By REX MURPHY
Saturday, February 14, 2009
Commentator with The National and host of CBC Radio's Cross-Country Checkup
Spend in haste. Repent at leisure.
My instinctive response when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty brought down his (and Michael Ignatieff's) budget was: Does it contain a special, one-off fund for Sheila Fraser? Will the Auditor-General of Canada be granted special resources and extra staff to monitor the great flood of emergency spending?
After all, if Canada is moving back into the era of great federal deficits, if $12-billion for infrastructure were to be spent as fast as possible over the next two years, if all the provinces and the cities are lining up with those "shovel-ready" projects, then surely this is the very time to arm the Auditor-General, so to speak, to the scrutinizing teeth.
If the federal government is about to push buckets of cash out the door in all the haste of an emergency, powered by that fevered eagerness politicians bring to spending great heaps of public money, then giving Ms. Fraser and her office the means to cope has to be a primary consideration. For this is a fire hose of a budget, millions and millions of dollars being sprayed under high pressure in every direction. Or, if you'd prefer a slightly more dated image, it's a runaway stagecoach of a budget, the horses spooked, the driver unconscious and the passengers (that would be you, gentle taxpayers) jostled, terrified and howling the most desperate prayers in the careening carriage.
We've had experience of emergency spending before. Not so long ago. Was it not fear and trembling in the then Prime Minister's Office that launched the notorious sponsorship scandal? Following the "near-death" referendum of 1995 it was decided to assert "the federal presence" in Quebec. The perceived need to plaster everything vertical (breathing or otherwise) in Quebec with Canadian insignia saw millions rolled out to PR firms, friends of the Liberal Party, and led to the fine imbroglio that history now enshrines as Adscam.
Adscam is a delightful example of what happens in bouts of feverish emergency spending if one leaves the little matter of professional oversight and neutral bookkeeping till after the money is spent.
I leave aside almost entirely the question of whether what we may call spending under duress ever really accomplishes its goal. Save to note that the great expenditures of the sponsorship program had only one undoubted (yet, dubious still) achieve-
ment: the dismantling of Paul Martin's entire tenure as prime minister.
The essential point is quite basic. In an extraordinary time, when the government feels the need to release itself from normal spending limits and processes, the Auditor-General's office should correspondingly be given greater weight and presence. It appears her office, in fact, has not been.
Our challenges, in this regard, however, are minuscule compared to what the Americans are rushing, Gadarene-like, to do. Readers will recall the famous line of Pascal: "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread." Reminds me of the American stimulus plan. Who would not, philosopher or otherwise, be "filled with dread" over the billions and billions about to tumble out of the American political system. How great is their overall stimulus package? Is it two or three trillion dollars? Is it, in fact, measurable at all? Are they attempting to stimulate their economy or void it altogether?
The numbers, whatever finally they are, are simply incomprehensible - meaning the mind cannot contain, in any meaningful way, what they signify. Who will, who can guard expenditure on this scale? There are not enough accountants in eternity. One immediate consequence is that amounts that before would stay the attention, drift past with the slight regard we give to pocket change. Twenty billion, for example, in this context is such a paltry sum. Three hundred million - mere pennies. When we hear the Senate ups the amount or takes it down by tens of billions of dollars, the change seems picayune. The Obama stimulus is so large that it has thrown out all the old familiar frames of reference.
No one can predict if the American stimulus plan will work. Anyone can predict it will entail some of the ripest and richest scandals that country has ever seen.
Our piddling $40-billion, by contrast, looks hesitant, trifling, a costive, miserly thing.
It surely is not. Which speaks all the more for insisting at the beginning of this great bailout/stimulus/injection that the protocols of oversight are far greater here than they have ever been. Sheila Fraser's office is one of the precious few Canadians will trust with at least an attempt to monitor that a great emergency stimulus doesn't morph into a pit of waste or worse.