There was a particularly delicious aspect to the release of the public accounts last week, and the B.C. Liberals couldn’t resist the opportunity to enjoy it.
The annual document dump is the final word on the fiscal year ending March 31. Politicians argue about budgets year-round, but the public accounts are considered the day of reckoning. The numbers are compiled by the comptroller general and audited by the auditor general.
The argument over last year’s budget was particularly intense because it was an election year. And one of the features of the B.C. Liberal campaign was the budget itself, which was advertised as being balanced. The New Democrat Opposition rejected that view immediately and insisted throughout the campaign that the balanced budget claim was bogus.
The verdict was delivered last week, and it turns out the budget was balanced. The government was aiming for a very modest $153 million surplus and finished the year $353 million to the good.
It’s quite an accomplishment, given that provincial revenues were down a half-billion dollars, even with a reasonable growth rate. They scratched and clawed enough savings out of a $44-billion budget to make up for the shortfall and then some.
Budget-cutting is an unpleasant exercise that leaves a lot of people hurting. But in fiscal terms, the overall result is a significant accomplishment. The only other province to balance that year was Saskatchewan. B.C. emerged from deficit financing a year ahead of Alberta and is at least four years ahead of Ontario, which is running $12 billion in the red this year, with most of its indicators running in the wrong direction.
And what heightened the satisfaction was to review all the NDP claims over the past year that it couldn’t and wouldn’t be done.
There are pages and pages of them, all of which the Liberals promptly released. There are 34 NDP MLAs and nearly every one of them is on the record assuring people that the 2013-14 budget could never, ever be balanced.
Then-leader Adrian Dix spent months driving the point home. “It was clearly a major deficit budget,” he said in March 2012. “Of course it’s pretty clear, on the face of it, that this is the fifth deficit budget in a row.
“The only person in B.C. who thinks the budget is balanced is Premier [Christy] Clark.”
His successor, John Horgan, echoed the theme: “I guess it speaks to how difficult the past number of months have been for the Liberals that their glimmer of hope was that they were all able … to vote for a budget that everyone acknowledges isn’t balanced.”
Even after losing the election, they continued to insist it wasn’t balanced.
NDP MLA Shane Simpson told the legislature in July 2013: “This budget is not balanced. It will not be balanced next year when we come to the end of the year. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. This budget will not be balanced, but a lot of people will be hurt along the way in the effort to find that balance.”
NDP MLA Mike Farnworth chimed in: “It has no credibility in its budget, and it’s not balanced. It wasn’t balanced in February and it’s not balanced today.”
Apart from confirming the fact that a lot of smoke gets blown over budgets, the now-certified balanced budget also recalls another issue from the campaign. The NDP had a valid reason for insisting it wasn’t balanced. It was because they couldn’t bring themselves to promise they would balance one, if elected.
Liberals were touting a balanced budget. The NDP was leery of committing to one. So the best way to neutralize the Liberal advantage was to insist it simply didn’t exist. Other issues took over the campaign and the election seemed to be decided on other things. But it was interesting that the New Democrats — who generally favoured more services, not less — couldn’t bring themselves to commit to balancing a budget.
It was partly because they also couldn’t imagine themselves saying “No” to all the valid demands for more services. That’s a bloody-minded exercise at which the Liberals have learned to excel.