O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible and hence we can hold the enemy’s fate in our hands.
– Sun Tzu
Following the release of the first budget by New Brunswick’s new government, I am tempted to comment but perhaps I will save my reflections for another time. Unfortunately, the unfolding escapades of politics are subject to the commonly recognized rule of the public’s attention span (a reality that causes me much consternation): today’s crisis/concern is easily supplanted by the next big thing that comes along.
Consider the last couple of weeks or so. Three things have engaged my attention, two of which in my estimation are of far less significance than the third. I’ll deal with it last. Prior to the release of the budget, the Atcon scandal took centre stage thanks to the release of the Auditor-General’s report on the “fiasco”, a designation that is undeniable, however much the Auditor-General chose language far less value-laden.
In no way do I want to deny just how bad that particular situation became. Who could deny that a decision (or series of decisions) that cost the taxpayers of New Brunswick something in the order of $70,000,000 was a bad one? Add to that certain of the details surrounding the decisions and it certainly stands as a truly scandalous waste in light of the fact that so little of the amount is proving to be recoverable. Questions swirl regarding who received what, where the money is now (if, indeed, it was more than funds on paper that simply evaporated in the ether somehow), who can be held accountable, etc. Perhaps with time some answers might be forthcoming but did you notice how quickly it has dropped off the radar?
The budget came along and it has caused sufficient outrage on a number of fronts to push Atcon to a back burner somewhere, at the very least. Time will tell if it can be revived as an issue for politicians, the media and the public. As for the budget itself, criticisms are coming from many fronts: seniors groups see it as an attack on a largely vulnerable group that has already paid its dues and shouldn’t be asked to pay more; university students are especially upset by the cancellation of the tuition rebate; rural communities are unhappy. I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone who is actually saying anything good about the budget. The closest thing to a positive comment that I’ve come across are some business reps who suggest that the budget isn’t all that bad even though it didn’t go far enough.
Taken altogether, the reaction to the budget seems pretty much par for the course. As I’ve noted in a previous blog, everyone is happy with change and wants something done about the problem (in NB’s case, a spiraling debt and persistent deficits) as long as it doesn’t affect them. Dissatisfaction with a budget has to be unavoidable even at the best of times, to say nothing of our current critical situation, one acknowledged by all as dire and in need of serious attention.
What Atcon and the budget share, however, is a common good intention. However bad the decisions surrounding Atcon have proven to be, I continue to believe that they were conceived out of the common hope that government funds might generate jobs and help people. That is not to deny that politics, nepotism and who knows how many other considerations didn’t play a role; I simply cannot accept the wholesale demonizing that results from the need to portray your opposition as utterly and entirely venal, a reality arising as a result of the oversimplification of complexity that I have spent so much time decrying.
As for the budget, what can I say? On a personal level, I haven’t seen much that I like but, at the same time, I do not believe that the current government is setting out to destroy New Brunswick, its economy and its people any more than previous governments. I can think they are utterly wrong-headed in their approach to many things (and I do) without resorting to questioning their desire to do some good.
As for the third thing that I believe is more significant, it didn’t really gain much attention. It was a line item in the newspaper as part of an article looking at the current government’s reversal of a number of bills implemented by the last but it didn’t garner much in the way of a public reaction. I’m referring to the repeal of the Fiscal Transparency and Accountability Act. If you’ve never heard of it, I’m not surprised. It isn’t the kind of thing that can lead to protests, petitions, or outrage in general. And, yes, that makes me sad.
Among its many particulars, this piece of legislation required two things that I see as a great loss: regular reporting by government departments of their adherence to established budgets and an independently verified costing of election promises by political parties in advance of an election. Once again, if you’re yawning at the mere mention of something so lacking in fodder for scandal, I can’t blame you. We are not conditioned to pay attention to what goes on with our governments until such time as it can awaken outrage.
How I wish I could sweep away both Atcon and the budget and force people to consider the repeal of this act. For the first time in history, government departments were going to have to do something that individuals and successful enterprises take for granted: account for their spending habits. At the same time, having independent verification of the cost of an election promise might have forced parties to abandon some of the more extravagant promises that, after the election, so often lead to laments among the public when they go unfulfilled.
Boring you say? Perhaps, but, as we have so often heard, “the devil is in the details”. When we ignore such details in service of our appetite for the sensational and the immediate, we can miss the more lasting impact of subtle changes. Atcon may persist but it is an event which will fade; this year’s budget will be replaced by another next year. Both are of the moment. The repeal of the Fiscal Transparency and Accountability Act is not unlike the stone thrown in the lake: the ripples will be felt for a long time to come.