A pre-pre-election budget to bolster Liberal fortunes: Cohn

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A pre-election budget normally comes on the eve of a campaign.

This one arrived prematurely — a pre-pre-election budget — the better to shore up worsening Liberal fortunes. While there’s still time, well before next year’s campaign.

More on the 2017 Ontario Budget

Just as a hanging clears the mind, fear of an electoral lynching has forced the Liberal brain trust to appeal for clemency. For they come now with offerings.

Repent and repeat:

All this thanks to surging tax revenues from a robust economic recovery that is leading the country and most of the industrialized world, while driving unemployment down.

Just days after the NDP proposed its own embryonic pharmacare program, we now know why the Liberals were at a loss for words all week: They didn’t want to give away their own budget plan.

By redressing the embarrassing gap in Canadian health care — medicare without full pharmacare — Ontario is finally taking a first step toward a truly universal program. The rival Liberal and NDP plans have similar projected costs (under $500 million a year), and offer only partial coverage, each in their own way.

Taken together, however, they serve as a reminder that the battle for progressive voters has already begun — the giveaways are underway. The budget materials include colourful graphics emblazoned with the word “free” so many times that they resemble those Boxing Day door crashers in Best Buy ads.

But along with the Progressive Conservatives, all three parties are also vying for the title of prudent financial steward by embracing the goal of a balanced budget.

Now the Liberals can lay claim to fulfilling the promise of a balanced budget they made back in 2008, when the great recession forced them to forego a planned surplus, plunging the province into a $19-billion deficit to bail out an ailing economy. Digging out from a decade of deficits required the government to rein in public sector salaries and pare spending, but surging revenues have changed the tide.

“Balancing the books has never been an end in itself,” Finance Minister Charles Sousa insisted Thursday.

But it is more than a means to an end. It also has political meaning.

It is a truism of politics, borne out in the last federal election, that red ink is rarely a vote-determining issue at the ballot box. But Premier Kathleen Wynne recognized that a perpetual deficit would hurt her credibility on the economy; constrain her government from funding worthy social programs; and crowd out Ontario’s fiscal capacity in case of future economic downturns.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the 2008-10 economic crisis surely merited such a designation and assignation. But there are ample reasons, political and economical, for eliminating the deficit now that Ontario’s economy has leapt into the lead.

Balancing the budget isn’t as simple as it sounds, however. The independent Financial Accountability Office kept casting doubt on whether the government could meet its target, and the PCs predicted it would never happen.

Now that it has, the Tories insist it still hasn’t, because the government is cooking the books. The NDP noted that the government’s allocation of $465 million for pharmacare is mysteriously missing from the budget document, suggesting a last-minute, back-of-the-envelope calculation.

Fair point on pharmacare, but if that’s what it takes to get started on free prescription drugs, so be it. The truth is that pharmacare makes sense on so many levels — medical, ideological and economical — that political will matters more than precise estimates at this point.

The bigger gap in the government’s pharmacare plan is that while completely free, it essentially excludes adults between 25 and 65. That’s not just tough luck for middle-aged adults, it’s also bad news for the bulk buying benefits that are the hallmark of truly universal pharmacare scaled up to the entire population.

The drawback in the NDP’s plan is that while everyone is covered (albeit with co-payments), only the 125 most commonly prescribed and effective drugs would be covered, leaving people who require costly anti-cancer medicines, for example, on their own.

Both of these belated proposals are a promising start, but still suffer from a lack of ambition. With a provincial budget of $130 billion, and total health spending of $54 billion, why are these two putatively progressive parties straining to stay under a modest $500 million cap for such a consequential program?

Still, it’s a start — for pharmacare, and the pre-election campaign. Whether this budget marks the beginning of a Liberal revival, or the start of a losing battle, is a question that voters might answer with another question:

After this pre-pre-election budget, are people better off than they were four years ago when Wynne and Sousa first took over? For the Liberals, Tories and New Democrats, that battle question may be the ballot question.