fixed election dates we get a longer period of campaigning. We saw the same thing in B.C., which had its first fixed-election date in May of 2005. Interesting side note: I was working as a poll clerk for Elections BC on that election (neither provincial party caught my fancy) when the reporter from the local paper came in and said he had big news. I took a break and popped outside to respect the no politics in the polling place rule, and he told me Belinda Stronach had just crossed the floor to the Liberals. He had to say it three times before I believed him, it sounded so crazy. Anyway, both parties in B.C. had begun campaigning for that May election many months before, and the Campbell government over months rolled-out a series of good news announcements and commercials.

So, is there a certain element of campaigning to the McGuinty announcements over the summer? Of course there is. But, as they said, it’s not like they’re going to stop governing for five months before the writ is dropped. And all the parties are campaigning, McGuinty just happens to be the one with the advantage of incumbency.

While fixed election dates have their advantages, longer campaigns are one of their drawbacks. This is one of the reasons I wasn't a fan of fixed election dates. I like campaigns, but prefer them to stay confined to the writ period. But, as with everything, you take the good with the bad.

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Brandon E. Beasley said...

"While fixed election dates have their advantages, longer campaigns are one of their drawbacks. This is one of the reasons I wasn't a fan of fixed election dates. I like campaigns, but prefer them to stay confined to the writ period. But, as with everything, you take the good with the bad."

The democratic advantage of fixed election dates outweighs any drawbacks of longer campaigns by a wide margin. It prevents governments from calling elections when times are good for them in the polls, and that means that if a government is in a minority situation (like we have now in Ottawa), the government can no longer just ask for an election from the GG if it feels like it can win a majority, or at least get a leg up - if there's going to be an election, it has to be because the government has fallen on the merits (or lack thereof, I suppose) of its legislation.

It certainly makes for a different poltical dynamic in this country, but one that is far preferable and more democratic.

James Bow said...

Good points all, BCer, but I think in Ontario's case, the position of this election works fairly well. Our provincial politicians don't have the weight to intrude upon our summer bliss, the way our poor American cousins have to suffer through 2008's campaign a year early. People won't get really engaged here (and neither will the media) until the campaign officially begins in September.

ottlib said...

I do not think fixed election dates is more democratic. It is a political gimmick and nothing more.

The US has had fixed election dates since its inception and they are no more democratic than Canada.

For minority governments a PM just has to put together a confidence motion that the opposition does not like to get an election. He does not need to visit the GG to get one.

As BCer states all fixed election dates accomplish is having a government focus its attention from governing to campaigning one year earlier than with non-fixed dates. Personally, I find that much more disconcerting than a PM or Premier having the right to call an election when it is to his or her advantage.

Demosthenes said...

Wow, an optimist.

I think the American example shows that with fixed election dates, the campaign never stops.

I suppose that's more democratic, though I'm not sure it's such a great idea- calling an election when times are good is probably superior to messing up your economy by trying to force it to look good for election times.