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Somebody needs to be talking about B.C.'s debt load

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark at the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday August 26, 2011.

Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press

While not quite Europe, Canada is awash in debt.

Every day, it seems, brings more troubling news about just how badly in the hock we are. If it's not fresh statistics showing the personal debt load of Canadians at record levels, it's a jolting report that Moody's Investors Service has put the government of Ontario on notice regarding its whopping $190-billion debt load.

British Columbia's $45-billion cumulative provincial debt seems almost puny by comparison, but per capita it is not. Ontario has more than three times B.C.'s population of 4.5 million people.

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In year-end interviews, B.C. Premier Christy Clark has been dropping strong hints that the government may not be able to meet its commitment to balance the budget by 2013, as it's obligated to under provincial legislation. If it has to renege on this commitment, it will be the third time in recent years that the Liberal government has had to undo balanced-budget laws in order to build up more debt. And build it up it does.

Consider this: when the Liberals came into power in 2001, the provincial debt stood at $33.8-billion. In 2011, it was estimated to be $45.2-billion. And we know it is only going to keep growing between now and at least 2013, if not longer.

This is not the kind of record that a party that prides itself on responsible fiscal management wants with an election 17 months in the offing. And yet, the provincial New Democratic Party has been strangely silent on the debt issue.

On one hand it makes little sense. This should be something the NDP seizes upon given the extent to which the Liberals have dined out politically on the perception they are better stewards of the provincial treasury than the New Democrats. In fact, the Liberals have won the last three elections by scaring the electorate into believing it would be making a huge mistake entrusting the economy with the New Democrats given what they did with it while in power in the 1990s.

The NDP economic record during its decade in office was not as bad as the Liberals suggest. In fact, there is a case to be made that the provincial economy grew at a faster clip under the New Democrats than it did under the Liberals – but then so did overall debt.

And maybe that's why the NDP has not said much publicly about the province's soaring debt levels under the Liberals – because the party knows it had a worse record on that front when it was in office.

When the NDP assumed power in 1991, the B.C. provincial debt was $17-billion. When it got kicked out in 2001, it was nearly $34-billion. The NDP doubled it.

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If not the NDP, someone needs to be talking about the province's debt because it is going in the wrong direction and at a troubling clip. And it shows no signs of abating.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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