Another View

Visions of spending dance in our heads

Charles Gordon November 17 1997
Another View

Visions of spending dance in our heads

Charles Gordon November 17 1997

Visions of spending dance in our heads

Another View

Charles Gordon

The Christmas decorations are already up at the shopping centres, a handy metaphor for the premature visions of sugarplums dancing in some Canadians’ heads as they compile their post-deficit wish lists. What will we get this year, something nice, or more downsizing?

When it became clear that the neoconservative policies of Paul Martin and many of his provincial counterparts really were going to eliminate budget deficits, spirited discussion about what to do with the loot began. Should governments increase spending or cut taxes? Those seemed to be the main choices. Interestingly, in the early going, there were few voices urging governments to keep on doing what they have been doing—which is to say, slashing programs and cutting jobs. The words “stay the course” were refreshingly absent.

Now, it is true that there has always been a small group—call it a cult—of people who believe in the reality of deficits but not in the reality of surpluses. They are off to the side, muttering about there being no Santa Claus.

Ironically, since it was due to their urgings that governments found the courage to close all those hospitals, these grinches find themselves now marginalized, as governments prepare for the dual realities of post-deficit economics and the struggle for re-election.

You can debate the merits of deficitslashing as government policy, but there is little doubt about the attractiveness of deficitslashing as a re-election program. It has none.

Governments know it, and as one after another prepares to face the people, voters are suddenly hearing how governments, thanks to the wise course they have followed, have been able to find the funds for a little fine-tuning here and there of some of the policies that may have seemed, well, perhaps a bit harsh.

The awareness ofthat is what gives us Christmas thoughts. Politicians know that if they want to leave permanent monuments of their accomplishments, a road or a hospital or an arena plays a lot better than a figure at the bottom line of a balance sheet.

In this respect, it is useful to consider one of the new books of the season, Pierre Berton’s 1967: The Last Good Year. It was the last good year because we had not yet begun our obsession with losing the country and we had not been hit with the economic hard times that brought about the obsession with national bottomlining. “Now, with affection and nostalgia,” Berton writes, “we remember those times when anything seemed possible and the future looked rosy.” All the provinces but Newfoundland were running surpluses, and the federal deficit, the 10th in a row, did not seem to worry Liberal finance minister Mitchell Sharp. It was due, he said, to “the enthusiasm and persistence of my colleagues and

Like the patrons of a horror movie, Canadians are not convinced that the deficit monster, although slain, is really dead

other honorable members in support of worthy but expensive ideas.”

We see those worthy ideas all over the country now—arenas, concert halls, parks. They are expensive ideas that we have trained ourselves over the past few years to think of as stuff we cannot afford. Which means that the spirit of Centennial Year, when we could do anything and pay what it took, will not come back to us. .

Too bad. We could use something like that centennial spirit again, for many reasons, some of them having to do with making this the kind of country that is less likely to break up. The deficit shock, encouraged by emissaries of the wealthier segments of our society, has made us timid and cautious as a people, unwilling to build, ready to let someone else do the investing, if any. Meanwhile, as was brought dramatically home in the dispute between the On-

tario government and its teachers, vital public institutions have been weakened. At the very least, in this budgetary pre-Christmas, we should wish, as a hard-earned present, for our governments to put back some of the money they have taken out, rehire some of the important people—nurses, scientists— who were deemed unnecessary at the height of deficit hysteria.

But it is by no means automatic. There are poll results indicating that, like repeat customers of horror movies, Canadians enjoy being frightened. Even though the monster is slain, we are not completely convinced that it is dead. So we see the pollster Angus Reid reporting that only 13 per cent of Canadians want to see the surplus devoted to government programs, compared with 37 per cent who want taxes cut and 47 per cent who want the surplus applied to reducing the accumulated debt. Even when the putative new programs are defined as reducing child poverty

or providing jobs for young people, 56 per cent of Canadians see little being accomplished through such programs, while 41 per cent would support them.

There are variations according to income and region, with the better off being less likely to want government spending. A significant exception is Ontario, which has had a rough couple of years under the tax-cutting Mike Harris and is less in favor of tax cuts than most other provinces. By and large, though, the poll shows the continuing power of the anti-government dogma of the past few years (as well as a delayed vote for the tax-cut programs put forward by the Conservatives and Reform in the last federal election).

If there is one indication that voters have not been altogether happy with the direction their governments have been taking, it is the fact that 55 per cent said the federal government caused too much pain in its campaign to reduce the deficit. That could mean the Liberals might not hurt themselves in their stated intention to devote 50 per cent of surpluses to new programs.

They should stay the course.