New premier Philippe Couillard's sweeping election triumph in Quebec provides an important lesson for Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, if she's prepared to learn from Couillard's success.
Amid the celebration in the rest of Canada over Couillard's crushing defeat of Pauline Marois and the Parti Québécois, not enough attention was paid to the real issues that decided the election.
Everyday Quebecers were concerned about the province's sluggish economy and Marois's feeble record on job creation.
Couillard pulled no punches on the economy. He released his financial framework in the middle of the campaign, reminding Quebecers: "We have Canada's largest public debt. The budget deﬁcit under the Parti Québécois administration is growing and the heavy tax burden borne by taxpayers is a blow to our competitiveness and economic growth."
Couillard vowed that he would be "managing the reins of government spending with a much ﬁrmer hand." He promised to cut $1.3 billion in spending over two years, and balance the province's budget by 2015-16.
He promised to hold spending growth on health care to 4 per cent and education to 3.5 per cent annually, freezing all other government spending for five years. "In other words," Couillard's manifesto spells out in case you missed it, "we will put the 'brakes' on public spending."
Given that Couillard is a Liberal, you might have expected the Quebec Liberals' fiscal framework to contain some big-time spending plans on the back end, once that Quebec budget is balanced.
If you did, you would be in for a shock. "We will allocate 50 per cent of the budget surplus to tax cuts and 50 per cent to public debt reduction," the Quebec Liberals promised. And it gets better. "Starting in 2016-2017, we will phase out the health tax over a four-year period."
So there, Premier Wynne, is your new winning platform for a spring 2014 election. Balance the Ontario budget by next year. Use half the future surplus to pay down Ontario's debt, and use the other half to cut taxes. Phase out Dalton McGuinty's hated health tax over a four year period. It worked in the socialist workers' paradise of Quebec. Who can predict how Ontario would react?
Bringing balanced budgets and tax-cuts to Ontario won't be easy. Beyond the human challenges -- like teaching Premier Wynne how to say 'balanced budget' and 'tax cut' with a smile on her face, Ontario faces major obstacles arising from predecessor Dalton McGuinty's five-year borrowing binge.
Since the financial meltdown in 2008-09, Quebec has run massive deficits each year. The province is on track to add $53 billion to its total provincial debt -- a 35 per cent increase -- by the end of the year.
But in the same period, Ontario under McGuinty and Wynne will add $120 billion to its debt -- a 71 per cent increase.
Ontario keeps going deeper in the hole because Kathleen Wynne can't seem to imagine, much less talk about tough choices in the straight-up style that helped propel her Quebec counterpart into power.
Ontario voters aren't stupid. They can do the math. In 2013-14, spending jumped over $4 billion year-over-year, far outpacing growth in tax revenues, despite a punitive new NDP-inspired 'tax on the rich' aimed at Ontario's highest income earners.
In early April, Ontario finance minister Charles Sousa admitted the province's deficit jumped to $11.3 billion from $9.2 billion a year earlier, thanks to runaway spending and sluggish growth in revenue.
Sousa is already forecasting even tougher times for the year we're in now, further evidence that the NDP's tax-your-way-to-prosperity strategy has failed to deliver.
If the government goes ahead with $5.7 billion in new spending announcements contained in documents leaked from Sousa's department, this year's Ontario deficit will again outstrip the deficits of all the other Canadians provinces, combined.
If Premier Wynne and the Ontario Liberals don't turn decisively away from debt, deficits, taxing and spending when they present Ontario's 2014 budget in May, somebody will surely step up.
Newly-elected Quebec Premier Couillard started his campaign nearly 20 points behind with French-Canadian voters, but he won them over with -- can we say it? -- common sense.
Co-written by Gregory Thomas, this commentary first appeared in the April 21 edition of the Toronto Star's QP Briefing.
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