A few years ago, the premier of B.C. could approach the final budget before a general election with delight. The legislature would be called to session in late January with bands, artillery salutes and all the pomp and ceremony traditional to opening day. In the calm of the debating chamber, the lieutenant governor would read the throne speech, vaguely outlining the government’s “shopping list” of intentions and hinting at good things to come when the budget was unveiled a few days later.
The house would settle down for days of monotonous debate, designed to MLAs to get their names in Hansard and say nice things about their home constituencies. When debate eventually droned to an end, the legislators would take a collective deep breath, the minister of finance would buy a new pair of shoes and everyone in the government benches would sport a fresh flower for the budget speech.
The minister of finance would rise to cheers and much desk-thumping and reel off a list of astounding benefits the government had planned for “the people.” The Opposition would attack the list, key estimates to keep bills and wages paid would be passed, debate would be fierce and after a few days the premier of the day would take a run up to Government House, and in media vernacular, “drop the writ” for an election.
The government’s platform for the 28 days between dropping the writ and voting day would be the budget already denounced by the Opposition, still packed with programs waiting to be unwrapped. The government would simply ask the people: “If you like what you see in our plans, return us to power and we’ll get it done; if you don’t want these good things to happen, elect the other guys who, as they have already made clear, will immediately deep-six them.”
It was a solid, persuasive, take-it-or-leave-it opening gambit for an election campaign.
Unfortunately for Premier Christy Clark, that wonderful option of running an election on a basket full of budgeted but not-yet-in-force programs is no longer open to her. In a series of time and motion reforms, her predecessor, Gordon Campbell, streamlined a few procedures, among them designated days to introduce budgets and a set general-election date every four years.
Readers will remember May 14, 2013, is the day we next move behind cardboard cubicles to elect a new government or re-elect the old. That will be close to three months after Finance Minister Michael de Jong has introduced the 1913-14 budget (on Feb. 19), which he promises will be balanced.
Most people-friendly programs in de Jong’s budget should have been debated by voting day and have moved through estimates and become law, thus depriving Premier Clark and the B.C. Liberal party of the vote-winning election campaign challenge: “If you want this program vote for us, if you don’t, vote for them.”
Or will it? There still could be some skilful procedural stick-handling, resulting in a closing of the gap between budget introduction and formal passage of vote-attracting programs into law. And there’s always the possibility those key programs could have a wonderful phrase attached as a final clause stating the law has been debated and approved in the legislature — but now awaits “proclamation.” It’s the law, but not yet.
So while the new time tables and set pieces have removed many election advantages once afforded the party in power, not all have been lost. Clark and de Jong still have opportunity to load the election guns with budgeted and legislated ammunition timed for proclamation in June or later — or never.
What could they offer that people would genuinely welcome and vote for? How about an increase in homeowner grants? Denounced as an election bribe when it was first introduced back in the 1960s, it remains ever-popular and untouchable today. With property taxes due for payment in June, how would “do you want it or don’t you?” sound?
Sure it only benefits homeowners, who just happen to represent many thousands of votes. To give a little balance, the government could also introduce a massive — not modest — increase in low-income rental-housing projects. We have a few scattered around, but need more. They create much-needed accommodation, and jobs for all sorts of trades. They need to be break-even, non-profit.
On the health-care front, how about some serious muscle to resolve wait times between GPs and specialists, and specialists and actual treatment? We don’t need another study to tell us how long the wait lists are; we need resolution. Show us the plan.
And while looking at health needs, the government might promise a long look at assisted-living homes, those extremely expensive lodgings “boomers” will find they can’t afford as they start looking for care and comfort while waiting for the last ride home.
It’s not as easy to set the scene as it used to be, but there’s still time for something positive. In tennis, they’d say “advantage Clark.” She has the final serve. Will it be an ace or a double fault?
© Copyright 2013