Stephen McNeil was right. And Darrell Dexter was wrong.
During the last provincial election campaign, then-opposition NDP leader Dexter made a boy scout solemn promise that, if elected, his government would balance the province’s books next year. Cross his heart. Really…
McNeil, the then-new leader of the nowhere-to-go-but-up Liberal party, countered — more or less — that that was a dumb-as-dirt promise to make.
The economic world, he pointed out, was still teetering on the edge of who knew what or when. Worse, Rodney MacDonald’s incumbent Tory government was playing so many peek-a-boo shell games with the Nova Scotia treasury you couldn’t trust anything it said. You couldn’t know if you could balance the books without seeing them.
Dexter’s dogged insistence that he could/would live within whatever our means were stemmed partly from his personal history. He comes from a rural Nova Scotia pay-as-you-go culture in which thrift is simple survival necessity.
But his balanced-books promise, of course, was also a carefully calibrated political calculation. What better way to undermine his opponents’ “risky NDP,” “spend-and-tax socialists” and “wild-eyed radical hordes” attacks than to invoke the godly ghost of NDP icon Tommy Douglas — he was premier of Saskatchewan for 17 years and never once ran a deficit, after all — and promise to be just like Tommy?
Dexter convinced voters of his sincerity, largely because he was.
But that doesn’t make him right.
All you need to do is look at the current state of the province’s finances. Even discounting the NDP’s disingenuous trick of front-end loading expenses onto this year’s budget to make the numbers look better next year, the actual numbers are still awful. Trying to balance the books at this point in our history is wrong-headed, perhaps even dangerously so.
Dexter’s government created its own get-out-of-jail-free card in the guise of a blue-ribbon outside economic advisory panel, which is already publicly telling him to rethink his no-deficit-never mantra.
Following its advice would have political costs, of course. McNeil will be able to gloat that he was right all along — which he was — and still be able to attack Dexter for breaking his word.
But as bad as that might be for Dexter politically, it pales in comparison to the economic costs if Dexter persists with a promise he shouldn’t have made in the first place. Suck it up, Darrell.
Stephen Kimber, the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of Kings College, is the author of eight books.