Last of the penny-pinchers

JOHN DeMONT March 9 1998

Last of the penny-pinchers

JOHN DeMONT March 9 1998

Last of the penny-pinchers

SPECIAL REPORT

“After a lengthy period of difficulty, we are now getting a firmer grip upon the national finances and bringing them under more effective control. "

It was, even by the lowly standards of Canadian budget day speeches, a real snoozer. How was Edgar Benson to know that the document he tabled on June 3, 1969, would become a lasting claim to fame? “No one worried about the deficit back then for the simple reason that no minister of finance would ever spend money until they had it,” recalled the last Canadian finance minister to balance a budget. An old political warhorse indulging in a little retrospective bravado? Benson, an accountant who represented the Ontario riding of Kingston and the Islands, readily admits that staying in the black was easier then with the benefit of a strong Canadian

dollar and a vibrant economy. And even though he posted deficits in his next two budgets, no one could accuse the minister who introduced the 1972 capital gains tax of ignoring the bottom line.

The big cry in the months leading up to the 1969 budget: index the Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security and other social programs adopted by Liberal governments during the 1960s to the inflation rate. “Indexing those items without indexing the revenue side meant the cost was going to go up tremendously,” Benson, now 74, told Maclean’s from his condominium in Hull, Que., across the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill. “So I resisted.” The trouble, in Benson’s view, is that his successor John Turner did not. Instead, the future prime minister tied pensions to inflation without a corresponding hike in taxes. The result: while revenues did almost double between Benson’s final budget in 19711972 and Turner’s last effort four years later, the deficit tripled, ballooning to $6.2 billion. At 16 per cent of federal spending, it was the first of the huge deficits that helped accelerate the country’s long, costly slide into debt, which Paul Martin hoped to reverse with his historic announcement last week.

After Benson left politics in 1972, he spent a decade as president of the Canadian Transport Commission, then did a three-year stint as Canada’s ambassador to Ireland before retiring in 1985. Nowadays, he dabbles in real estate, visits his nine grandchildren and one greatgrandchild, and makes regular trips to Europe with his third wife, Ottawa lawyer Mary Jane Binks. “The Prime Minister and Paul Martin are doing a great job,” he opined on budget day. Benson can only hope that this time a balanced budget really does mark a hopeful new start.

JOHN DeMONT