(Editor’s note: Michael Wilson died February 10 at 81. As finance minister in the Mulroney cabinet from 1984 to 1991, Wilson vowed to reduce federal spending and balance the budget for the first time since 1969. He never did. On May 11, 2011 Wilson recounted those years in an interview with Blacklock’s publisher Holly Doan. Following is a transcription of his candid remarks)
We’d just come through some horrendously high interest rates and the inflation that drove those rates. That was the hand I was dealt. It was a national emergency.
Conservatives are more inclined to look for smaller government, and Liberals are less inclined to be concerned about big government. But whether you were Conservative or Liberal – and now you can even include the NDP on this – we were all concerned about getting that deficit down.
It was as if we had to turn around an ocean liner. It would take a long time. We weren’t able to get the debt going on a downward track.
When I was finance minister, I came out of one of my early cabinet meetings and they said, “What should we expect in new programs?” I said, “The cupboard is bare. There aren’t going to be new programs. We cannot afford new programs. We have to get this deficit down.” I’d say to caucus, we have to get this under control, and they would nod.
I’d tell them one thing a country the size of Canada cannot ignore is what the markets think about our deficit and debt; we could end up with a run on the Canadian dollar! The dollar was being referred to as the Northern Peso. And people’s eyes would glaze over. “There goes Mike again, trying to scare us into cutting, because that’s all he is, a cutter!”
People thought there’s just a great big pile of money up in Ottawa; all we have to do is sign on the dotted line. “I need something for this, there’s a government program for that”. It’s very difficult to scale back or eliminate programs, because that was the attitude: Government can provide.
EuroMoney in one year said I was the best finance minister in the world. One year later, same guy, same policies, same government, I’m the worst in the world! And where were they when I was trying to get the deficit down? They hit us over the head every time: “This is the worst thing those hard-hearted skinflint Tories are trying to do; they’re ruining the country.”
I’m not going to sit here and say everything we did was perfect. It wasn’t perfect. You deal with what you can do in the political environment. Politicians have a difficult time talking about this, to tell the people straight up what the problems are.