When I started in this business of journalism, any information surrounding an upcoming budget was locked up airtight. Security was intense. I can recall former Ontario treasurer (as the job was then called) Larry Grossman getting all the way to his office only to realize he'd forgotten his identification badge. Rather than trying to talk his way in -- he was the minister after all -- he went back home, retrieved it, then tried again. That's how tight security was.
I can also remember another former treasurer, Frank Miller, considered resigning, because a couple of reporters rifled through the garbage behind the Frost Building, found some preliminary budget drafts, and made them public.
Yes, they were serious about not letting out information prematurely in those days.
The tradition around budget secrecy has clearly changed. Now, ministers of finance seem to want to release bits and bites of the budget to the public well before budget day.
Such was the case on Monday. The current occupant of the Frost Building (named after Ontario's longest-serving treasurer, Leslie Frost, who was also premier at the same time) revealed quite a bit of pertinent information in a speech to the Economic Club of Canada. For example:
- Budget Day this year will be May 2. For the history nerds, that was a great day in Ontario Liberal history. In 1985, Liberal leader David Peterson led his crew to its strongest showing in four decades, and eventually ended the Tory dynasty several weeks later. (However, it's also worth noting that May 2 is also the worst day ever for the federal Liberals, who in 2011 came third for the first time ever and watched Stephen Harper get his majority government after two previously failed attempts.)
One minister tweeted, "Now we know why the son is such a ham."
- The deficit for fiscal year 2012-13 clocks in much lower than expected. Once upon a time, Liberals were musing the deficit might hit $14 billion. Then it was adjusted down to $11.9 billion. Charles Sousa announced today it was "only" $9.8 billion.
- That's the fourth consecutive year in which the Ontario Liberals have bettered their deficit projection targets.
- Sousa also says the government is on track to implement 60 per cent of Don Drummond's cost-savings recommendations.
- Sousa says 16 of 25 ministries have underspent their budgets. Furthermore, program spending across the government is being held to 1 per cent.
- The minister adds the Liberals are on track to balance the books, as promised, by 2017-18. Of the 14 jurisdictions in Canada (10 provinces, 3 territories, and the federal government), that's the latest date for bringing the books back into balance of any of them. But as former finance minister Dwight Duncan accurately reminded us on Twitter today, "... the others keep missing their targets." Ontario has not.
Opposition finance critic Peter Shurman (PC - Thornhill) follows the text of Sousa's speech.
In a scrum later, Shurman said, "We will vote against this budget because we don't believe a single thing this McGuinty-Wynne government says."
In a scrum after his speech, Sousa seemed to go out of his way to be non-responsive to many of the reporters' questions. During the speech, he promised to continue to reduce the deficit without raising taxes. I asked him whether eliminating corporate tax loopholes (as the NDP have demanded) constituted a tax increase. He obfuscated.
He was asked by others to clarify the trial balloons he launched during the speech on the subject of deficit reduction; for example, means testing the Clean Energy Benefit. No clarification was forthcoming. Sousa simply said, "These are some of the ideas I'm hearing from others on how to balance the books."
Another thing we don't know is whether this budget will, in fact, pass. Unlike last year at this time, when former premier Dalton McGuinty and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath personally negotiated details of the budget to ensure its passage, there are no talks ongoing between Kathleen Wynne and Horwath, at Horwath's request. The Liberals have asked. The NDP have declined the invitation, perhaps feeling they came out on the short end of the public relations war last year.
Yes, back channel negotiations are always a possibility, and it's a certainty that some Liberal officials will keep some NDP officials informed about what's in the budget to ensure the NDP votes for it and the government survives. But the state of play at Queen's Park is changing rapidly. Two weeks ago, most people you talked to said not only would the budget pass, but they also doubted there would be any election at all in 2013.
Now, I'm hearing some confident Liberal backbenchers want an election now, feeling Wynne will never be more popular, and less dragged down by future problems. Similarly, New Democrats who are being pressured by public sector unions to make common cause with the Liberals in hopes of getting some progressive legislation out of them are concerned that the longer Wynne stays in office, the more likely it is that she'll poach NDP support.
Add it all up, and it means the political tides swirling around this upcoming budget will be far choppier than anyone had anticipated. The survival of this parliament beyond May 2 is anything but a done deal.
May we have a moment of your time?
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