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Cuts are coming -- you can bank on it

While the animated Monsters vs. Aliens plays in theatres around the world, those of us in British Columbia are getting a live-action version of the same thing.

While the animated Monsters vs. Aliens plays in theatres around the world, those of us in British Columbia are getting a live-action version of the same thing.

It's monsters against aliens here as well, at least if you believe the spins that the Liberals are putting on the New Democrats and vice versa. We also have the Greens, the Conservatives and so on, but so far they aren't doing much to take away from the main attraction.

The sniping and the cheap shots, the misrepresentations and the falsehoods, are all part of an election campaign in these parts. They help to amuse us and anger us and keep us interested.

They help the politicians, too, because when all the attention is diverted to non-issues or past battles, that means they don't have to answer tough questions where real leadership is required. Those would be the questions that really matter.

For instance: What will be the true impact of the economic downturn on the province's finances?

What will the Liberals do if they are re-elected? What would the New Democrats do if they win? What would the Greens ask for if, by some incredible chance, they find themselves holding the balance of power?

You can bet that no matter what happens on election day, we will be told soon after that our finances are in much worse shape than we had been led to believe. The line might be that things have changed in the past few months, or possibly that the Liberals lied. Whatever the excuse, something will have to give.

There should be no doubt that cuts are coming. While there have been some positive signs lately, the economic downturn rolls on. Premier Gordon Campbell hates the idea of deficits, and will try to minimize one whatever the cost. Finance Minister Colin Hansen's February budget was, at best, optimistic, and it called for $250 million in cuts to be announced later.

The icing on the cake of evidence is the fact that all this year, senior bureaucrats have been hunting high and low for bodies to lose and programs to chop. Some cuts have already been made, but don't expect the word to leak out until after we vote.

It's true that governments do not exist to employ people; they exist to provide services to the taxpayers. But when cuts are looming, we all have reason to fear.

Some cuts are surely feasible; every large bureaucracy has employees who are doing work that is not needed, doing nothing at all or doing just enough to keep the bureaucracy rolling along.

But most government functions exist for good reasons. They serve useful purposes and would be missed if they disappeared. We need to have some sense that cuts will not do damage that would take years to correct.

Former prime minister Kim Campbell is remembered for saying that an election campaign is not a time to talk about issues. Her comment has become, in a strange twist, an excuse for not getting down to details.

But that is not what Campbell would have wanted. What she said -- on Sept. 23, 1993, in St. Bruno, Que. -- was that there needed to be a dialogue with Canadians before there were major changes to social programs.

"This is not the time, I don't think, to get involved in a debate on very, very serious issues," she said, referring to the campaign that had just started.

There was a storm of criticism over her comment. Today, however, voters seem to simply shrug at the thought that politicians will steer clear of the stuff that matters.

Oh, what sheep we have become.

Campbell delivered her infamous line on the same evening that she confirmed that her government was considering a massive reorganization of social programs.

She did not provide specifics, but clearly indicated that the public should have a say.

Flash forward 16 years, to another leader named Campbell, this one a premier named Gordon. Once again, social programs are at risk, but the party leaders are not even pretending that voters are smart enough to get involved in a discussion.

The government's cuts are sure to ripple through communities across the province, and will probably be most severe in Greater Victoria. Yet with the campaign almost half over, the politicians have been able to avoid one of the most important issues.

As a result, we are not getting the full picture. It's two-dimensional at best, not as realistic as what is in the theatres, where the Hollywood version of Monsters vs. Aliens comes in breathtaking 3D.