Ontario gets better democracy than we do

Premier Christy Clark is supposedly looking at a fall election. If this were Ontario, voters would be casting much more informed ballots.

Premier Christy Clark is supposedly looking at a fall election. If this were Ontario, voters would be casting much more informed ballots.

And B.C. governments would be much less likely to present bogus pre-election budgets.

An Ontario election is already scheduled for Oct. 6; the province has fixed election dates. The parties are in the long unofficial campaign; the public is trying to sort out their claims and promises.

Voters just got big help with this task, thanks to an Ontario accountability law introduced eight years ago.

The Ontario government is required to present a report on the state of the province’s finances and its plans for the next three years before the election. That includes economic assumptions and spending and revenue plans.

The auditor general must review the plans and report publicly on whether they are sound, highlighting any potential problem areas. (The review found the Liberal government’s cost-cutting plans weren’t realistic.)

If a similar law had been in place in B.C., the outcome might well have been different in two of the last four elections.

The Liberals, not the NDP, might have won the closely fought 1996 election.

The New Democrats launched their campaign that year after tabling a pre-election budget projecting an $87 million surplus for the current year and a $16 million surplus for the year that had just ended.

After the election, the real numbers showed deficits of more than $350 million in each year. A subsequent auditor general’s report damned the government’s budget preparation and said it had unreasonably inflated revenue projections.

And the NDP might well have won the 2009 election. The Liberals’ pre-election budget projected a $495 million deficit, a number Gordon Campbell insisted was accurate right through the campaign. The real deficit turned out to be $2.8 billion.

Voters might have been much less keen on a government that had sunk the province so deeply into red ink.

The sad part is that B.C. should have just such a law.

The 1996 budget scandal triggered a report by the auditor general and an independent review of the budget process. Neither went far enough to head off the wildly inaccurate – and politically advantageous – 2009 pre-election budget.

Which leaves voters in a bad spot.

Clark will decide on when to call an election based on political advantage. The fixed election date law was supposed to end that practice, but it’s reasonable for a new premier, facing a two-year wait until the next election, to seek a mandate earlier.

So if Clark thinks the Liberals have greater chances of winning this fall than they would next year, then she’ll call an election. That assessment will be based on polling and the results of the HST referendum – if the tax is hammered, a vote would be less likely.

And the Clark strategists are watching to see if NDP leader Adrian Dix is gaining ground and if Conservative leader John Cummins is attracting enough support to split the traditional Liberal vote.

An election this fall would be fought on the basis of this year’s February budget.

But it’s not credible, particularly in years two and three of the plan. Most ministries had their budgets cut this year; those impacts are just being felt. And the budgets, under the plan, are frozen for the next two years, despite growing population and increased demand.

Without deep service cuts, the budget won’t be balanced by 2013/14 as planned.

And a spring election, following another pre-election budget, would offer voters no greater certainty about budget credibility.

The best choice for voters?

A commitment to match Ontario’s commitment to openness and accountability by ensuring an independent report on the credibility of pre-election budgets.

And a vote in the fall of 2012, when voters have had chance to see the performance of Dix and Clark in dealing with the issues.

Footnote: The federal government provides a similar, even broader independent review. The parliamentary budget officer reports to MPs – and the public – on the credibility of budget plans and the assumptions underlying major projects, like the purchase of fighter jets. The office has expressed concerns about the government’s ability to meet its targets for spending cuts based on its current plans.