Tag Archives: New Brunswick Auditor general Kim MacPherson

Biting the hand that hits

 

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Government watchdogs are constitutionally bred to be independent, objective, honest, and, of course, funded. How else can they protect the people’s business from the occasional, sometimes unwitting, predations of their political caretakers?

But, every so often, when its collar is fixed too tightly and its leash is tugged too quickly, even the best-behaved terrier of truth will snarl, spit and promptly defecate on the shoes of its hapless walker.

And so, we witness New Brunswick Auditor-General Kim MacPherson playing “bad dog” in Premier Brian Gallant’s four-year obedience class.

To be sure, Ms. MacPherson insists that her province-wide road show explaining what she does for living, why it’s important, and how it helps democracy from slipping into the black hole of ambivalence has nothing to do with politics.

Forget the fact that her budget’s been frozen at $2 million a year, that she needs staff to finish the work she’s legally obligated to complete, and that her cries to obtain these resources might as well be dog whistles falling on the ears of deaf ministers.

No, no, she says, her new “outreach program” has everything to do with –for lack of better words – proactivity and positivity. (Lord knows, children, we need more of that in the spin-cities of Canadian governance).

Let me make myself perfectly clear, she told Saint John Telegraph-Journal legislative scribe Chris Morris, this week, “It (the speaking tour) stems from the fact that in the past year we have a new strategic plan, and one of the strategic objectives is to increase public awareness of the role of the auditor general and the reports. It is to make people more aware of our work.”

Funny, that. Back in March before the snow melted and the dog parks opened, Ms. MacPherson had this to say: “I feel that out office is under-resourced. We’re barely scratching the surface. There is much more that we could and should be doing.”

Now, she tells Ms. Morris, “I am conscious of the fact that these are difficult fiscal times, and it is difficult to come up with new money to add to anyone’s budget.”

Still, the A-G is angling to become a particular animal that no sitting government of any political stripe ever wants to see: a political watchdog that’s determined to issue regular, scheduled reports throughout a given year rather than one, annual omnibus piece that’s doomed to obscurity. In this she’s counting on the media to wag her tail (your welcome, auditor).

As Ms. Morris quotes Ms. MacPherson as saying, “It is too much content all at once – about 1,000 pages in one day. We have decided to stagger the content. We are now working on a report to be tabled in mid-June.”

Can’t you just hear the factotums in the Premier’s Office now grind their canines at night? Oh wonderful, they are chomping, how exquisite. How, on earth, did we get ourselves into this particular kennel?

For her part, the A-G has found her freedom by digging under the cage that trapped her. She’s in the wind, happily barking and yipping, paroling the boundaries between official, government bafflegab and the numbers that tell at least some version of the truth about public spending.

According to Ms. Morris: “MacPherson said that when she is in St. Stephen (her first public appearance on her provincial tour), she will talk about the fiscal situation of the province, and some of her office’s recent performance reviews, including the report on the now-defunct Atcon group of companies.”

Bark! Bark!

Bad dog!

Ouch!

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Burning down New Brunswick’s fiscal house

New Brunswick is surely on the horns of a dilemma

New Brunswick is surely on the horns of a dilemma

 

We’ve knelt around this bonfire before, watching the flames grow higher, hungrier. The kindling is the first to go, then the wild alder branches, and finally the great stumps of driftwood, charred black, vanish in the inferno.

Inevitably, we reach the point of knowing that time is short and we’re running out of fuel. Still, we can’t seem to move. Our feet and hands are stuck in the sand, to be followed, any day now, by our heads.

“Net debt is one of the most important measures of the financial position of the province,” New Brunswick Auditor general Kim MacPherson reminded us, with the patience of a camp counsellor, last week in her annual report. Although she’s led this sing-a-long for months, we still can’t remember the words.

“For the year ended 31 March 2013, net debt increased by $931.8 million to $11.1 billion. Net debt has increased $4.3 billion since 2007. The 2013-2014 Main Estimates budgets for an increase in net debt of $594.4 million for the year ended 31 March 2014. Based on 2013-2014 Main Estimates, net debt of the province could be in excess of $11.6 billion for the year ended 31 March 2014.”

We interrupt her just long enough to toss another log from our dwindling stash onto the fire. Excuse us, Ms. MacPherson, you were saying. . .

“This continued increase in net debt represents a very disturbing trend. An even higher demand will exist on future revenue to pay past expenses. Such continued negative trends impacted the Standard & Poor’s decision to downgrade the province’s bond rating from AA- to A+ in 2012. This rating change will ultimately result in more

expensive borrowing costs. As well, New Brunswick’s increased borrowing may constrain future borrowing capacity and affect future provincial operations and delivery of services. The A+ rating remained unchanged in 2013.”

That does sound serious, Ms. MacPherson. Do go on. . .

“Another way to assess the significance of the size of the province’s net debt is to compare it to the net debt of provinces with similar populations as New Brunswick in absolute amount, per capita and as a percentage of GDP.  Comparable provinces include Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. . .Over the last five years, within this comparable group, New Brunswick has had one of the highest increases in net debt (45 per cent) The rate of Net Debt growth has also increased in the past year (growing by nine per cent).”

You don’t have to be Finance Minister Blaine Higgs to realize that all is not well in the purple violet province, where the annual deficit now looms large at $538.2 million. But, it helps. He may be the only citizen of New Brunswick who isn’t stoking the all-consuming fiscal fire.

“While it is true that our expense reductions have prevented a much larger deficit, we cannot turn a blind eye to the revenue challenge that our province now faces,” he said following Ms. MacPherson’s report to the Legislative Assembly. “No one is immune to the fiscal situation we are facing in this province and we are asking our stakeholders to be prepared to discuss how we can get back to balanced budgets.”

Translation: Hey stakeholders, be prepared for more cuts.

In Higgsian terms, is New Brunswick’s infrastructure “bigger than it needs to be”? Is he correct when he says “we need to work on that”?

Is the solution, effectively, to downsize our infrastructure and with it our appetites and expectations?

Says Mr. Higgs: “When you look at he situation we have in the province with declining enrollment in our schools and the number of schools we have. . .if you look at the number of hospitals we have for a province our size. . .you look at the roads we maintain for a province our size. . .we have to look at serious changes in how we do business and how we can deliver services on a continuous basis in a more effective way. . .How do we give the best education unless we have the critical mass there to do that and do that reasonably?”

Of course, right-sizing the province would be the antithesis of “politics-as-usual”.

Then again, this is the one highly combustible commodity that we, in New Brunswick, should be happy to see finally go up in smoke.

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