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A Budget In Name Only

It is true that all budgets are political documents, but we learned this week it is not true that all political documents are budgets.

The document tabled by Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa this week is so political, so divorced from financial reality, it may not be fair to call it a budget.

With the election a couple of months away and the ruling Wynne Liberals trailing in the polls, plus all the promises contained in the document are contingent on their re-election, it’s appropriate to see this week’s performance as the most political of political exercises.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne applauds while Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa (not pictured) delivers the provincial budget at Ontario’s legislature on March 28, 2018. Ernest Doroszuk/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network

That is why Sousa’s document should be judged purely for its communication value to the Ontario Liberal Party, rather than on its economic merits. As such, the only real objective of this document is for the Liberals to re-define the ballot question.

All the current polling shows a large number of Ontarians believe it’s “time for a change.” As the incumbent government, this sentiment is pure poison. When people want change, the best you can do as an incumbent party is make the case there is risk in change. And Liberals have decided the easiest way to do that is to offer people so much free stuff that no other party in good conscience would do the same.

With the profligate spending, from free day care, to free prescription drugs, to free this, that and the other thing – the Liberals aim to introduce benefits Ontarians will find so appealing that come election day, they will be compelled to vote Liberal to keep them. Without benefits that change the calculus for voters, without introducing risks against the strong “time-for-a-change” sentiment we see in poll after poll, the Liberals will lose in June.??

Whether the document is judged success or not may have been settled over Easter. Long weekends often play important roles in elections. They offer a break from people’s daily lives, which aren’t spent pondering the merits of government policy, and put them in conversation with family and friends. It’s during the chats over the spiral ham or beer-can turkey where opinions often get solidified, where undecided voters start to make up their minds, and where elections can be won or lost.?

This Easter weekend came far enough ahead of the election that it may not determine the June 7 outcome, but it certainly came at the perfect time to settle whether Ontarians like all the goodies on offer and, perhaps, if they see the Liberals as uniquely positioned to guarantee their delivery.

It would be too cynical to say this document was about buying votes, but it is entirely fair to say it was an attempt to change the ballot-box question and fight the appetite for change that has gripped Ontarians ahead of the fast-approaching election.

Mike Van Soelen is a managing principal at public affairs firm Navigator Ltd., and has served in many roles for Conservative governments at Queen’s Park and in Ottawa.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Sun on April 2, 2018.

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