COMMENT: Blaine Higgs on Liberal reckless dismantling of former accountability laws

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 This is the second in a series of articles on the operations of government by former Finance Minister Blaine Higgs.

 

To be accountable and transparent, one must provide more than words; the sincerity of one's intentions toward such values is demonstrated only through action.

 

To suggest the last 6 months have been difficult would be a significant understatement. As one individual said to me, politics is a strange system in which your perceived expertise on financial matters can matter greatly one day but be of little value the day following your defeat. This seems to apply at the outset as well, since a candidate with no specific experience can win and become a cabinet minister or even the premier - apparently finding new knowledge he did not possess only a day earlier. What a system! Electability does not necessarily equate with the most qualified for the task at hand, so it is little wonder that democracies around the world are facing extremely difficult economic times.

 

Building on past successes has been a hallmark of successful companies for generations. Although it is an established practice in the private sector, it is a concept foreign to most governments. While Premier Gallant and his Minister responsible for Strategic Program Review have been complimentary about the good work done by the previous government to rein in spending growth and have mused they would be open to receiving information about lessons we learned, their comments must be more than part of a public relations exercise. The necessity to do government differently has never been stronger, and the opportunities to accomplish it have never been more obvious. It will require the resolve of the Premier and the dedication and support of the civil service to make it happen.

 

The right talent definitely exists within the system. Unfortunately, some of the most dedicated and inspiring leaders with whom I had the pleasure to work while in government are now gone - the victims of unsubstantiated and abrupt ends to their careers brought about by the new government. I am not speaking of political appointees of the past government. To my knowledge, they were not politically connected in any way. They were simply long serving public servants who wanted to see this province do better. They were accepting and drove real, positive change, and created the momentum for others to follow and build upon. They were seen amongst their peers and others in the service as examples to follow.

 

Their abrupt departures - although unexplained by the Premier - send a clear signal to others. If you keep your heads down and show no initiative, you will be rewarded with permanent employment in government. But, if you show the slightest desire to make a difference, expect to be shown the door. Exceptional employees in such circumstances will channel their energy outside of the workplace, or simply leave. Although we were building a team of outstanding leaders within the civil service to help rebuild New Brunswick, the new government is dismantling it.

 

But this is only the beginning. In my last article, I noted that no government can move New Brunswick forward simply by undoing what the last government did. Although the Premier promises to be more accountable, I expressed concern that he would amend accountability and taxpayer protection legislation to suit his own needs and to avoid answering for his decisions.

 

Actions speak more loudly than words, and Premier Gallant's actions last week demonstrate clearly that he has no intention of governing more openly. The art of public deception has never been more blatantly evident than it was on February 20 when the government introduced An Act Respecting Responsible Governance. The truth of this Bill can be no further away from what its name tries to imply.

 

The Bill repeals four previous accountability measures designed to limit government largess and eliminate irresponsible taxing and spending behaviour. Perhaps most telling was the standing ovation and loud cheers that greeted the Minister of Finance as he introduced the Bill. Perhaps his colleagues were unaware that what the government has done will remove all requirements to be accountable for its actions. It has put itself in a position to spend at will and tax accordingly to pay for its irresponsible election promises. But, the relief you could see on their faces tells me that they knew exactly what Minister Melanson was doing.

 

Undoing what the last government did is hardly doing government differently, and it certainly is not moving the province forward. We are now in reverse. But after all, why would a politician want to be held accountable for anything?

Personally, given my direct involvement in implementing the Fiscal Transparency and Accountability Act, I was shocked to see the new government not just amend it, but dismiss it in its entirety. Introduced just last spring, the law implemented three main requirements:

  • the release of a complete provincial fiscal and economic outlook 60 days prior to an election, to avoid a new government encountering surprises;
  • the production of an independent assessment of cost implications of election promises, or an admission that none has been prepared, all of which must be published prior to Election Day; and
  • deficit reductions of at least $125 million each year, or each cabinet minister must pay a personal penalty of $2,500 for failing to meet that target.

I am proud to say, that for the Progressive Conservative Party, we lived up to the law, because actions speak more loudly than words. We were so sure of our ability to manage the province's finances responsibly that we were prepared to put our money where our mouth was. We oversaw the release of the financial statements by the deadline imposed. During the election - having learned our lessons from 2010 - we presented a balanced, costed platform without extravagant spending promises. And we had a plan to balance the budget by 2017 - without increasing the HST.

 

Now, with the law gone, we can expect the tax-and-spend habits to resume. The steady and methodical path that we were on to achieve a sustainable fiscal balance through better internal leadership and management practices is being dismissed and replaced by traditional practices.

 

There is nothing new in increasing taxes to achieve fiscal balance. We had already raised income taxes, so it would not have been necessary for us, either before or after the election, to raise the HST. However, given the excessive spending commitments of the new government, it likely does not have a choice but to look at raising the HST and perhaps adding new consumption taxes, as well as abrupt changes to government services, to meet its goals.

 

This is hardly an innovative or sustainable approach to solving our problems.  Government has historically spent their growth, increasing expenses to match or exceed revenue growth, at whatever the rate.  That trend was reversed during the last government, but Premier Gallant's repeal of taxpayer accountability measures, coupled with his spending promises, opens the door to a return to higher - not lower - deficits.

 

Premier Gallant is governing no differently than we have seen for generations in this province, with practices that have driven us further into debt and weakened our economy to the point of desperation. After enduring so many internal and public challenges to building a strong foundation for the future of New Brunswick, it is a truly disheartening experience to see it crumbling at the hands of an inexperienced Premier. It is an experience one could only find in government.

 

Blaine Higgs is the MLA for Quispamsis and served as the Minister of Finance in the David Alward government. He is the Official Opposition critic for Finance and the Strategic Program Review.

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