Doug Ford’s gas tax promise is the very definition of political chutzpah

Chutzpah, it has been said, is that quality of sheer shamelessness displayed by someone who murders both their parents and then pleads for mercy on the grounds of being an orphan.

As of Monday, we can now offer a new definition of political chutzpah: a politician who solemnly promises to cut a tax just before an election, and then claims he’s fulfilled that promise by doing it four years later on the eve of yet another vote.

This is truly shameless, indeed. Yet it’s exactly what Doug Ford is doing with Ontario’s provincial election now less than two months away.

The Ford government is promising to cut the province’s tax on gasoline by 5.7 cents a litre — a move he says will fulfill its pledge back in 2018 to reduce the tax by 10 cents (it was lowered by 4.3 cents earlier).

The kicker is that the reduction won’t take effect until July 1, four weeks after the election scheduled for June 2. And it will last only until Dec. 31.

So the message could hardly be more cynical, or more shameless: we told you four years ago that if you elected us we’d cut gas taxes by 10 cents. We didn’t actually do that, but now we’re promising that if you elect us again we’ll do what we promised to do four years ago — but only for a while. Chutzpah, indeed.

There’s no doubt this will be popular with a lot of voters who face sticker shock when they go to fill up their cars. Especially voters with short memories who aren’t much fussed about the blatant political calculations behind this move.

And it’s just the latest pocket-book gesture from a premier who famously campaigned on “buck-a-beer” (another shiny, shallow promise that never became reality).

He’s cancelling fees for renewing licence plate stickers, saving drivers up to $120 a year. And he’s doing away with tolls on highways 412 and 418 in Durham Region.

Nice for some. But it’s important to remember that all these vote-buying gestures come with real costs. Some of those are clear. Cancelling sticker fees will cost the province more than a billion dollars in lost revenue, and CBC News reports that the gas tax cut will deprive the treasury of another $645 million.

That’s not nothing, especially at a time when the demands on the public purse have never been higher. The pandemic has exposed how threadbare many public services have become, especially in health care. Reducing revenues by upwards of $1.6 billion makes it that much harder for the province to, for example, hire more nurses or open more intensive care beds.

It’s also worth noting how many of the government’s pre-election baubles are targeted at just one group: drivers. And it’s not alone. Governments in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan have recently rushed to the rescue of motorists with (respectively) cuts in car insurance, gas taxes and vehicle registration fees.

All these governments are making a choice: to give one group (drivers) a small but highly visible benefit, rather than focus public resources on strengthening services for everyone.

Singling out motorists for favourable treatment has the perverse effect of incentivizing driving and encouraging fuel consumption at a time when the warnings about climate change have never been louder. It undercuts all the fine words from governments about shifting to more efficient sources of energy.

That’s bad enough. But in Ontario the government is adding insult to injury by counting on voters to simply forget the broken promises of the past.