“The real job that we have to accomplish is to change the culture of official Ottawa from one of being spending enablers to one of being cost containers," said Treasury Board President Tony Clement at the Manning conference on Saturday as the pre March 29th budget buzz grows louder.
Interesting focus coming from Clement charge some critics who can't leave G8 spending out of any discussion, but perhaps the point is that the 'real job' is to help make us LOSE focus on what we SHOULD be focused on. To obscure the actual impact of budget results. After all, numbers don't lie, and I'm not saying politicians do (not all of them, anyway), but they sure are good at distracting us. So while critics dig up old complaints about Clement's spending again, they lose sight of the bigger picture. Closer to home in Muskoka Lakes, it was the old bait and switch routine this week that's not new, but was perhaps more audacious this time around. What follows is a rambly budget commentary that purposely goes around in circles (it's a metaphor for what can happen during budget season — just come along for the ride and see if your head spins, too).
Let's start again with the feds. It's not unusual for a government to start making hints about what might be in a budget, so it's no surprise that media were asking lots of questions this weekend and pushing to see if federal public servants should be as worried as the Public Service Alliance of Canada has been telling them should be for months. Clement has the job of trying to reduce government spending. In The Globe and Mail Saturday, a report states Clement acknowledged the government expects pushback from unions (no surprise, the petitions started coming back in June), but also suggested that incentives could be a tool to motivate public servants to keep cost in mind when going about their daily jobs.
That nugget of advice seems a little harsh for the average public servant when they know that the government had hired consulting firm Deloitte Inc at an estimated cost of almost $20million or about $90,000 a day to advise cabinet ministers on how to help make the deficit disappear — or at least shrink.
While it might make a deficit dent, how does reducing spending by possibly cutting public service jobs really help the economy? Doesn't wiping out public service jobs attack the middle class that's paying the lion share of taxes now? People who think public servants are fat cats need to think about what would happen if we didn't have unionized positions such as those found in the public service or education system. Unions have been under siege by this government and while unions should take a harder look at their asks, the rest of us can't afford for them to lose all their strength.
Here at home in Muskoka Lakes this week we saw our Mayor crowing about decreasing the property tax rate. Every cut has a reason and impact, and this time, just like so many times with past councils, it's the increase in property assessment value that makes it possible for the property tax rate (that used to be called the mill rate) to be decreased. In the past, taxpayer groups would cry foul when councillors pointed out the mill rate had been brought down as they felt it only happened on the backs of waterfront property taxpayers (which is pretty much the case but such is the danger of owning a waterfront property in Muskoka). Concerned taxpayers would say touting a lower rate was a smoke and mirrors move as it would still cost taxpayers more. Not only that, but in a 140 character Tweet, only the decrease stands out. The reality is that there was a tax hike of 4.2% to cover spending. In Bracebridge, it was 2.9%, but that council's press release started with the increase and explained how it got there — no attempt to bury it. Numbers don't lie, but sometimes politicians will try and make the language around the numbers foggy enough to make the tax bite appear less irritating. When the MLA reTweeted the tweet announcing Council had managed a property tax rate decrease, perhaps they were a bit lost in that fog.
As always, let's demand openness at all government levels. Tell us what the increase is and why clearly. Tell us how the increase (or decrease if explaining cuts) can align with any strategy to improve our future. In the case of Muskoka Lakes, the tax rate hike is explained as necessary to do necessary upgrades. But there are also other areas of spending that have not been answered to the satisfaction of many. Such as why buy property now? And what 'might' cost a cool million? As for hinted at cuts in public service, we need to know how such cuts might cost us in the end — from payouts for axeing jobs to potential tax revenue losses, service losses, and the possibility of those persons ending up on EI. Can the public service be more efficient? Presumably these people in public service did some job providing service, so will we miss that service? No doubt there are efficiencies to be found, but what is the true cost of cutting those jobs? What is the Return On Investment on the $20million the government is spending to decide to make cuts? How long before that money is made back? Cut here. Lose there (lost services, slow ROI on spending to figure out how to cut spending, lost tax revenues from middle class). Decrease the property tax rate here because the folks over on the lake are going to pay for it there. Who really pays and who profits? Without a straight line drawn to impacts, who knows? Going in circles again. Yes, that's the point.