Life’s certainty: debt and disappointment

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For more proof that the federal government lives in a black box, coated with bubble wrap and buried in the deepest antechamber of Parliament Hill, look no farther than the hosannas it raises over the Finance Department’s latest projection that the country has posted a razor-thin surplus of less than $2 billion.

Apparently, this announcement is designed to cheer a worried populace, convince the nation that the Harper plan for “careful economic stewardship” is working and that, thanks to cunning and perspicacious policy at the centre, the regions may expect bread, honey and wine in the years ahead, if only they would get with the political program.

How, one wonders, does this logic track in Alberta, where provincial finances have been decimated in recent months thanks to a federally supported campaign to link that province’s economic prospects to fossil fuel prices it does not, and never has, controlled? How, indeed, does that constitute “careful stewardship”?

How, furthermore, does the argument persuade the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba and Ontario that their astonishing fiscal woes can be ameliorated by the actions (or, more precisely, inactions) of a federal partner in Confederation that has been absent without leave for, lo, these many, nine years?

How, indeed, do we reconcile such claims with the very real possibility that New Brunswick will find itself unable to cap its impressive operating deficit (now in the hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars), let alone pay down its long term debt (now above $12 billion)?

If we lay these burdens at the feet of the federal government, we have good reason.

That so-called national “surplus” has been bought and paid for by the provinces and territories that have been forced to endure broad caps to public spending on traditional, nation-building priorities, including: health care, public education, university research and development, arts and culture, and workforce skills development and placement.

To be sure, this does not, and should not, let New Brunswickers off the hook for their own prettily arranged economic malaise.

Over the years, we have been more than willing to demand of our provincial governments everything we’ve always believed we had a right to expect: low taxes, high-quality public services, good jobs, seasonal employment combined with fully funded, no-questions-asked employment insurance.

Still, lurking beneath the surface has been a federal administration that has evinced very little interest in the conditions of the places where people actually live and work and raise families – and even less interest in building long-term economic capacity where it matters most.

In contrast, an enlightened national government would spend time getting to know the provinces with which it is obliged to partner. It would reach out to extend the enormous capital and human resources at its disposal to build a true and durable national consensus on social and economic priorities.

It would not shut down debate in Parliament, relegate important committee work to busy work, demean the democratic process by burying every important issue into an omnibus bill, and demonize every principled, conscientious objector of its priorities and plans as effective enemies of the state.

It would not refuse to extend humanitarian relief to those who are, heartbreakingly, unable, through no fault of their own, find succor and solace elsewhere in the world.

We, in Canada, do not live in a black box, coated with bubble wrap and buried under Parliament Hill.

We, in New Brunswick, and in every other province and territory of this once-noble country, live in the light with our hearts nobly bleeding, our hands generously outstretched.

So should our federal government.

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