Truth­ful to con­stituents should be the law

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky East­ern Pas­sages Rus­sell Wanger­sky’s col­umn ap­pears in 39 SaltWire news­pa­pers and web­sites in At­lantic Canada. He can be reached at rus­sell. wanger­sky@thetele­ Twit­ter: @wanger­sky.

It was an un­usual mes­sage. New Brunswick’s au­di­tor gen­eral was talk­ing about that prov­ince’s dim fi­nan­cial out­look as it con­tin­ues down a dis­mal path: this year marks its 11th straight deficit bud­get, and any at­tempt to slow the growth of debt has been put on hold while the gov­ern­ment of­fers up new spend­ing be­fore the next pro­vin­cial elec­tion.

That bit at the end is fa­mil­iar to peo­ple in all parts of the At­lantic prov­inces; it’s as­tound­ing what gets built, paved and painted in an elec­tion year.

But one thing au­di­tor gen­eral Kim MacPher­son sug­gested is a new di­rec­tion. She wants the New Brunswick gov­ern­ment to re­lease its up­dated au­dited fi­nan­cial state­ments be­fore the prov­ince goes to the polls on Sept. 24. (The gov­ern­ment has agreed, but hasn’t said how long be­fore the elec­tion an up­dated fi­nan­cial pic­ture will be re­leased.)

Now, pro­vin­cial ju­ris­dic­tions, es­pe­cially with govern­ments early in their terms, oc­ca­sion­ally toy with bal­anced bud­get leg­is­la­tion. (I say “toy” be­cause the leg­is­la­tion is al­most al­ways for show. Seven Cana­dian prov­inces have in­tro­duced it, pri­mar­ily in good fis­cal times, but most sim­ply walk around it when times get tough.)

You can ar­gue that the main dif­fi­culty with bal­anced bud­get leg­is­la­tion is that it ties the hands of govern­ments and forces them to raise taxes or cut ser­vices at the first sign of a down­turn. (That’s cer­tainly the case for mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties — in the land of “do as I say, not as I do,” mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties of­ten face bal­anced-bud­get re­quire­ments in pro­vin­cial leg­is­la­tion. And they are fre­quently left with ex­actly that in­crease-tax­e­sor-re­duce-ser­vices equa­tion.)

What I’d like to see is fi­nan­cial leg­is­la­tion put into ef­fect for govern­ments ap­proach­ing elec­tions.

In the lead-up to an elec­tion, govern­ments should be re­quired to tell vot­ers what the true pic­ture of the prov­ince’s fi­nances are.

In the last pro­vin­cial elec­tion in New­found­land and Labrador, the rul­ing Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives stead­fastly re­fused to re­lease the true state of the prov­ince’s fis­cal sit­u­a­tion, even as they con­tin­ued to try and buy votes with lav­ish elec­tion prom­ises.

Af­ter the elec­tion, it turned out the sin­gle-year deficit, for a prov­ince of 500,000, had bal­looned to $2.2 bil­lion, blow­ing apart the bud­get pre­dic­tion of a deficit of $1 bil­lion from a few months ear­lier.

Stay tuned for sim­i­lar sur­pris­ing in­creased deficit num­bers from On­tario, where the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment was just voted out of of­fice.

Re­quir­ing an ac­cu­rate fis­cal ac­count­ing be­fore elec­tions would go a long way to­wards chang­ing what has be­come a near-con­stant in Cana­dian pro­vin­cial elec­tions.

In­cum­bent Party A and Op­po­si­tion Party B cam­paign: both make prom­ises.

If Op­po­si­tion Party B wins, the very first course of ac­tion is to point out that “We had no idea how bad the fi­nan­cial pic­ture re­ally was. Thanks to the prof­li­gate spend­ing of In­cum­bent Party A, all bets are off and we will not be able to live up to our prom­ises. But it’s not our fault.”

Sure, I re­al­ize that there is still lots of wig­gle room in­side pro­vin­cial ac­count­ing rules to make the fi­nan­cial pic­ture seem far bet­ter than it ac­tu­ally is.

But we could also make it an of­fence un­der elec­tion law to know­ingly pro­vide false fi­nan­cial data to vot­ers dur­ing an elec­tion pe­riod.

Af­ter all, we have a right to know where we stand be­fore we cast our bal­lots; if we’re vot­ing for the cheap beer and lower elec­tri­cal rates, we should get to see if those prom­ises are in any way achiev­able.

True democ­racy re­quires an in­formed choice.

And a lot less lip­stick on the fi­nan­cial pig.

Doug Ford has shown you can win a pro­vin­cial elec­tion in On­tario with­out even say­ing how much your prom­ises cost. That way, fis­cal mad­ness lies.

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