Setting the fiscal stage for a political melodrama

 

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It is organizationally awkward, bureaucratically regressive and probably unworkable. 

But say this for the drafters of New Brunswick’s newest law designed to reign in public spending: When it comes to crafting high, political theatre, they hold a candle to no one; certainly, no other Canadian legislator of similarly hawkish mien.

With one merry swoop in deference to the provincial election, coming soon to a voting station near you, Finance Minister Blaine Higgs has tabled the Fiscal Transparency and Accountability Act, which he says will render New Brunswick “one of the most accountable provinces in Canada.” 

It will do this, apparently, by requiring government to reduce the deficit by at least $125 million – or, as the case may be, preserve a budgetary surplus – in any given year. The consequences of failure would, for the first time, directly hit each cabinet minister where he or she lives: in the pocketbook, and in the form of a $2,500 penalty.

The Act, its proponents claim, will also restore common sense to the administration of the province’s finances – which currently labour under a $500-million deficit and a long-term debt of almost $12 billion – by compelling political parties to put a dollar figure beside each of their election promises at the risk of losing their annual operating allowances.

In his official statement in the Assembly, Mr. Higgs struck a triumphant tone.  “New Brunswick will be the only province with this level of transparency required for election promises,” he said. “Elected representatives must be accountable for taxpayers’ dollars, not only when making commitments to voters, but also when making decisions at the cabinet table. Just as New Brunswickers must face personal consequences for not keeping up with household bills, Mr. Speaker, so must elected representatives see personal consequences for not keeping up with our province’s bills. That. . .is true accountability.”

Perhaps; still, it’s odd that the only way this government seems able to deliver “true accountability” to taxpayers is by functioning as if it were its own trustee in bankruptcy

In effect, these new schedules of penalties for non-performance and injunctions against empty promises all but concede that government is a wastrel. It’s a deadbeat dad whose awful track record with the family’s nest egg has landed the whole clan in the chicken coop. It can’t be counted upon to do the right thing on its own. 

Clearly, then, the solution should be obvious: The Tory government will regulate itself, just like before; only. . .well, better.

Astonishingly, the province’s other main parties seem all too willing to oblige Mr. Alward and company in legitimizing this fiction.

Liberal finance critic Roger Melanson made a good show of his faux opposition on Wednesday when he intoned, “To have the minister of finance present this piece of legislation and make a statement like this, it’s quite ironic in the fact that if you look at the specific results from this government and this minister of finance for the last three-and-a-half years, he has missed his financial targets over and over and over.”

A New York minute later he had this to say: “It (the Act) makes sense and I think taxpayers, New Brunswickers, are expecting any political party or any government to be accountable, to be transparent and to be financially responsible.”

But how valid is that commitment when it’s delivered under threat of self-imposed reprisals in the event that the government falls off the spending wagon once again?

Moreover, what are the new costs associated with administering a law that must involve third parties to mete out its complex brand of justice? Are there mitigating circumstances that might waive the various fines and levies? If so, when and how do they kick in?

According to the legislation, cabinet ministers are off the hook if certain “extraordinary events” such as recessions, natural calamities and other so-called acts of God cost the budget $20 million or more. Again, though, who decides what fits the definitions, and what are the mechanisms? 

One element does seem clear, much to the expected chagrin of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. In a nicely sneaky and utilitarian way, the new legislation essentially guts the archly populist (and retrograde) Taxpayer Protection Act. 

Now, a government that faces a $400-million annual deficit in New Brunswick no longer needs to hold a referendum to obtain the public’s expressed permission to raise new taxes or hike the HST.

Here, then, witness one piece of political theatre stooping to conquer another in high style, indeed.

 

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