Ian Dowbiggin | Sept. 12
The silly season of this provincial election campaign is upon us. We know this because the leaders of the three political parties are making all kinds of wild promises they and we know they can't keep.
The silly season is the stage of every election campaign when the excitement of the election call begins to subside and the drama of polling day is still far off. Life threatens to return to everyday routine. Nothing could be worse for those running for office. They have to scramble to attract and capture our attention.
Hence the slew of promises that have crossed our radar screens in recent days.
To the surprise of many, the NDP has been the least guilty culprit in the recent orgy of verbal largesse. For a party that sometimes sounds as if it thinks it can transform earth into paradise, its promises have been comparatively realistic. In pledging to spend an extra $7 million to cover the costs of all seniors in nursing homes, the NDP is taking both a refreshingly different angle and a relatively sober economic approach to the always thorny issue of health care.
The Liberals, by contrast, have thrown restraint right out the window. Whatever the Tories pledge to spend on health care, Robert Ghiz vows he'll spend more. When the Binns government says it will hire 80 new nurses, Ghiz raises the ante to 200. Binns claims the Tories will hire 20 new doctors. Ghiz vows 40.
When asked how he's going to pay for all these nurses, doctors, and general health-care improvements, Ghiz says he'll cash in his friendship with Parliament Hill Liberals for improved relations with Ottawa. That, Ghiz maintains, will result in more dollars from the feds than the Tories were able to wrangle.
Well, maybe, but that argument won't wash with Island voters. Mr. Ghiz ought to know as well as anyone that traditionally Islanders prefer to be governed by a political party different from the one in power in Ottawa.
Still, these wild promises are what you'd expect from an opposition party that's trying to dethrone an incumbent government. No such excuses exist for the Tories. This is a government that's been in power for seven years. Until recently it's depicted itself as the party best able to provide Islanders with accountable government and effective management of the Island economy. The Conservatives should know better than anyone else what the limits on spending are.
Instead, last week we heard a string of Tory spending promises on education, health, regional development, and water and sewer improvements. Pat Binns is saying that an economic upturn will help finance all these plans. But running up three successive deficits since 2000 ought to make them more cautious. True, a slower economy, potato wart, Sept. 11's chilling effect on tourism, the SARS hysteria, and soaring health-care costs have taken their toll on government budgeting. But that's the point: the future is always full of surprises, and often the surprises aren't good for people trying to balance the books.
The optics of all these Tory promises aren't good. If it weren't for the huge lead the government enjoyed in the latest opinion poll, you might be mistaken for thinking that Binns and the Tories are worried. This government entered the election thinking that it had papered over all its policy stains. Why is it now trying to buy votes?
Maybe the Tories know something we don't. Maybe they're in more trouble than most people assume. Maybe the election isn't really over after all.
If so, the promises will just keep on coming.
Ian Dowbiggin is professor of history at the University of Prince Edward Island. Author of four books, including the 1999 Canadian best-seller Suspicious Minds: The Triumph of Paranoia in Everyday Life, he's well-known to Maritime audiences as a controversial radio and television commentator on today's hot-button issues.