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Ontario parties do a dance around the deficit

Ontario Auditor General Jim McCarter releases his report on Ontario's health records at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto in this October 2009 file photo.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Unlike Ontario's Ombudsman, André Marin, Auditor-General Jim McCarter does not have a habit of slapping attention-grabbing titles on his work.

If he did, the report released on Tuesday could very aptly be headlined: "A plague on both your houses."

It's been obvious for some time that none of the provincial parties are especially interested in levelling with voters about the difficult climb out of deficit. But Mr. McCarter's report — a pre-election study of the province's fiscal situation, mandated by a law Dalton McGuinty's Liberals brought in after they inherited a hidden deficit from their predecessors — helps bring that unwillingness into sharper focus.

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The report's focus, of course, is on the current government. While crediting the Liberals for making cautious revenue projections, Mr. McCarter casts doubt on their promise to increase program spending by only 1.8 per cent annually, when the annual growth during their mandate has been more like 6.9 per cent. He's particularly skeptical, with good reason, about their ability to flatten health-care spending and to rein in public-sector wages — both of which are pivotal to their plan to bring the province gradually back to balance by 2017.

But the Liberals are in good company. The party likeliest to replace them in office, Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives, has released a platform even more rosy in its projections. On top of the province's current budgetary shortfall, the Tories pledge to pile billions of dollars in tax cuts and rebates. This, they insist, can be done while continuing to increase spending on core services, and cutting only a bit from things nobody will notice. In effect, they're promising that Ontarians can pay less and get more — all while eliminating the deficit.

Andrea Horwath's NDP at least promises to finance its spending commitments — largely personal tax relief, with some program spending increases — by raising corporate taxes. But it has yet to release a full spending plan, and can hardly be said to have raised much concern about the province's deficit reduction plans.

It's not, in fairness, as though the parties have completely ignored the province's finances in cobbling together their agendas. The Tories' tax cuts are more narrowly targeted than they'd have preferred. The New Democrats have avoided promising big, expensive new social programs. And while the Liberals haven't yet released their platform, this year's budget was noticeably short on new spends.

It's also true that the parties — certainly the Liberals and Tories — are putting considerable faith in a spending review to be conducted by former bank economist Don Drummond. And indeed, Mr. Drummond's marching orders suggest that he's got a lot of leeway to find efficiencies in the way that departments are run and programs are administered.

But it's obvious that all parties would prefer just to punt the deficit question to the post-election period. And to some extent, that's the public's decision. Parties' research tells them that most voters aren't at the point, like they were back in the mid-1990s, where they want some tough love.

But if the next government is going to have to make some harder decisions — and the auditor's report suggest that it will — there's an argument that politicians should be leading the public rather than following it. That way, voters could get some say in what they're willing to pay more for, and what they're willing to make do with less of.

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Mr. McCarter couldn't say all that, of course; it's not his mandate. But it's the obvious subtext of his report.

It's to the Liberals' considerable credit that they ensured some transparency in the province's finances, heading into elections. But none of the parties have yet offered much transparency about what will happen after this one.

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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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