An unsettling postrecession disconnect has settled over Ontario politics. It's the same kind of disconnect that can be seen elsewhere in Canada.
The disconnect lies between the doleful fiscal situation of Canada's largest province and the apparent unwillingness of Premier Dalton McGuinty, or any of the province's politicians for that matter, to talk seriously about that situation.
Instead, the Premier has spent the past few months announcing new, long-term and costly spending policies, as if the $20-billion deficit hole in which Ontario finds itself either does not exist or will disappear when economic growth returns.
The $20-billion deficit for 2010-2011 follows on a slightly larger hole for last year, and precedes what is predicted to be a $17-billion one in 2011-2012, another $16-billion one in 2012-2013, and so on until the budget is balanced by 2017-2018.
Lesson one in reading budgets: Never, ever believe fiscal predictions seven fiscal years from now. They are jokes at best, deceptions at worst. When Mr. McGuinty's government predicts a balanced budget in 2017-2018, it is literally fooling itself and the voters.
The prediction is foolish because it rests on too many imponderables, and one certain untruth - that health-care spending will be held to 3 per cent annual increases. Such a small increase has never happened in Ontario, and under current health-care arrangements never will.
So we know that spending will be higher, likely much higher, than the McGuinty government suggests, because health care dwarfs all other spending. And we know, too, that every increase by 1 percentage point in the interest rate would mean almost half-a-billion dollars more in borrowing costs.
Put the two together - higher spending and higher borrowing costs - then throw in a sluggish U.S. economy to which the Ontario economy is tied, and it's a fair bet that Ontario's medium-term fiscal position is worse than the government said in its last budget.
The same or worse, the fiscal drag in Ontario is bad. But nobody wants to talk about it seriously. The provincial Conservatives blab on about eliminating waste and duplication and all that escapist nonsense. The Liberals just don't want to talk about it at all, except when they try to entice public-sector unions into a two-year wage freeze, something that also is unlikely to happen.
With an election coming next year, Mr. McGuinty wants to avoid hard truths, preferring instead to launch full-day kindergarten that will cost $1.5-billion when fully implemented, money his government must borrow to finance.
Then there's the harmonized sales tax, a defensible public policy that nonetheless will raise taxes on consumers. Add in the feed-in-tariffs from non-conventional energy sources and other drivers of big increases in hydro rates. Combine these factors with ever-higher property taxes, transit fares, fees of all kinds, and the makings are there of a populist backlash against declining real incomes for the middle class.
The same disconnect is evident in the New Brunswick election that ends next Monday. That province, fiscally speaking, is in even worse shape than Ontario.
New Brunswick's deficit is $750-million. Like the Ontario government, the New Brunswick Liberal government's prediction for a balanced budget by 2014-2015 is fiction, based on completely unrealistic spending and revenue projections.
And yet, Premier Shawn Graham and his Conservative opponent have crisscrossed the province making all sorts of new spending promises while pledging not to raise taxes. Perhaps because they have no chance of winning, the New Democrats have actually been the most fiscally prudent of the parties in the campaign.
As the experienced political scientist Donald Savoie has written of his province, "I see no alternative than raising taxes and introducing far-reaching cuts in public-sector activities." Needless to say, he is not running.
It's easy to blame politicians for not dealing straight up with issues as painful as a government that spends too much and taxes too little, since the antidotes to these deep fiscal problems are: higher taxes and/or lowered spending.
Apparently, it's we the voters who don't want to hear that kind of straight talk. So politicians don't give it to us. They fear us.
As governments emerge from the deficit pits into which they all fell during the recession, their fear of our unwillingness to hear straight talk will lead to more of the disconnects so dangerously evident in big Ontario and smaller New Brunswick.