Opposition leader Adrian Dix departed from his close-to-the-vest game plan on Thursday and talked himself into revealing an important new NDP fiscal doctrine.
He would repeal B.C.'s balanced-budget legislation if his party wins the election in May. Through 17 months as leader, he has been guarded and cautious about outlining his agenda.
So the ad hoc revelation - doled out in pieces during a protracted scrum with reporters after his address to the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Victoria - was startling.
It surprised his finance critic as much as it did reporters. NDP MLA Bruce Ralston was asked moments later about the declaration and said: "I was not aware of that."
Ralston said the caucus has discussed the issue in the past, but he wasn't aware of a definitive conclusion.
It took seven minutes of grilling by reporters for Dix to make the pronouncement definite.
He said balancing is any government's goal, but the B.C. Liberals' approach resembles a Monty Python sketch, since they excuse themselves from the law whenever they can't make it.
Some things are beyond government's control when revenues go south, so it's hard to predict balanced budgets, he said.
"For a government that argues you shouldn't over-regulate, isn't the height of absurdity to have a balanced-budget law when you don't balance the budget? I'd rather have balanced budgets than balanced-budget laws.
"I don't in principle agree with the laws, I agree with balanced budgets.
So it will be repealed? Dix said the government has already done so.
"It's not in place. We haven't had a balanced budget in four years."
He called for a more straightforward and honest recognition that when revenues drop, it's very difficult to balance.
So it will be repealed? "Yeah.
"It's better to not have a law than have a law that you change and give yourself a loophole every time it gets in your way. That's not a law."
The development prompted Finance Minister Mike de Jong to tee off on Dix.
He said Dix outlined the idea at a conference where municipal delegates are obligated to balance their budgets.
"Mr. Dix and the NDP are saying those rudimentary rules of not spending more than you take in shouldn't apply to an NDP government. I think it's troubling."
He questioned what the NDP has planned that "requires him today to say he doesn't want to be bound by it."
Thursday's news is the latest episode in B.C.'s long-running sitcom involving governments imposing laws on themselves to balance their budgets.
It started in 1991 when the Social Credit government enacted one - the Taxpayer Protection Act - in the dying days of its term.
The Harcourt government promptly threw it out right after the election. The NDP ran in the red for years, struggling to balance, but falling short. They designed deficit reduction plans, then gave up when deficits kept growing. Then they tried deficit "management" plans, with little more success. The last NDP premier, Ujjal Dosanjh, eventually brought another balanced-budget law in, after a fight in his caucus, and managed to obey it.
Then the B.C. Liberals took over in 2001 and promptly repealed it - in order to make it tougher. They complied with the deadline they set and balanced several budgets before the economic meltdown in 2008.
But when it got tough to comply, they excused themselves for two years, then gave themselves another two-year exemption, which will expire next year. The one clause that still applies is the penalty - cabinet ministers lose a few thousand dollars in salary each year the government is in the red.
It's a pretty spotty, chaotic history on both sides. But whatever the various laws, on the long count, the NDP mostly failed at balancing. And Liberals, who swore blood oaths to balance forever, managed to stay out of the red only about half the time.
But people will always have reservations about NDP fiscal management. That's why it took so long to sweat the grudging admission out of Dix.
Just So You Know: Dix noted with amusement that B.C. Liberals' spending plans extend out to 2016 on some fronts, which represents a degree of confidence surprising to some.
But he sounds pretty confident, too. Two lines stand out: "I expect to have a good relationship with the prime minister in spite of our partisan differences," and "I expect to inherit a difficult fiscal situation."
© Copyright 2013