Graham Steele, Paul Martin and the disapproving ghost of Tommy Douglas

Is Nova Scotia Finance Minister Graham Steele former federal finance minister Paul Martin in NDP drag?

Consider. The night before Steele delivered his bad-news budget last week, his boss, Premier Darrell Dexter—as bosses are wont to do; can you say Jean Chrétien?—stole his good-news thunder.


The $222-million deficit Steele had forecast for 2010-11 had magically morphed into a $447-million surplus. The next day, Steele delivered the sobering, morning-after budget projections. In 2011-12, the province will again run up a whopping $389-million deficit.


Opposition critics were quick to see it as Martinesque smoke and mirrors: predict the worst, announce the best and claim political credit for the difference.

As a tactic, of course, it worked very well for the Chrétien-Martin Liberals. Intriguingly, Steele also seems to be aping another favourite Martin ploy—solve your fiscal woes by offloading costs to others. See: municipalities, school boards, et al. But I digress.

The NDP prefers to draw its philosophical parallels—as Dexter did during the last provincial election—with the party’s prudent prairie icon, Tommy Douglas, who gave Saskatchewan balanced budgets and Medicare.

The problem for this NDP government, however, is that it offers no big Tommy-Douglas dream at the end of its balanced books rainbow. Are there no more big ideas? Or are our NDPers, in the end, just cost-cutting conservatives in costume?

Last week’s budget-and-mirrors sideshow was equally instructive for the ways in which the opposition responded.

It never ceases to amaze me how un-conservative our supposed fiscal conservatives are. They rail on about deficits and debt walls and the urgency of getting our financial house in order, but the moment they so much as sniff a surplus, the first thing they want to do is cut taxes.

Claw back last summer’s HST increase. Slash the small business tax rate more—and then more again. Debt? What debt?

The NDP, to its credit, slapped its surplus—contrived or not—on the debt, thus lowering the annual cost of servicing that debt and ultimately putting more control of our economic future in our own hands.

Which makes them modestly more prudent fiscal managers than their rivals. But are they more than that?

  1. Perhaps no Tommy Douglas style dream at the end of the budgetary rainbow, but let’s not forget very recent news regarding funding for independent and alternative living options for persons with disabilities (announced today), and the $18 million earmarked for low income families, just to name a couple of social program initiatives. It’s a start, and let’s see if there’s more to come.


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