Accounting for pricey election promises

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How toothless are New Brunswick’s booked rules to force political parties, in campaign mode, to explain exactly how they will make good on their spending promises? Indeed, how opaque is the Conservative machine’s commitment to transparency?

The provincial Liberals want to know and have been demanding answers since late June when the Tory-inspired Fiscal Transparency and Accountability Act came into effect. At that time, the Grits issued a statement, under their leader Brian Gallant’s imprimatur.

“It’s clear that this government is focused solely on spending announcements to help their election campaign, and not on growing our economy or creating jobs,” he said. “It’s ridiculous and unacceptable. This government is burying election promises in government announcements so they can avoid their own transparency legislation that requires all promises to be costed in election platforms,” said Gallant.

Last week, the Liberals were at it again, charging that the Conservatives have made $433 million worth of spending promises without independently costing out those announcements. They even unveiled a spreadsheet that, they say, accurately reflects the dollar value of each Tory vow between June 24 and August 20.

In contrast, insisted Liberal Dieppe candidate Roger Melanson, “We are being transparent and accountable. I think the outgoing premier who set out the rules in this legislation should follow the same rules.”

For their part, the Tories aren’t talking. In June, however, then-Finance Minister Blaine Higgs told the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, “If they (Liberals) know something that has been promised or announced that’s not in their budget, well, then they should tell me because I don’t know about it. . .Anything during the election process will then be identified as either new money or budgeted money. It will have to be costed if it is new money.”

To which Mr. Melanson retorted, “If that’s the case, it means they were using taxpayers’ money. . .to try to buy their votes.”

There is, of course, more than a healthy dose of political posturing on both sides of the issue. But the bottom line is that all of this is largely beside the point.

To begin with, the Fiscal Transparency and Accountability Act is a fundamentally silly piece of legislation. It mandates that political parties assign dollar values to their campaign promises and threatens to strip them of their tax-funded operating allowances if they don’t. But it says nothing about the fact that when the provincial government is flat broke, putting price tags on election promises is utterly meaningless.

The Act also enshrines the following, as yet, unachievable priorities: “Annual balanced budgets on or before the end of the first fiscal period;con or before the end of the first fiscal period, the Province’s net debt for a fiscal year will be less than the net debt for the preceding fiscal year; on or before the end of the first fiscal period, a net debt-to-GDP ratio that is at or below 35 per cent; and after March 31, 2017, quarterly fiscal updates will include a statement of the actual expenses and revenue to the end of the quarter to which the update relates.”

And the penalty for failing to meet these objectives is a walk to the metaphorical woodshed unless, of course, the following contingency applies: “The Minister may recommend to the Lieutenant-Governor in Council that the applicability of sections 6, 9 and 10 be suspended for any fiscal year if the Minister is of the opinion that an economic or financial crisis has occurred that makes it unreasonable for those sections to apply in that fiscal year. . .On the recommendation of the Minister, the Lieutenant-Governor in Council may issue an order that sections 6, 9 and 10 do not apply in the fiscal year set out in the order.”

So, then, do we not now endure an “economic or financial crisis” in this province? Or what would we call a $12-billion debt and $500-million annual deficit?

Transparency and accountability are functions of money management. First comes the money. Then comes the management.

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