Ontario, you can't handle the truth

Sometimes, the truth hurts.

(This column originally appeared in the Toronto Sun)

By: Candice Malcolm

In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve. French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville taught us this valuable lesson 200 years ago, while he was studying democracy in fledgling America. The saying has never been more true than it is today in Ontario.

We have a government that misleads us, because we can’t handle the truth.

Think back to the 2014 election. PC leader Tim Hudak acknowledged the troubling shortfalls in our public finances, devised a plan to rescue our province’s public purse, and was frank about what needed to be done. Ontario voters overwhelmingly rejected his approach, choosing rather to elect Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne.

Premier Wynne promised a long list of new goodies and social entitlement expansions, while shrugging off concerns about the province’s lopsided budget. She promised the mathematically impossible feat of balancing the budget in two years without raising taxes on the middle class or cutting spending. Her whoppers paid off, and she was rewarded with a majority government.

Ontario voters provided an incentive for politicians to misrepresent the truth, to sugar-coat reality, and to punt difficult decisions down the field for future politicians to deal with at a future time.

But Premier Wynne’s election-time half-truths are now starting to unravel.

The Fraser Institute released a report last week showing how Ontario’s debt has grown by $117 billion since the recession. Finance Minister Charles Sousa stands by the government’s oft repeated talking point: that large scale borrowing was necessary to stimulate growth in the economy. As manufacturers continue to flee the province en mass, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how his government’s corporate welfare policies have helped the province, but that’s beside the point. The Fraser Institute report demonstrates that 66% of this new debt comes from day-to-day government expenses, rather than actual investments in infrastructure.

The government is borrowing to cover its operating costs. They are driving the province into debt paying all those Sunshine List government employee salaries and bailing out golden-parachute pension funds.

Even by the Wynne government’s own sorry excuse, they’re not being honest. They are not borrowing to “stimulate the economy.” Two-thirds of the new debt is going towards making payroll. They are borrowing just to keep their heads above water. They are using one credit card to pay the interest on another, all while ignoring their mortgage payments and skimming off the kids’ college fund.

This week, Charles Sousa once again shrugged off the debt numbers. He told reporters that his focus was stimulating the economy rather than worrying about the big bad debt. The only number to worry about, according to Sousa, is the debt-to-GDP ratio, which measures the burden of our debt in relation to the size of the economy as a whole.

In Ontario, the net debt-to-GDP ratio is now 40%. But even that misrepresents the total picture of our debt, as it only includes one level of government. According to IMF figures, the gross debt-to-GDP ratio in Ontario is more realistically around 95%.

If the average Ontario family were run like the Wynne government, a family of four with a household income of $80,000 would owe $76,000 on their credit cards.

When reality is that terrifying, it’s no wonder our politicians prefer not to tell us the truth.