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February 14, 2011

Moving the Goal Posts

In February 2005, the Throne Speech introduced "Five Great Goals for a Golden Decade". At least fleeting reference has been made to the goals in every Throne Speech since then, until today. While the word "great" was used 4 times in the 2011 Throne Speech, there was no reference to the five great goals. Most British Columbians pay no attention to Throne Speeches or the government's great goals; they just want good government they can trust.

Tuesday's budget will not be as vacuous as the Throne Speech because it must include the Third Quarter Financial Report and the government's current economic outlook; other than that, don't expect anything of substance. Health authorities and other government agencies, responsible for billions of dollars, may not know what their budgets will be until months into the fiscal year.

What is certain, as it has already been foreshadowed in the news, is that Finance Minister Colin Hansen will attempt to surprise everyone by saying the deficit will be lower than expected. Don't believe a word of it! Before the 2009 election, Hansen introduced a budget used for the campaign which promised a 2009-2010 deficit that would not exceed $495 million and a 2010-2011 deficit that would not exceed $245 million. When the Public Accounts were finalized, the 2009-2010 deficit turned out to be $1.779 billion, which is almost four times greater than promised before the election.

The last financial statements produced by Hansen's ministry were the Second Quarter results for this year. Those statements projected a deficit to March 31, 2011 of $1.395 billion (before a forecast allowance that adds another $300 million to it). That would make this year's deficit almost six times higher than British Columbians were told it would be before the last election. Hansen is unlikely to mention that; he'll probably say that it is less than one of the many figures they produced after the election.

Moving the goal posts and claiming victory has become a hallmark of the BC Liberals. That's what Kevin Falcon did with respect to the Port Mann Bridge when he couldn't find a private sector partner. That's what they did when the convention centre was dramatically over budget. That's what they did when they committed $600 million for a new roof for BC Place. Government news releases claiming that projects are on time and under budget are based on revised budgets and schedules. So it will be when Hansen rises in the legislature tomorrow and claims the budget deficit is lower than expected.