Thomas Mulcair, Quit Your Day Job! You Have a Promising Future in Comedy!
I had never thought of Thomas Mulcair, federal leader of the New Democratic Party, as a particularly humorous individual. He is a progressive, after all, and progressives are generally noted for their lack of a sense of humour. Mulcair, whose visage is as constantly plastered with a scowl as his predecessor’s was with a cheap grin, gives off a particularly strong vibe of being allergic to anything funny that would bring a smile to a normal man’s lips and fill his heart with cheer.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, to discover that the joke of the century had been uttered last Tuesday, in the unlikely setting of the Economic Club of Canada, by none other than the present Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, which title, as applied to the leader of a party that is full of outspoken, severe-our-ties-to-the-monarchy, republicans, is itself a pretty good joke.
Addressing his audience of businessmen, he said, apparently with a straight face, that “The federal department of finance’s own reports show that NDP governments are the best at balancing the books when in office”.
Upon first hearing of this, I thought that perhaps Mulcair was referring to the old etiquette class exercise of balancing books upon the top of one’s head to learn poise. Perhaps, in an effort to improve himself and obtain a little culture, he had been watching My Fair Lady, the musical film version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, in which Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle is made to do this by Rex Harrison’s Professor Henry Higgins. I hoped this was the case because the NDP could use some of the class and culture that their British counterparts, like the Fabian Mr. Shaw, far more frequently possess than socialists on this side of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, he was talking about the budget.
Now boasting is generally considered to be rather gauche but if you absolutely must play the braggart there are some basic guidelines as to how to do it without ending up looking like post-metamorphosis Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The most basic guideline is to actually have the qualities of which you crow. If that is not possible, the next guideline is that your boast should at least be believable. If Mr. Mulcair wanted to boast of his party’s strengths, perhaps he should have chosen something more credible than budget balancing. He could have said that NDP governments are the best at killing rural economies, shutting down rural hospital services, and forcing consolidation upon rural municipalities. Or he could have said that the NDP are the best at increasing people’s tax burdens, killing businesses, and transferring employment from the private to the public sector. All of that would have been believable. But balancing budgets?
To be fair, Mulcair did not just pull this astonishing boast out of thin air. He pointed to the examples of Tommy Douglas and Roy Romanow in Saskatchewan and Gary Doer here in Manitoba to back up his claim. With regards to the rather obvious counter-example of Bob Rae in Ontario, he said “There was one exception — but he turned out to be a Liberal.” Rae, as provincial NDP leader, was premier of Ontario from 1990 to 1995. Upon taking over from a Liberal government that had been running over their budget, he ran Ontario’s deficit from the millions into the billions. In his first budget, despite raising taxes he set a record breaking deficit of over nine billions dollars. No wonder Mulcair tried to explain away Rae by saying that he was really a Liberal, i.e., that when he re-entered politics at the federal level, he did so as a member of the party in which Mulcair had spent his years in Quebec provincial politics.
Mulcair is mistaken, however, in thinking of Rae as the exception. The exception is the provincial NDP in Saskatchewan. They have indeed, been exceptionally fiscally responsible, despite their other failings, and we will consider the significance of that shortly. Countrywide, the NDP’s budgeting record has far more often resembled that of Bob Rae than that of Roy Romanow.
Outside of Saskatchewan, the NDP has formed governments in BC, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and the Yukon Territory. It has never formed governments in Quebec, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, or Prince Edward Island and only formed a government in Alberta for the first time earlier this year, obviously too soon to be considered in any kind of comparison.
They seem to have been fairly fiscally responsible in the Yukon. Darrell Dexter’s NDP governed Nova Scotia for a single term from 2009 to 2013 in which their first and last budgets were balanced but the two inbetween had large deficits. In BC the NDP governed for three years in the 1970s, then again from 1991 to 2001. Dave Barrett inherited a surplus in 1972 and turned it into a deficit. In the ‘90s under Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark, the NDP produced Rae-style budgets with billion dollar deficits. It was only in their last year and a half in office, after scandal forced Clark to resign, that his successors managed to get their books into balance..
This brings us to my own province of Manitoba where the NDP has governed longer than anywhere excepct Saskatchewan. In the 1970s Ed Schreyer balanced most of his budgets going into deficit in his last year. His cousin-in-law, Howard Pawley, reversed that pattern in the 1980s, balancing the budget only at the end of a string of deficits. It is the more recent NDP governments that are particularly relevent, however, because Mulcair gave Gary Doer as an example of fiscal prudence in his speech and has repeatedly held Greg Selinger up as an example for other premiers, even going so far as to say that a federal NDP government would follow Selinger’s example.
The NDP have governed Manitoba since 1999, when Gary Doer inherited a balanced budget from the Progressive Conservative government of Gary Filmon which had passed legislation requiring the government to balance the budget every year and to call a referendum before any major tax increase. Doer declared that this legislation would stand, and accordingly his Finance Minister Greg Selinger announced every year that he had balanced the books. There are a few things peculiar about this seemingly laudable display of financial prudence, however.
Selinger took over the leadership of the NDP and the premiership of Manitoba in the fall of 2009. Since then, his government has run deficits of hundreds of millions of dollars, each year, despite raising the Provincial Sales Tax by a percentage point in 2013 without holding the referendum they were legally required to call. If Selinger’s handling of the budget as premier seems to be an rather drastic contrast with the way he handled it as Doer’s Finance Minister, realize that the provincial debt has more than doubled since the NDP took power in 1999. Even the large deficits of the last six years cannot acount for that debt, much of which had to have been acquired while Doer was premier. Selinger has gone through four Finance Ministers since becoming premier, whereas Doer had been able to make do with one. It looks like Selinger has been unable to find a Finance Minister as capable of making a deficit look like a surplus as he was.
So, no Mr. Mulcair, Bob Rae is not the exception. In Nova Scotia and BC, the NDP were more like Rae, as the NDP has been in Manitoba under Selinger and earlier was under Pawley. The NDP claimed to have balanced the budget under Doer but this claim is highly questionable in light of the way the debt has skyrocketed since 1999.
The real exception, therefore, is the Saskatchewan New Democratic Party. It was in Saskatchewan, that the NDP’s predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, first formed a government under the leadership of Tommy Douglas in 1944. Douglas governed Saskatchewan for sixteen years, never running a deficit. After this, he moved into federal politics as first leader of the NDP, which was formed in 1961 when the CCF merged with the Canadian Labour Congress. Under the new name, the Saskatchewan NDP formed governments under Allan Blakeney from 1971 to 1982, then again under Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert from 1991 to 2007. These leaders all followed Douglas’ example and the NDP almost never ran a deficit in Saskatchewan.
This is to the credit of the provincial NDP in Saskatchewan but is it to the credit of the party as a whole? Mulcair seems to think so, and in the 2011 Ontario provincial election Andrea Horwath made this “the NDP are the best at balancing books” part of her campaign. The problem is that this is asking people to believe that because the Saskatchewan NDP have been fiscally responsible, other NDP parties will be fiscally responsible elsewhere. This kind of claim cannot be based on just the percentage of years in which an NDP government has balanced the budget because the province in which the NDP has been extremely good at avoiding deficits is also the province in which they were in office far longer than anywhere else, and their record there is radically different from their record elsewhere.
Thomas Mulcair has said that he thinks Greg Selinger is doing a great job as Manitoba’s premier and that he would govern the same way federally. That tells us all we need to know about what kind of budget to expect from a federal NDP government and is what makes Mulcair’s claim that his party is fiscally responsible such an excellent joke. Unfortunately, judging from Mulcair’s rising popularity in the polls, the joke may end up being on us.
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca