Page last updated at 16:37 GMT, Friday, 4 September 2009 17:37 UK

Can Cameron learn from Canada's cuts?

By Shaun Ley
Presenter, Radio 4's The World This Weekend

The challenge of tackling Britain's burgeoning budget deficit will face whichever party wins the next general election. It is projected to reach some £175bn by next year - when Gordon Brown will have to hold a general election.

Someone who understands the scale of the task ahead is Brian Tobin, the former Canadian cabinet minister and he says whoever wins power will have to seek political consensus if they are to succeed in cutting the deficit.

former Canadian Minister Brian Tobin
Brian Tobin slashed budgets to reduce Canada's deficit

He helped reduce Canada's deficit in the 1990s and has told the BBC that, should the Tories win, as current polls suggest they will, blaming Labour will not help solve the debt problem.

The Conservative leader David Cameron told The Economist in July that getting the deficit under control would "make or break" any future Tory government.

His top team attended a seminar earlier this year when former ministers and officials from Canada explained how they went about eliminating, in the four years after 1993, a deficit of C$ 42bn.

That represented 9% of Canada's GDP - Britain's deficit could reach 12% of GDP by 2010.

Brian Tobin was first fisheries and then industry minister in the Liberal government elected in 1993.

'Draw blood'

He was one of six ministers put in charge of securing major cuts in public spending.

Mr Tobin told The World This Weekend on BBC Radio Four that success depended on all sides recognising how important it was to cut the debt.

"The whole deficit reduction mantra crossed party lines. It wasn't a right-wing thing to do, or a centrist thing to do, or a left-wing thing to do.

Everybody was all for the cuts, as long as the cuts applied to somebody else!
Brian Tobin

Former Canadian government minister

"Governments of all stripes were running, at a provincial level, balanced budgets and were making a virtue out of balanced budgets."

Initially, though, there was resistance from individual departments.

Only after Prime Minister Jean Chretien empowered Mr Tobin and his colleagues to impose cuts did departments co-operate.

"We began to arbitrarily take money out. As that began to happen, people suddenly realised this was serious," he told me.

"They then began to work very hard to identify the savings themselves.

"The message is - you must 'draw blood', if you want to be taken seriously."

Brian Tobin's own department had to accept sacrifices: the science budget was cut by 50%, something he said was "very difficult".

"Initially, everybody said that they understood why government had to do this - but 'not in my back yard'. You had a nation of 'nimbys'.

"Everybody was all for the cuts, as long as the cuts applied to somebody else."

Battered fisheries

It all looked rather different on Canada's eastern edge.

Standing on the shore of Newfoundland's coast, fisherman Gus Etchegary can see the Atlantic ocean stretching away to the horizon.

Beyond, nothing but water until Ireland.

Fisherman Gus Etchegary
Fisherman Gus Etchegary is bitter over the impact of spending cuts

Until the early 1990s, those waters brimmed with fishing vessels.

But a moratorium on cod fishing and cuts in federal support have, according to him, combined to eliminate commercial fishing.

"They cut the science budget for this huge industry in half. The net result was research and surveillance vessels, all the infrastructure in the harbour, were neglected.

"As a result we have today an industry flat on its bum.

"We have lost 35,000 jobs since 1992 - 80,000 people in the industry have had to leave the area."

He argued that from Ottawa, the federal capital in the centre of Canada, the island and its concerns were peripheral.

He did not doubt the need to curb the deficit in 1993, but believed the politicians went for easy options.


Back in Ottawa, Brian Tobin shrugged off such criticism.

A Newfoundland MP himself, he claimed that it illustrated a wider problem which could face the Conservatives in Britain if they win the next election.

"Don't let the voices of the few be misunderstood for the voices of the many. In other words, the leadership of the unions and other special interest groups will speak, quite negatively.

"But don't make the mistake of assuming that they are speaking for the silent majority."

He accepted that economic recovery made deficit-cutting easier but said it was still controversial.

So what did he think David Cameron could learn from Canada's Liberals?

When I asked the question, he diplomatically prefaced his answer by suggesting that Gordon Brown could adopt this approach just as easily; Mr Tobin was too shrewd to take sides in another country's election.

But he did tell me that there were some essential elements to any deficit-cutting programme: "What needs to be to speak frankly, openly and honestly.

"Don't try to over-simplify the issue. Don't try to put all the blame on the previous administration. Because if you're in a fiscal mess, it's often generational or structural."

That might not please Mr Cameron, who thus far has been arguing that Britain is more vulnerable now because of earlier decisions made by Gordon Brown.

What might please him more though is that after making cuts, the like of which Canada had never seen before, the then Canadian PM Jean Chretien went on to win two more general elections.

You can hear Shaun Ley's report from Canada on Radio 4's The World This Weekend on Sunday 6 September at 1300 BST

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