September 24, 2011 – Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath and her candidates are shouting from the rooftops that NDP governments “have run fewer deficit budgets than any other party.” In his latest column for the Ottawa Citizen, MLI Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley points out that the Ontario NDP shouldn’t take credit for the fiscal record of their Prairie cousins because that is not the story in Ontario and British Columbia. Read the full column below.
By Brian Lee Crowley, The Ottawa Citizen, September 24, 2011
In one of his seminal books about politics in Canada in the 1960s, Peter C. Newman wrote about the 1961 marriage of the old Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the CCF) and the Canadian Labour Congress to form the New Democratic Party. He quoted a Saskatchewan farmer, a stalwart supporter of his province’s long-time CCF government , who expressed scepticism about the NDP. It is no longer the CCF, he said. It’s a labour party now.
That comment neatly sums up the ambivalence at the heart of the NDP, an ambivalence most obviously on display today in the party’s self-portrayal in the current Ontario provincial election. Party leader Andrea Horwath and her candidates are shouting from the rooftops that NDP governments “have run fewer deficit budgets than any other party.”
In my experience it is the people who feel least confident about their moral character who boast the loudest about their virtue, so the fact that this claim looms so large in the NDP’s own imagination is itself a dead giveaway about where they think their greatest vulnerability lies.
Perhaps I do them a disservice. After all, if their claim is true, it might go some way to reassuring wary voters about the party after its spendthrift years in power under Bob Rae.
So is it true?
As Bill Clinton once said, it all depends on what your definition of “is” is. Or in this case, it depends on who you think New Democrats are. And that gets us back to the Jekyll and Hyde character of the party.
On one side you have the agrarian socialist tradition best exemplified by Tommy Douglas, under whom Saskatchewan ran an unbroken string of 16 balanced budgets in fat years and lean. Douglas believed that a reforming government could not afford to be beholden to established interests, including bankers. As long as he balanced the budget, he called the shots. And his conservative-minded rural constituents found that approach congenial because that was their experience on the farm.
Douglas’s fiscal virtue stamped its character on all his NDP successors in Saskatchewan, including Allan Blakeney, Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert. The first government in Canada to tackle the growing crisis of public finances in Canada in the 1990s was neither Jean Chrétien’s nor Ralph Klein’s. They followed the lead of Roy Romanow, who in 1991 chased from power a disastrous Progressive Conservative administration that had driven the province to the brink of ruin.
He proceeded to raise taxes, but even more vigorously to cut spending to balance the books. He famously closed 52 rural hospitals at a stroke because the province was living beyond its means. If you take all the years the NDP was in power in Saskatchewan starting in 1991, their cumulative record is one of budget balance.
Next door in Manitoba, NDP administrations have largely followed a similar path of fiscal caution, staying firmly in the small-c conservative mould bequeathed to them by Douglas. Over its recent years in power, starting in 1999, the Manitoba NDP’s record is even better than Saskatchewan’s: cumulative budget surpluses of 1.1 percent of revenue (a good measure of “living within your means”).
But remember that the NDP is a marriage of that prairie socialist tradition with a very different trade union or labour tradition whose strength lies mostly in BC and Ontario. The trade union movement in Canada is now almost exclusively a public sector phenomenon. A tiny fraction of workers in the private sector is unionized, whereas the vast bulk of public sector workers carry a union card.
When public finances needed to be fixed, in Saskatchewan and, to a somewhat lesser extent in Manitoba, NDP governments could draw on a strong political support base beyond the unionized public sector. That gave them manoeuvring room to rein in spending and still win re-election.
Not so in BC and Ontario. With no effective counterweight to public sector union power, NDP governments there have to keep feeding the public sector beast or they risk alienating the main source of the money and people that they need to run elections. Under the BC NDP’s year in power beginning in 1991, deficits averaged 3.6% of revenues – nothing to boast about. The Ontario NDP government under Bob Rae, though, was in a class by itself. Its cumulative deficits were 21.5% of revenues – all during the time when Roy Romanow was balancing Saskatchewan’s budget in the face of union resistance.
Ms. Horwath’s claim is best thought of as virtue by association. It is like Warren Buffett’s wastrel third cousin trying to get you to invest with him on the grounds that he and Warren have made billions between them. In a way it’s true. But you wouldn’t give him your money, would you?
Brian Lee Crowley is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.
Please note: Due to a typographical error, the originally published version said 1990, but the correct date is 1999. The data cited in the article are correct for the NDP’s years in power in Manitoba.