Tag Archives: Auditor-General Kim MacPherson

Biting the watchdog


When governments and their duly appointed protectors of public probity begin to feud, the result is always, lamentably predictable: The poison infects the body politic, and no one is safe from the vile cynicism that now, too often, afflicts our democratic institutions.

What, for example, are we to make of the on-again-off-again dispute between the New Brunswick government and its auditor general Kim MacPherson about their proper, respective roles in the province?

The former wants to clarify what she should be able to do, to whom she should be able to talk, and how she should be able to investigate matters that cross her desk as the province’s chief forensic accountant.

The latter wants to clarify what that actual clarification means.

The issue is the new, proposed Inquiries Act, a bill the Gallant government hopes will settle any lingering confusion about the operational independence of its legislative watchdogs (the auditor general, the provincial ombudsman and a handful of others).

But was there any real confusion, until now?

A report in Brunswick News states that the new bill, “introduced by the Liberal government last week includes specific provisions that could restrict reporting on public hearings and even exclude the public from attending. . .Now, the province’s auditor general is questioning the changes.”

In an interview with the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, Ms. MacPherson declared that she has concerns with one section of the proposed legislation – specifically the one that removes her authority as a provincial “commissioner”, a position which currently endows her with the same powers as a Court of Queen’s Bench judge to launch investigations and inaugurate hearings on her own steam.

As she said, “I have concerns with repealing that section (of the existing Act).” Furthermore, she stated, she worries about the coupling of one line in the legislation that gives the A-G genuine commissioner authority with another that appears to insist that these powers, nevertheless, defer to government direction. In other words, Premier Gallant and his relevant cabinet ministers seem to be saying: Investigate, but only if we initiate and approve the object of your scrutiny. “For independence reasons, I thought that section should be decoupled so that the auditor general, when and if (he/she) thought it was necessary, only in very, very extreme circumstances, would invoke the powers of inquiry,” Ms. MacPherson noted.

What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with an independent officer of the government – mandated to keep a watchful eye on all things the public is owed a right and a need to know about the fiscal apparatus of its society – asking important questions, and getting answers?

Conversely, what’s right about an elected political regime curtailing the scope and effectiveness of these duties simply because these duties remain, without partisan or bureaucratic meddling, independent?

Now, as if to add further mud to the spring run-off around Freddy Beach, the Gallant government has decided, in estimable wisdom, not to decide. It’s sent the whole issue off to the law amendments committee where bills of this sort go to be remodeled, or, as often as not, to die.

Says Attorney General Serge Rousselle: “This is not a priority for our government. . .That said, in the spirit of collaboration and to listen to what everyone wants to say, I will propose an amendment to refer the Inquiries Act to the standing committee on law amendments.”

Not a priority for this government?

Who, then, wins under these circumstances? Ms. MacPherson? The provincial government?

Certainly, it can’t be the voters who, witnessing these shenanigans, might be forgiven for the cynicism they feel rising daily and all around them.

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Focussing the lenses of two economic telescopes into one


As the country’s leading economic prognosticator suggests the “the trickle-down effect from plunging oil prices will boost New Brunswick’s economy in the short term,” the province’s Auditor-General Kim MacPherson issues “a stark reminder that” the government, here, “has not listened to much of (her) fiscal advice.”

Both quotes emerged in stories the Telegraph-Journal researched late last week and published on its increasingly crowded front-page acreage (a testament, perhaps, to the surging intrepidity of its economic reportage).

In the first instance, the Conference Board of Canada holds out hope (faint as it may be) that New Brunswick will grow its GDP by as much as 1.8 per cent this year – the beneficial result of a low Canadian dollar, driven down by falling oil and gas prices and the Bank of Canada’s attending interest-rate adjustment of its benchmark rate, from one to 0.75 per cent.

This lending level is almost unheard of in recent times, and its effect will be (at least, for now) to make New Brunswick’s predominantly export-oriented goods and services appear mighty attractive to the U.S. marketplace, where a newly booming and hungry economy will almost certainly want to backstop its inevitable price inflation with comparatively cheap, high-quality wares from its friendly neighbours to the north. (Remember: consumer spending is the Holy Grail of global capitalism).

In the second instance, says A-G MacPherson, the New Brunswick government is spending too much. In fact, the habit has become an addiction. According to the official statement from her office on her her most recent report, “the financial position of the province tabled today (January 22, 2015) in the legislative assembly, the auditor general. . .expressed concerns about the continued increase in net debt of the province. In 2014, New Brunswick reported a deficit of $498.7 million, its sixth annual deficit in a row. To assist in financing these deficits, the province has incurred additional debt. New Brunswick’s net debt has now risen to more than $11.6 billion or $15,400 per New Brunswicker.”

The summary continues: “The report shows a troubling $4.7 billion (69 per cent) increase in net debt since 2006. An increase in net debt of $530.7 million has been budgeted for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2015 suggesting net debt could exceed $12 billion by that time.”

Said Ms. MacPherson: “The new Fiscal Transparency and Accountability Act includes targets to decrease net debt. To achieve these goals, the government will need to demonstrate more fiscal diligence.”

Finally, “In the report, the auditor general also addressed the challenges of the deteriorating state of capital assets such as roads, highways, schools and hospitals.

‘Solving the problem of aging infrastructure is more than a matter of new spending,’ said MacPherson. ‘It is about having a long-term infrastructure plan that will ensure the sustainability and safety of all essential infrastructure, while respecting the fiscal challenges faced by the province.’

“The auditor general stressed that while the government has acted to restrain the growth of expenses, it needs to do more to address New Brunswick’s structural deficit and continued growth of net debt.”

So, here, then, we face the conundrum of New Brunswick’s faltering economy: On the one hand, we can expect short-term growth thanks to forces beyond our control; on the other, we face long-term demise thanks to forces beyond our control.

‘Twas ever thus in these parts.

The question is: Must it forever be?

The answer is not easy, but it is explicable.

The private sector (occasional big-business gerrymandering, notwithstanding) makes money when it believes that the public sector conducts itself fairly, equitably and transparently; when the latter’s regulatory frameworks are straightforward and commonsensical, when its costs do not exceed its value, when its employees do not, in the course of their duties, betray a career-long affection for “nine-to-fiveing” in their boots of clay.

Governments in New Brunswick, meanwhile, would do themselves enormous favors by proposing triumphs of the imagination: Sensible tax structures that emphasize consumption over income; bold policies that encourage immigration from around the world, and not just from northern regions of this province (tantamount to moving deck chairs on a sinking ocean-liner); and investments in early childhood education paid for with, say, tolls on overbuilt, public highways.

This is all within our grasp. And if we do, in our collective wisdom, grasp, the changes in the province might, for a change, prove permanent.

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