Imagine a made-up election where all three leaders float in a dream world, sweet-talking our sleepwalking voters on the campaign trail.
Don’t blame grown-up Ontarians for tuning out the June 12 election so far. The emerging political platforms have a fantasy quality unseen since Harry Potter enchanted children with wizardry and incantations.
Tim Hudak invokes shibboleths to win the day for his Progressive Conservatives, notably his Million Jobs Plan.
Kathleen Wynne plays mind games with numbers, boosting the deficit while promising to make it vanish in her Liberal pre-election budget.
And the NDP’s Andrea Horwath performs the feat of political transmogrification, changing from progressive to populist in the blink of a Tory-style tax cut.
There’s no magic to their madness. Practitioners of the dark art of politics have a deep understanding of shallow campaign techniques.
All that’s required to decode or deconstruct their dissembling is that we hold them to account:
• The emptiest slogan comes from the biggest Tory promise: The Million Jobs Plan.
It sounds like a Million Votes Plan. Or a lottery game. Either way, it screams marketing pitch. Why not a more plausible (and believable) 588,000 Jobs Plan, corresponding with the actual number of unemployed when Hudak first announced his strategy last January (he keeps claiming there are 1 million unemployed; Statistics Canada says the number has since dropped to 556,000 jobless people).
He’d create jobs by slashing corporate taxes to the lowest rates in North America (already among the lowest). The idea is to incite investment, but what about plummeting consumer confidence when the other part of Hudak’s plan kicks in — eliminating 100,000 public service jobs?
People take Hudak at his word when he threatens to cut 100,000 public sector jobs, but don’t believe him when he promises 1 million jobs will arise from his economic shock treatment. It’s the PC paradox.
• The biggest shell game comes from the Liberals in their spring budget. Wynne’s promise of a balanced budget within three years requires a leap of fiscal faith. After years of steady decline, the $11.3 billion deficit jumps to $12.5 billion from 2013-14 to 2014-15. Yet the Liberals insist it will still dissolve, as scheduled by 2017-18 — despite deviating from their fiscal plan this year to meet demands from the horseracing industry, teachers, child care and home-care workers.
Even under this best-case scenario, net debt as a percentage of GDP (Ontario’s total economic activity) will keep rising to a peak of 40.8 per cent next year. That’s a big deficit, and huge debt, which is why Ontario remains the biggest sub-national borrower in the world. Even a magician knows you can’t just white out red ink.
• The most brazen vote-buying comes from the NDP’s Andrea Horwath, who is offering a $100 bribe for voters on their hydro bills (Bribe? Sorry — a rebate for ratepayers). She’s also repeating her discredited pledge from the 2011 campaign to take the HST off hydro bills (but only the provincial portion of 8 per cent, not the 5 per cent federal share). Not even Hudak is playing the old HST game anymore.
Horwath also wants to cut business taxes, albeit for small companies, not larger ones. This is more about politics than economics, running counter to academic research that shows such incentives reward only companies that stay small (lest they be taxed at a higher rate), discouraging them from achieving the economies of scale needed for global export markets.
The NDP is at its most unrestrained on restraint. Counter-intuitively, Horwath announced this week that she would save money by spending money — creating a new Ministry of Savings and Accountability to cut back the bureaucracy. That role is normally played by the finance minister, who has the clout to play Doctor No with his free-spending cabinet colleagues. The NDP wants to re-imagine the process.
All three leaders are guilty of running make-believe campaigns in various ways. That doesn’t mean they’re equally unbelievable.
One notable difference: The Liberals put out a comprehensive budget plan before the election call, while the Tories released a fully costed platform in the campaign’s early days — leaving the New Democrats as the most reluctant to spell out their ideas or back them up with hard numbers.
That’s an old trick worth watching closely.