Sing a song of plenty, a planet full of fools
Everybody starving by sound financial rules.
This sardonic spoof of the childrens’ nursery song, Sing a Song of Sixpence, was published in a Canadian newspaper in 1934, the pit of the Great Depression.
Driven by the Harper Conservatives’ sudden embrace of federal balanced budget laws and a current provincial experiment gone terribly awry, its bitter humour – and worse, real danger to democracy –is just as relevant today as it was 81 years ago.
In 1993, a young Manitoba Progressive Conservative opposition backbencher by the name of Brian Pallister became the first Canadian politician to enthusiastically embrace balanced budget laws – the current political craze of the last three decades thanks to the swelling ranks of right-wing anti-government think tanks and their proselytizers.
Pallister, now the leader of the opposition Manitoba Progressive Conservatives, was egged on by an early leader of the pack, John Robson, formerly of the Fraser Institute, Canada’s oldest corporate think tank, now a columnist for Sun Media.
Responding to a letter from Pallister, Watson wrote a column published in the May, 1994 Fraser Forum magazine under the title “Yes, Mr. Pallister, There is a Balanced Budget Amendment.”
Pallister convinced then-Progressive Conservative Premier Gary Filmon to pass Canada’s first balanced budget legislation in April, 1995.
Had Pallister, Watson and Filmon stopped to think, they would have realized that provinces, like families, can’t stop eating, breathing and living to accommodate some ideological fixation. Had they done any research, they would have learned that despite the fact 48 of the 50 U.S. states had constitutionalized balanced budget laws, by 1990, they had collectively accumulated a total debt of $860 billion.
In an effort to find hope in despair, Robson resorted to claiming that balanced budget provisions meant that “the problem became visible much more quickly.”
Still, when when he turned to Canada, his prognosis became even bleaker.
“Unfortunately – and this is the part of my reply you may find the most depressing – legislative controls like the U.S. Gramm-Rudman Act, or various expenditure control measures by our own federal government, apparently can’t do it either,” Robson told Pallister. “The condition of our provinces and of Ottawa suggest that legislative restraint is not very reliable. Politics is hard to manage. Even the U.S. Congress doesn’t pass laws binding on itself.”
Robson concluded the only real sanction is public opinion. Undeterred, Filmon’s government not only passed Watson’s balanced budget law but piled on two additional formidable obstacles: the budget not only had to be balanced but, to tie the noose even tighter on spendthrift governments, a province-wide referendum had to be held before imposing any new tax or raising any one of the province’s three major taxes – income, corporate and sales.
It took years, but the ticking timb bomb of the Watson-Pallister Balanced Budget and Taxpayer Protection Law finally detonated two decades later under the current NDP government of Premier Greg Selinger.
Facing a perfect storm of extreme weather across southern Manitoba due to heavy spring rainfall and high river and lake flows as well as violent winds three years in a row, the Selinger government decided to raise the provincial sales tax from seven to eight per cent and simply ignore the balanced budget law and its required referendum and provide assistance to the thousands of farmers, cottagers and ranchers inundated by some of the worst flooding in Manitoba history.
Unfortunately for Selinger, he had just finished dismissing the whole crazy idea of raising the sales tax as “ridiculous, total nonsense” during the 2011 election campaign. When he had to eat his words thanks to climactic climate change, he provoked a province-wide backlash. The NDP’s polling numbers went into the cellar and before long, so did the unity of the governing New Democrats after nearly 16 years in power.
Pallister’s PCs went to court to try to force the government to hold a referendum on the one-point hike in the sales tax. They lost. The judge ruled that under the British parliamentary system, no government can tie the hands of its successors.
Public anger was further stoked after Selinger passed a law exempting the sales tax hike from the requirement to hold a referendum.
It all came to a head earlier this year when the premier faced a caucus revolt that culminated in the resignations of five senior ministers – health, finance, jobs, house leader and municipal affairs. Undaunted, Selinger decided to stand and fight for his job. The battle lasted most of the winter, but in the end, Selinger defeated his two cabinet challengers – Health Minister Teresa Oswald and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton – by a meagre 33 votes.
Apparently, delegates to the NDP convention grudgingly re-elected the incumbent premier after drawing the unflattering conclusion that Selinger, no matter how battered, bruised and much the worse for wear, was preferable to the alternatives.
The government has spent the last few weeks recuperating, licking its wounds and attempting to put on a show of renewed unity and purpose.
This past weekend, the NDP caucus and cabinet convened for what could only be described as a group hug at a monastery on the southern outskirts of Winnipeg.
With a full year to rebound and regroup before they must face Manitobans to seek their fifth consecutive mandate in April 2016, time is about the only friend Selinger’s New Democrats still have.
Meanwhile, Pallister, and indeed, any Canadian government, including the one in Ottawa which is about to hamstring itself by tying its fiscal books in knots may want to stop and think before imposing politically explosive, administratively lethal and purely ideological gimmicks on hapless citizens. citizens.
Neither governments nor citizens benefit from political grandstanding on an unworkable populist bromide that not only doesn’t deliver its promised benefits and unleashes unintended consequences, but cripples essential public services and undermines rather than strengthens democracy.
Frances Russell was born in Winnipeg and graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and political science. A journalist since 1962, she has covered and commented on politics in Manitoba, Ontario, B.C. and Ottawa, working for The Winnipeg Tribune, United Press International, The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun and The Winnipeg Free Press as well as freelanced for The Toronto Star, The Edmonton Journal, CBC Radio and TV and Time Magazine.
She is the author of two award-winning books on Manitoba history: Mistehay Sakahegan – The Great Lake: The Beauty and the Treachery of Lake Winnipeg and The Canadian Crucible – Manitoba’s Role in Canada’s Great Divide. Both won the Manitoba Historical Society Award for popular history.
She is married with one son and two grandsons and lives in Winnipeg.