Friday, December 16, 2011

Shorter Gerry Ritz: “I have no effing idea”

It turns out that my previous post on government’s attitude towards the use of public funds was a perfect segue into this post.

Gerry_RitzGerry Ritz was on Power and Politics today defending his government’s action on the Canadian Wheat Board. Personally I have no opinion on whether dismantling the Board is a good idea or not. Logic would say an open market is better, but growing and selling wheat is not my business, so I don’t know. (Note however I do have an issue with the Harper government refusing to honour Section 47.1 of the Act that called for a farmers’ plebiscite before changing the Act, but that’s now a moot point as the Act has become law.)

During the interview the host, Chris Hall, tried to get Gerry Ritz to tell him what the expected cost to taxpayers would be from dismantling the existing Canadian Wheat Board. Ritz bobbed, weaved, and obfuscated, never coming close to answering the question, because clearly he didn’t know.

But it was this particular exchange that really lit my fire:

CHRIS HALL: So you think though that you can handle these outstanding costs? (…) Ultimately you feel that this can be handled within the confines of the money that's available now?

GERRY RITZ: Well absolutely because the Treasury of Canada will be available for those extraordinary costs.

So, in a nutshell, the government has no idea what the costs will be of implementing this particular legislation, but it doesn’t really matter because “the Treasury of Canada” will be available. And in case it isn’t abundantly clear, that’s you and me, folks.

Kind of gives you that warm and fuzzy feeling that these guys are the best custodians of the public purse, doesn’t it?

What would Peter do?

The Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation has recently been uncovering some rather embarrassing expenses incurred by the Minister of National Defence, including $3,167 for flights to Boston to attend a “seafood show”. (To be fair, Mackay isn’t the only politician to abuse the public purse, he just happens to be the one who is doing so most outrageously at the present time.)

In response I threw up a quick Facebook comment suggesting that money could be much better spent on a variety of social services such as the Ottawa Mission ($3167 would provide more than 1,000 Christmas dinners for those who have no home to go to this year), women’s shelters, or halfway houses. But then I got thinking about it some more.

taxpayerThe problem is – as has always been the case in government – they are not spending their own money but rather money that comes from a bottomless pool (at least from the average politician’s/bureaucrat’s perspective). Now I don’t think for a moment that Peter Mackay, if he considered the cost at all,  thought about how that money could be better spent for the “greater good”.  And I am certain that his people didn’t either. (“The boss wants to go to this seafood thing, so better book the tickets. Never mind what it costs.”)

But imagine what would have happened if, for example, when Stephen Harper realised that his 2-day G8 photo-op was going to cost $2 BILLION or thereabouts, he said to his team, “That’s ridiculous. If we have $2 billion to spend let’s put it somewhere useful. Cancel the G8 meeting, we’ll do it by teleconference, and redirect that money to social programs for the homeless.” Just think what that would have meant for the homeless in this country, or anyone else to whom the money was directed (gazebos in Muskoka don’t count). And think about the legacy that would have created for Stephen Harper and his Conservative government.

But governments don’t think that way. Unlike those of us who have to live within our means, they don’t have to adhere to a zero-sum budget – if A gets $B then Y can only get $Z is a foreign concept to bureaucracies. And with nearly 300,000 federal public servants and countless provincial and municipal employees all sucking off the one taxpayer teat it doesn’t take long before it’s totally out of control – as it is now. So I applaud the Harper Conservative’s pledge to reduce taxes (if only they were smarter about it), but I would applaud even louder if they were to reset the priorities and direct the money they do collect to issues of concern to most Canadians – which, contrary to the Harper agenda, are NOT F-35 fighter jets, more and bigger prisons, tax breaks to the oil sands, or flying to a “seafood show” in Boston.

This is a wealthy country and governments collect more than enough revenue to meet our real domestic obligations. All they need to do is align spending with Canadians’ priorities (and I’m not referring here to the ~24% of eligible voters who elected the Conservatives, but rather the broader 100%, all Canadians, most of whom don’t drink the Conservative kool-aid).

Anyone who does that and clearly (and transparently) treats the public purse as if it were his/her own could count on running this country for a long, long time.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Caught between two worlds

With all the negative news coming out of Attawapiskat these days it’s easy to simply assign blame to a) the government; b) the reserve; c) the Canadian public, or d) all of the above. And in spite of the government’s assigning of a third-party manager the solution will, in all likelihood, eventually amount to more money going into supporting the same dysfunctional model.

Let’s be brutally honest here – there is no future in Attawapiskat. There may be a few construction jobs available with the mines and some service jobs in the local hotel, but that’s the extent of it. And it’s not only Attawapiskat. There are dozens of reserves scattered all  over Canada’s north, in places so remote they can either only be accessed by air or by winter ice road.

A hundred years ago (or even fifty in some cases) this didn’t matter. The people who lived in these remote settlements really did live off the land. They hunted, trapped, and fished and had a pretty good, if austere and challenging life. And yes, they spent the winter in tents, even when the temperatures did plummet to –40 on occasion.

But now that lifestyle is no longer viable, even if it is often idealised by native leaders in support of land claims and so on. The number of aboriginals who want to live the way of their ancestors at the time of the various treaty signings are dwindling quickly, amounting to no more than a few elders and those who would romanticise the past. Instead, today’s young aboriginals want the same things the rest of us want. They want televisions and computers with internet access. They want to get a good education. They want cars and trucks and good roads to drive them on. They want hospitals down the street and groceries that don’t have to be flown in at a ridiculous cost. They want a future that doesn’t involve trekking hundreds of miles to follow the herds.

So they are caught between two worlds, with a foot, literally, in each of two rapidly diverging cultures. If they are not to be figuratively split in two they will soon have to decide which way to go because both are not an option - that way lies Attawapiskat.