British Columbia

B.C. Liberal leader shelves austerity in the name of recovery on the campaign trail

Andrew Wilkinson compares the current pandemic to wartime when it comes to government measures, insisting fiscal prudence must take a backseat to the economic restart.

Andrew Wilkinson compares pandemic to wartime, says fiscal prudence must take backseat to economic restart

While touting his marquee plan to axe the PST for one year, B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson says he has no qualms about the $7-billion hit to government revenue that would come with it. (Martin Diotte/CBC)

The leader of the B.C. Liberals insists now is not the time for austerity.

Andrew Wilkinson says concerns about the growing provincial deficit need to take a backseat to pandemic recovery measures.

"This is the time to invest in people," he told CBC News during an interview this week. "We're in kind of a wartime economy right now, and government has to borrow and government has to invest because we all have to stick together and pull each other up."

Wilkinson made the comments while again talking about his marquee plan to axe the provincial sales tax or PST for one year, and the roughly $7-billion hit to government revenue that would entail. A Liberal government would bring back the sales tax after one year, but at the reduced level of three per cent rather than today's seven per cent.

Leader Andrew Wilkinson says his government would provide $10-a-day daycare for every family with an income less than $65,000, $20-a-day daycare for families who make less than $90,000 and $30-a-day for those making up to $125,000. 0:47

It's his party's biggest promise of the campaign to date, and he paired the announcement with an assurance that, if elected, a B.C. Liberal government would not cut spending to health care or education to make up for the loss.

Wilkinson also announced his party's platform on childcare Friday, saying a Liberal government would introduce $10-a-day daycare for families making less than $60,000 per year, rising to $30 a day for families making up to $125,000. 

He's since suggested there would be no cuts to government spending at all, and has no qualms about sinking the province deeper into debt.

So will voters be surprised to hear this coming from a party that has long championed fiscal restraint?

B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson sits down with CBC reporter Tanya Fletcher for a one-on-one interview on Wednesday. (Martin Diotte/CBC)

"I have not heard from a single voter and I have not heard from a single party member who thinks this is the time for austerity," said Wilkinson.

B.C. is already bracing for a $13-billion budget deficit this fiscal year. Beyond the $7-billion price-tag in the first year with no PST, any future years with the tax at a proposed three per cent would tack on another $4-billion annual hit. To compare, the NDP's $1,000 cash-back promise would cost about $1.5-billion per year.

Wilkinson gave no details on how his government might go about paying back that debt in the near future, nor did he express concern about how further bleeding into the red might affect B.C.'s credit rating.

"Unless we get sufficient economic growth it'll be very hard to pay it back," he replied. 

"What do we do to keep people engaged in our communities and have a sense of hope and purpose, and plan for the future? We invest in economic growth."

'No-gainer versus no-brainer'

While it may sound unusual coming from a right-of-centre party, political experts say we've seen this type of policy shift before with fiscally conservative parties during times of trouble. 

"It seems that right-of-centre parties are willing to do this in those extreme times," said University of British Columbia associate professor of political science Gerald Baier.

In the midst of an election, you just can't curry favour with the electorate by saying you're going to make cuts right now.- UBC Political Scientist Gerald Baier

Take the 2008 recession under then-prime minister Stephen Harper, when he promoted economic recovery with spending in key areas.

"There was a willingness to go in a less austere fashion — but that was very targeted," said Baier, pointing to investments the Harper government made in the auto industry. "They got some money into the system, as opposed to tax cuts that they'd have to end up paying for down the line."

There's a good chance the B.C. Liberals have also taken notes from what's happened in the province next door.

"You see how unpopular the United Conservative government is in Alberta trying to force through some of the austerity measures that they were planning before the pandemic began," Baier said. 

"So I think [the B.C. Liberals] have taken a lesson from that in seeing it as a real no-gainer rather than no-brainer," he said. "In the midst of an election, you just can't curry favour with the electorate by saying you're going to make cuts right now."

About the Author

Provincial Affairs Reporter covering the B.C. Legislature. Anything political: tanya.fletcher@cbc.ca

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