Canada's Santa Claus campaign

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald and Cape Breton Post

Canada’s federal election was supposed to be the Seinfeld campaign—a contest about nothing, at least until the NDP’s polling numbers shot up. But regardless of how campaigns are tagged, they are always about something. This latest one should be called the Santa Claus campaign. That is, promises galore with only scant attention paid to how such election-time Christmas gifts will be financed.

Examples abound and a common thread among all three major parties is the tendency to promise money for items outside of federal jurisdiction. This is a tad fiscally risky, and irresponsible. $61-billion in new federal debt was already incurred in 2009 and 2010; the forecast for 2011 through 2015 estimates another $99 billion in debt. Add election promises and it’s anyone’s guess at to how many billions more on top of that $160-billion will result.

On party platforms and their me-too provincial focus, let’s start with the Conservatives. The Tories promise permanent funding for municipal infrastructure and will provide incentives for more doctors and nurses to locate in rural communities.

The Liberals promise a “learning passport” with $1-billion directed to families for higher education, money for local transit and infrastructure, and also high-speed rail; they will want doctors and nurses to move to rural Canada.

New Democrats are similarly entranced by provincial issues. The NDP pledge $800-million in extra federal cash for the provinces to be used for lower tuition fees. There is the usual promise of solving health care problems with yet another plan. All the parties have a penchant for command-and-control planning to solve health care woes. In the case of the NDP though, instead of five- year plans a la the old Soviet Politburo, New Democrats promise a 10-year health plan in consort with the provinces and they drop strong hints about buckets of extra money for provincial governments.

Argue all you want that these are worthy promises. Some are; some are not. In a lightly populated and spread-out country such as Canada, high speed rail would be a financial boondoggle. As for higher education, a one-size-fits-all lower tuition policy makes little sense as it benefits poor and rich families alike. Insofar as subsidies are directed to higher education, they should be targeted at low-income individuals and families, not frittered away to all, regardless of a family’s own wealth.

Thus, individual pledges in the party platforms can be parsed for their sense or lack thereof. However, all three major parties copy each other in how they busily promise goodies in areas way outside Ottawa’s constitutional jurisdiction. You’d think Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton were competing to see which gentleman will end up in a provincial capital as premier, not as seekers of 24 Sussex Drive.

The core problem is that such interference in provincial responsibilities—even when done with costly financial carrots from Ottawa’s purse and not a stick—is that inter-government transfers interfere with what would otherwise be clear lines of democratic accountability. Such transfers cloud, in voters’ minds, which level of government is responsible for what program or service. It leads to taxes being collected at one level, spent elsewhere, with blame or credit being diverted or claimed depending on political convenience. It also guarantees inefficiencies in spending.

For example, on the infrastructure pledge, cities and towns are, constitutionally, the legal creation and responsibility of provinces. If one wants to argue cities should be given money from another government, it makes sense to at least tie such funding to provincial governments. Or better yet, just let cities squeeze their operating budgets to spend more on capital, the oft-claimed civic need.

Similarly, health care is a provincial responsibility, though you’d never know it given the level of federal interference and decades-long bribery for provinces to toe the Ottawa line. If the political parties want better health care, they should allow provinces a five-year hiatus on the Canada Health Act. The result would be provincial experimentation just as occurred in the 1990s on welfare reform.   

Another reform that would lead to innovative provincial policies in a variety of areas would be if governments ceased funding each other entirely and settled up on tax shifting instead. If, for example, Ottawa actually thinks the provinces or cities need more money—not a given—the federal government could permanently drop some tax rate and let the other governments take up the difference.

Cities, provinces and the federal government should be responsible for their own taxation and their own spending. Absent that, promises are made in the heat of election campaigns that resemble the generosity of St. Nick, except no one over the age of six thinks what politicians promise, ultimately, is free. These days, the re-gifting comes with debt and interest payments attached.

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