Balanced Perspectives: Why Public Finances Matter

With governments running deficits and austerity being pushed as a means to deal with the shortfall, the issue of public finances has gained attention. Are these deficits necessary? What should the left-wing response be? When a left-of-centre party comes out in favour of balanced budgets, some have accused these parties of selling out. Yet I believe that short of severe economic downturns and severe national emergencies, for example a natural disaster, that the left should actually embrace balanced budgets. Why?

Balanced Budgets Or Social Spending? Pick One

People have to budget in their daily lives, and make choices about what’s important to them. Often, people sacrifice things they want but feel they cannot afford, for example going on vacation. The right understands this, and connects it to public finances. This works because even though increased program spending advocated by the left is popular, people think of the government having to live within its means, and that you can’t always spend on the “nice to haves.” Furthermore, when the right talks about the need to balance the budget and the left says, “we have to spend more on social programs,” it only serves to reinforce the dichotomy, to reinforce that you have to choose either balanced budgets or social spending. This is a false choice.
Allan Blakeny in Saskatchewan balanced budgets while expanding programs. Grant Devine cut these programs and still ran up deficits.

“Spending Problem?”

The left is always accused of having a “spending problem,” especially when there is a shortfall in revenue. What they conveniently forget is that reducing spending is but one way to deal with this. Another way to deal with a budget shortfall is to bring in more money. Conversely, cuts in taxes are every bit of an expense as if you spent the money, even though parties like to pretend it doesn’t cost anything. This is how the NDP can offer the most in program spending yet claim that their platform is the cheapest, because the NDP doesn’t offer as many tax cuts as other parties.

Who Is Better At It?

Anyone who pays casual attention to the media can be forgiven for thinking that the left has trouble balancing budgets. The reality is the opposite. When in power provincially, it is actually the NDP which has the best record on balancing the books. Fiscal conservatives should be especially unhappy with how the Harper government has racked up high deficits, with little to show for it.

Balanced budgets are the one area where the right-wing claims credibility, and it is on this one issue that they manage to trump the popular ideas of the left. Yet the facts do not support this claim, and if the left can shift the debate on balanced budgets, it will have dealt with a major obstacle it faces in the eyes of the common voter.

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