Sadly, no one wants to play the numbers game

The new Ontario budget is a highly instructive document. And I don't mean that in a good way. The first thing it illustrated was the risible level of contemporary partisan shrillness. Let me single out provincial Conservative leader John Tory accusing the McGuinty Liberals of being "addicted to spending," as if he'd be any different, and federal Tory MP Pierre Poilievre following his finance minister's undignified pre-emptive criticism with an instant response that plumbed new depths of brazen implausibility by saying "We came today in a spirit of partnership to ask (Premier Dalton McGuinty) to reduce the job-killing taxes he's imposed on Ontarians".

The second thing the provincial budget illustrated is that contemporary budgets aren't accounting documents at all and no one seems to expect them to be. I was 12 pages into my third newspaper Wednesday morning before anyone bothered mentioning total projected spending for the coming year (a surely noteworthy $96.2 billion). Meanwhile, the top "News" item on the Ontario government website that day was "McGuinty government invests in skills" which sounds like good news until you realize it's ours, not theirs, they're talking about.

Despite the demise some years ago of Keynesian economics, finance ministers and their critics spar over budgets as if their main purpose were to secure prosperity, not safeguard the public purse. Even when forced to admit that the economy has recently performed in ways as disappointing as they were unexpected, finance ministers routinely insist that this year they know all and see all when it comes to stimulating the economy.

The subtitle of Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan's 2008 budget speech was "Growing a Stronger Ontario," not "What we're spending and where we hope to get it" or words to that effect. And in the speech, I found only one instance of the word "spend" (on page 11) but 29 of "invest" or some variant (referring to the government; there were also seven references to private investment which gives you a pretty clear idea of the relative importance they attach to the two). As for the government's plan to raise $96.9 billion and spend $96.2 billion, it appears nowhere in the budget speech.

Indeed, you have to reach page 93 of the quasi-detailed Budget Papers for the first figure and page 107 for the second. Even there they don't commit the ugly word "spend" to paper. Instead "Total expense over the medium term is projected to increase from $96.2 billion in 2008-09 to $102.6 billion in 2010-11, reflecting investments to promote economic growth and job creation through the government's five-point economic plan."

At least it sounds like a moderate increase. But wait. In its 2005 Budget Papers this government projected both revenue and expense three years out (that is, for this fiscal year, 2007/08) at $88.5 billion and they were actually $96.6 and 96.0. Should the Liberals be equally wrong this time, the real 2010-11 expense figure will be $111.3 billion. Exactly the sort of thing that, if this were an accounting document, would attract sustained attention. As would health spending hitting $40 billion. If we were doing "value for money" audits we might ask what we were getting for all these billions, and even on purely actuarial grounds there's room for sober discussion of trend lines.

Instead we get a weird mix of vaguely defensive economic projections and vainglorious political rhetoric about vital improvements to key social programs and the spending restraint that is to come, without any mention of why the 64 percent surge in program spending since 2001 underlined by Terence Corcoran in the National Post didn't do the trick but this time for sure it will work.

Imagine if, in 2003, Ontario's finance minister had told us we're raising health spending to $28.1 billion and education spending to $14.1 billion but these figures are so pitifully insufficient that by 2008/09 they'll be $40.4 billion and $19.3 billion and it still won't be nearly enough, so trust us, we know what we're doing.

No, I don't think they're withholding information. I fear that what you see is what you get when it comes to politicians' understanding and attention spans. That's why budget documents are primarily campaign boasts about how much more money your wise and prudent government is pouring into key programs because the incredible sums they already spent didn't work.

Considered as an accounting statement, that's pretty scary. From a policy perspective it's not much better. On the bright side, you can download the government's budget "Highlights brochure" from the finance ministry website in 16 different languages.

As I said, most instructive.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

Columns, EconomicsJohn Robson