Beware of politicians talking of government waste (I should know, I was one)

As the Ontario PC leadership contest draws to a close, I have a confession to make. In a weird way, I kind of envied the candidates. They have all been able to promise absolutely anything, and if asked how they were going to pay for it, they all had the same easy answer — eliminate government waste.

You remember government waste? The billions upon billions of dollars that opposition parties always tell us governments have lying around, being misspent every year. Hasn't everyone seen the movie Dave, where a fictional U.S. President, played by Kevin Kline, easily finds hundreds of millions of dollars for the homeless by letting his accountant friend (played by Charles Grodin) take a quick look at the government's books?

Aren't government and waste synonymous?

The PCs seem to think so. Their initial platform, the People's Guarantee, promised to find close to $3 billion in savings. And talk of eliminating government waste and inefficiency was a favourite subject during the two major leadership debates, particularly as candidates scrambled to explain how they will replace revenue lost through their common pledge to cancel Patrick Brown's carbon tax.

Caroline Mulroney said she would use the auditor general's reports to find at least a billion dollars in waste. Christine Elliott bragged that her past career as an auditor would help her "audit Kathleen Wynne's economic mess." Doug Ford, meanwhile, explained how easy it would be to shave a couple of percentage points off Ontario's $140 billion budget to find all the savings you need, proudly proclaiming that there is so much waste at Queen's Park that "you could sneeze and find billions of dollars."

Oh, how it brings back memories.

As a Liberal candidate in the 2003 election, I also came from an opposition party needing to explain how it was going to pay for its many promises. And although part of our plan involved the rolling back of some planned tax cuts, there was also lots of talk of government waste.

Two examples are still seared in my memory. The first involved an auditor general's report that claimed the PC government had not done enough to collect business taxes. The Liberals will go after those deadbeats, I would tell all-candidates meetings with a bravado that would make Doug Ford blush, and collect $400 million more. The AG had also raised alarms about the government's use of expensive outside consultants. Not a problem, I would explain to voters, Liberals will cancel all those fat cat contracts and find another $400 million.

That's $800 million in two simple steps. This was going to be easy.

Even as a candidate, this all struck me as a bit dodgy. Why would the Tories have willingly left all that tax money on the table? If it was as easy to collect as we were saying, why hadn't the PCs gone after it? The same with consultants. If all you had to do to find $400 million was cancel a few contracts, why hadn't the conservatives already done it?

That kind of independent thinking is dangerous for a candidate. So, I instead put my energy into door knocking and got elected.

Once in power, we realized that it was far from easy. Government machinery is complicated and no matter who takes power, you basically have the same amount of money as the previous gang with most of it already committed for many years going forward.

We also learned that governments are perpetually underfunded. They don't have enough dollars to meet all the demands, particularly in areas like healthcare or social services. And every year prices go up, infrastructure deteriorates and dealing with a growing and aging population becomes more complicated. Simply offering the same level of service as the year before becomes a huge struggle. Doug Ford's idea that you can simply shave a few percentage points off last year's budget number and find all the money you want is nothing short of ludicrous.

Then there is the Auditor General. Sure, the AG finds instances of improper government spending — but be careful. Often, the AG is looking at program efficiency and suggesting ways to improve program operations — suggestions that rarely net out huge dollar savings. Other times, the AG questions a key spending decision of a one-time nature. Although it might make taxpayers blood boil, cancelling a single investment doesn't free up the year over year funding needed to sustain the types of programs the PCs are promising for mental health and childcare.

And trust me. If making the changes suggested by the AG were as easy as the opposition or media suggest, it would have been done long ago. And before any PC candidate becomes too self-righteous, take a peek at the AG's findings when you were in power — they were just as bad as anything said about the Liberals.

Unfortunately, if you want to find additional dollars to keep your promises, you need to do it the old-fashioned way: Raise taxes, make real cuts to existing programs and services or run deficits.

Government is about tough choices. Beware of any candidate who won't admit that fact.

John Milloy is a former MPP and Ontario Liberal cabinet minister currently serving as the director of the Centre for Public Ethics and assistant professor of public ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and the inaugural practitioner in residence in Wilfrid Laurier University's Political Science department. He is also a lecturer in the University of Waterloo's Master of Public Service Program.  John can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @John_Milloy. A version of this column was originally published in the online publication QP Briefing.