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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Being truthful to constituents should be the law

Auditor General Kim MacPherson
New Brunswick Auditor General Kim MacPherson

It was an unusual message.

New Brunswick's auditor general was talking about that province's dim financial outlook as it continues down a dismal path: this year marks its 11th straight deficit budget, and any attempt to slow the growth of debt has been put on hold while the government offers up new spending before the next provincial election.

That bit at the end is familiar to people in all parts of the Atlantic provinces; it's astounding what gets built, paved and painted in an election year.

But one thing auditor general Kim MacPherson suggested is a new direction. She wants the New Brunswick government to release its updated audited financial statements before the province goes to the polls on Sept. 24. (The government has agreed, but hasn't said how long before the election an updated financial picture will be released.)

Now, provincial jurisdictions, especially with governments early in their terms, occasionally toy with balanced budget legislation. (I say “toy” because the legislation is almost always for show. Seven Canadian provinces have introduced it, primarily in good fiscal times, but most simply walk around it when times get tough.)

You can argue that the main difficulty with balanced budget legislation is that it ties the hands of governments and forces them to raise taxes or cut services at the first sign of a downturn. (That's certainly the case for municipalities — in the land of “do as I say, not as I do,” municipalities often face balanced-budget requirements in provincial legislation. And they are frequently left with exactly that increase-taxes-or-reduce-services equation.)

What I'd like to see is financial legislation put into effect for governments approaching elections.

In the lead-up to an election, governments should be required to tell voters what the true picture of the province's finances are.

In the last provincial election in Newfoundland and Labrador, the ruling Progressive Conservatives steadfastly refused to release the true state of the province's fiscal situation, even as they continued to try and buy votes with lavish election promises.

After the election, it turned out the single-year deficit, for a province of 500,000, had ballooned to $2.2 billion, blowing apart the budget prediction of a deficit of $1 billion from a few months earlier.

Stay tuned for similar surprising increased deficit numbers from Ontario, where the Liberal government was just voted out of office.

Requiring an accurate fiscal accounting before elections would go a long way towards changing what has become a near-constant in Canadian provincial elections.

Incumbent Party A and Opposition Party B campaign: both make promises.

If Opposition Party B wins, the very first course of action is to point out that “We had no idea how bad the financial picture really was. Thanks to the profligate spending of Incumbent Party A, all bets are off and we will not be able to live up to our promises. But it's not our fault.”

Sure, I realize that there is still lots of wiggle room inside provincial accounting rules to make the financial picture seem far better than it actually is.

But we could also make it an offence under election law to knowingly provide false financial data to voters during an election period.

After all, we have a right to know where we stand before we cast our ballots; if we're voting for the cheap beer and lower electrical rates, we should get to see if those promises are in any way achievable.

True democracy requires an informed choice.

And a lot less lipstick on the financial pig.

Doug Ford has shown you can win a provincial election in Ontario without even saying how much your promises cost. That way, fiscal madness lies.

Russell Wangersky's column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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