Friday, February 18, 2005

Liberals wrong, foolish, to cut off budget debate

VICTORIA - What's wrong with the people making decisions for the Liberals?
They've got a budget that is going to find wide support, certainly one that most governments would be happy to take into an election campaign.
And now they're making it look like they have something to hide by indicating that they'll shut down the legislature to avoid detailed debate on their budget.
Worse, they're acting in a way that makes it evident that they know they are doing something wrong - at best evasive, at worst misleading.
The norma - the proper - process for a budget is straightforward. The budget is introduced, and there are six days of general debate on the budget speech.
Then the real work starts with the estiimates' debates. Ministers appear before the legislature to answer detailed questions about their spending plans, where the money will go and what results they'll get.
That's the part the Liberals want to avoid.
Estimates debates often do produce some difficult questions for governments. This time, it might be the details of the $400 million in economic development money that looks much like a pre-election political fund, or the lack of a plan to deliver promised long-term care beds.
Prolonging the session also gives the NDP more chances to raise damaging issues in Question Period each day.
And there's no doubt that ending the session early would be a big advantage for Liberal candidates. The legislature is scheduled to sit until April 18, when the election campaign begins. But shutting down by the end of this month would give the 72 Liberal MLAs an extra six weeks to campaign in their ridings, before the official start of the race. In most cases, their opponents will still be working at their day jobs.
But what about their obligation to us, the people who elected them?
The theory is that governments do not get to spend money without the informed approval of the legislature. MLAs have an important role in critically examining each ministry's spending plans, making sure that the interests of their communities are being served. It's a fundamental principle of our form of government.
There is ample time for the legislature to do that work before the election campaign legally starts, despite the claims of Finance Minister Colin Hansen.
Instead, the government appears to want the legislature to approve billions in spending without proper scrutiny, signing a blank cheque on your behalf.
Efforts to defend shutting down debate have so far been lame. Hansen noted - completely accurately - that Glen Clark had brought in a budget and then called the election within hours in 1996. The implication was that the Liberals aren't that bad; at least there will be a token period of general debate.
The defence is the political equivalent of 'all the other kids are doing it.' And it ignores the fact that the Clark budget, which claimed a surplus and may have decided the election, was false. A superficial debate on the budget wouldn't have revealed that. Detailed estimates debate might well have.
In any case, voters elected the Liberals to do better, not to repeat the abuses of the past.
Instead, they're ducking and dodging to avoid answering a simple question - will the legislature be allowed to review the budget.
Sure, says Gordon Campbell. But he is equivocating, pretending to promise full scrutiny but really only committing to the superficial debate on the speech. I don't know, says Hansen.
And I'm not saying, contributes House leader Graham Bruce.
Not a straight answer to be found.
It's wrong, and it's foolish. This is a budget that the Liberals should be happy to defend, just as they should be happy to champion the principle of accountability.
Instead, they are looking evasive and defensive, and abandoning an important principle.
It is a strange way to choose to head into an election campaign.
Footnote: The Liberals' success in 2001 has earned them a big advantage this time around. MLAs get paid through the campaign; new candidates have to figure out how much time they can take off work to seek votes. If the legislature does break at the beginning of March, Liberal MLAs will be paid to spend much of more than two months campaigning for the party.


RossK said...

Hate to be overly cynical but....

Is it possible that they don't want to debate and defend it because that would mean they might actually have to do it (all) post-election?

Life in Victorola said...

This just in: "Governments in power will choose budget revenue estimates that will place them in a favourable light with the electorate".

All provincial budgets are essentially political documents and standard flim flammery cuts across party lines and is essentially part of the process. Caveat elector. The Socreds had their Budget Stabilization (BS) fund, the NDP chose overly optimistic estimates to forestall the predictable chorus of media fuelled right wing debt pornography (wherefore the Chamber of Commerce's debt clock stunt during the current Liberal tax giveaway season?). The policital aim of the budget was to shift the debate towards the value of rational social investment vs slavish debt servicing at all (mostly social) costs.

The Liberals, despite the "truth in budget advertising" legislation have taken inordinate credit for equalization and commodity revenue windfalls and bragged about restoring a few saplings after clearcutting social programs and showering their corporate sponsors with regressive tax subsidies that never paid for themselves. A new golden era is upon us now that the "hard choices" have been made or so would they have us believe.

I think the most odious aspect of the current administration is their inability to show some basic sense of fair procedural play during their first session. Richmond the so called "non-partisan" speaker of the house pulled his first of many Bertuzzi moves by refusing to recognize the NDP as the official opposition, banishes two sartorially challenged alternate press hounds as their dress evidently displeases him, and otherwise muzzles, refuses to recognize and finally ejects the pesky MacPhail for correctly calling Gordo on his multiple prevarications. Richmond, the Kamloops Rube Bandmaster allows the liberals to steam roller legislation by agreeing to limit debate at the very time when it is most needed. His latest stunt was to arbitrarily limit question and response time limits during an already abbreviated question period since we're so close to an election. Shouldn't just the opposite be the case or is an overly informed and skeptical public an inconvenient aspect of the electoral process?

Fair checks are just that, but when the refs start look the other during the sucker punches, then it ain't a game anymore. Which long windedly brings us back to the liberals' reluctance to properly debate the budget. This would be very much in keeping with their current administrative track record which could be summed up as "accountability be damned, you're either with us or against us."

Thanks for your provocative editorials.