“The Lowest Price is the Law, Unless Someone Else Offers a Lower Price”

David Johnson reads marketing gimmicks

David Johnson reads marketing slogans

It’s easy to criticize throne speeches, especially throne speeches by governments that have fallen on tough times. Truth be told, I actually think there was a lot to like in yesterday’s government reboot. The hint of a free trade deal with the EU is good news. Issues like cyberbullying and food safety need to be dealt with. And while “consumer-rights” initiatives won’t revolutionize Canada, they will be popular. Staunch conservatives might be a bit uncomfortable at the prospect of NDP-style regulations on big business, but I suspect they’ll be forgiven if it leads to lower roaming fees. As much as people say they want their governments to be bold nation builders, in the end voters usually respond to things that will make their day-to-day lives easier.

So I’m not going to casually slam what was a perfectly fine throne speech. However (and you knew there was a “however” coming), the most asinine line – even more so than the promise to find the bones of the Franklin Expedition – is Stephen Harper’s pledge to introduce a balanced budget law.

This isn’t new. Most provinces have put forward balanced budget laws with the best of intentions, only to abandon them as soon as the going got tough. I blogged about this back in 2009 when Gordon Campbell was repealing his own balanced budget law. At the time, we were told that while lesser provinces might succumb to the pressures of the deficit, man could no more repeal Ralph Klein’s Financial Responsibility Act than he could repeal the laws of gravity:

Many provinces have some form of balanced-budget law, and they all come with some form of escape clause. Only Alberta’s Balanced Budget and Debt Reduction Law, appears iron clad against deficits, said Bader.

Alberta now has one of Canada’s largest deficits and, to the best of my knowledge, no one from Ed Stelmach’s Cabinet finds themselves in the Drumheller Penitentiary.

So we know that balanced budget laws have been about as successful at producing balanced budgets and Franklin was at finding the northwest passage.

But what makes this promise especially ridiculous is the man making it. At least when Ralph Klein talked tough on deficits, he had the track record to back it up – Harper’s record is one of 6 consecutive deficits and counting. To recap, Harper inherited a $13.2 billion dollar surplus, only to squander it within two years. Even the most ultra-partisans in the land wouldn’t blame Harper for the collapse of the worldwide economy, but the parliamentary budget officer has reported that Harper’s deficit was structural – that is to say, not just a product of the downturn. Remember, this is the biggest spending government in Canada’s history – even after accounting for inflation and population growth.

Of course, we are told there will be exceptions in this law for national emergencies, economic downturns, prime numbered years, and finance ministers who wear sandals to deliver their budget speech. It’s not so much a law, as a slogan. If Harper was serious about slaying the deficit, he would increase revenue or cut spending – yet there’s virtually nothing in this throne speech to that effect, save for a promise to “review” civil servant sick days and streamline government e-mail systems.

It’s obvious enough this law is intended to build the myth of “Stephen Harper deficit slayer”, and to cast doubts on how Trudeau and Mulcair would manage the books. But by this point, Harper’s record should speak far louder than any slogan. This is Zellers telling everyone “the lowest price is the law”, rather than actually offering low prices to consumers – and you’re as likely to see a Zellers these days as you are a member of the Franklin expedition.

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in Federal Politics

About CalgaryGrit

A former Calgary Liberal, now living in Toronto. My writings on politics can be found at www.calgarygrit.ca and online at the National Post.

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9 Responses to “The Lowest Price is the Law, Unless Someone Else Offers a Lower Price”

  1. Vancouverois

    Ah – but will the Conservatives’ questionable record prevent them from being able to sell their party line?

    I’m willing to bet that they will balance the budget in 2015. Now more than ever, because this throne speech indicates pretty clearly that a balanced 2015 budget will be a large part of their electoral strategy. Can JT and/or Mulcair counter that effectively?

    • CalgaryGrit

      Agreed. They’re certainly gearing up for that – ideally, with some the “delayed” election promises around income splitting/etc that were conditional on meeting that target.

      The “Harper guided us through the downturn, blue skies are ahead” narrative isn’t a bad one.

  2. Philip

    Sans doute, Vancouverois, vis-à-vis Trudeau (either via the likes of John McCallum, Scott Brison or even Ralph Goodale, with the former’s Bay Street cred serving him well).

    I can’t say the same about Flaherty or Peggy Nash, though.

  3. Sean C.

    The idea that you can use a statute to dictate the contents of future budgets is asinine to begin with. One Act of Parliament enjoys exactly as much legal force as another Act, and with the specific prevailing over the general, passing a balanced budget would be a de facto amendment.

  4. Aman Hayer

    Am I the only one who is bothered by the fact that Parliament is going to be debating what TV packages we are going to be offered.

    • Sean C.

      More likely they’ll just authorize the CRTC to make regulations and leave it to them.

      • Aman Hayer

        Well that might be a bit better. I am still surprised that found its way into the throne speech.

  5. daninvan

    When it comes to Stephen Harper and his laws, I’m pretty sure we can park this ‘promise’ beside the set election date one, and move on.

  6. hosertohoosier

    Targeting a balanced budget isn’t even a sensible reference point. What you want to ensure with debt is that debt doesn’t outpace your ability to pay down debt.

    Our ability to pay off debt is our GDP. We can, therefore, maintain a deficit equal to nominal GDP growth and experience no increase in debt/GDP.

    If you don’t believe me, consider that the United States ran a deficit in almost every year from 1950-1980. Yet debt as a % of GDP fell steadily. And though it rose a bit under Reagan, you didn’t see a big leap till the Great Recession.
    http://visual.ly/united-states-debt-percentage-gdp-1940-2012

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