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February 10, 2003

Paying For Pride: It's Criminal - Or Should Be

Like everybody with a pulse and even a vague knowledge of politics, I have my bones to pick with the government. My beef is with the current federal Liberal government. For the record, I hold no special allegiance to any one Canadian political party, and vote for a local candidate based largely on their platform, party affiliation just about notwithstanding. However, the government under the addled leadership of Jean Chrétien has produced a number of significant and expensive blunders for which I will forever be critical.

First on the list is the multi-billion-dollar Employment Insurance surplus that we found out about many years back. Much to my chagrin this issue simply became old and disappeared from the headlines, much as the Right Honourababble Chrétien probably wanted it to. I never did hear what eventually happened to the $7 billion that was wrongfully skimmed off the paycheques of millions of working Canadians. At the time, I heard suggestions that the government was going to allocate the surplus for any one of a number of uses. What, just because you managed to steal it, you're going to keep it instead of giving it back? Talk about daylight robbery.

Next, and more topically, is the newfangled gun registry. I don't subscribe to pro-gun ideals (unlike what seems to be an awful lot of Albertans), and don't understand why everyone with a gun can't see through the red mist and understand that registering your gun could actually be a good idea. Regardless of my stance on the issue of whether guns should or should not be registered, the government has really stepped up to the plate on this project and exceeded their initial budget by approximately 50000%. If I remember correctly, the initial price tag for the database was to be about $2 million. Of course, we all know now that the project has ballooned to well over one billion dollars, or 500 times more than initially projected. Apparently fully $660 million alone was spent on the computer database. You gotta believe that there's a bunch of database consultants laughing all the way to retirement on that one. Who let this stinking fish keep rotting around the taxpayer's necks? Even the most necessary of government-funded items (like healthcare or education) would get cut off after exceeding their budget by even a fraction of the amount the gun registry has. Someone's asleep at the books, methinks.

[Sidenote: Remember how Ontario took control of 3 boards of education because they refused to produce a balanced budget? I believe that argument was over mere millions, yet a gun registry is allowed to balloon out of control? Please.]

The one ongoing blunder that the current Liberal government saddled the taxpayer with the bill for started back in the Brian Mulroney days, when the Progressive Conservatives were not only a party with more than a handful of seats, but formed a majority Federal government. Already decades too late, Mulroney finally agreed that our 1960's vintage Sea King helicopters were an embarrassment and a danger to those that flew them and order brand-new replacements in the form of EH Industries' highly capable EH-101. Of course, one of the first things that Jean Chrétien and his merry band of myopic beancounters did was to cancel the nearly $6 billion dollar order for the EH-101s, which incurred a penalty of $478 million. OK, so instead of opening a few hospitals, maintaining some highways, or actually purchasing something useful for our chronically outdated military, we just blew half a billion dollars down the toilet. That, in and of itself, is pretty unforgivable.

To make matters worse, Chrétien knows full well that the Sea Kings desperately need to be replaced. With 30 hours of maintenance necessary to get one hour flight time out of these ancient Montreal-build pterodactyls, their time has come and gone many times. Based on the Canadian military's needs, the logical choice is still the EH-101. But that would be an admission of being wrong in the first place, so Chrétien is trying to find another helicopter to buy. He's even going so far as to re-write the requirements for the aircraft in order to select something other than the EH-101.

The three examples above are just ones that stick out in my mind. I'm certain there are other hundred-million dollar disasters I've forgotten about, and possibly dozens of other smaller "mere" multi-million dollar slip-ups that we'll never know about. How much money is going to be flushed down the toilet by this government, or any government for that matter? I pick on the current administration, but then again I'm still fairly young and my memories of past governments are non-existent or dim at best. I would have no trouble believing that any government Canada has ever had has wasted taxpayer money, simply in order for the reigning party to save face. Other than turfing the incompetent incumbents responsible in the next election, what can we as Canadian taxpayers getting the shaft do? I believe I have an answer.

I would like to see a new section in the Criminal Code of Canada. As I am not a lawyer, I do not know the finer strokes of this section, or how it would be administered, or even if there's any precedent for it. That aside, the gist of this new law would be to make politicians (and to a lesser extent, civil service agencies) responsible for the money they are entrusted with by the Canadian voters and taxpayers. Right now, if someone screws up big time with a budget overrun, or simply wastes money to an excessive degree, they would be held criminally responsible. Yes, criminally. In other words, the next time a few hundred million gets wasted simply because it suited someone to do so, someone does some hard jail time.

Basics of the new law would be simple in principle, but a bugger to implement without a lot of debate, wringing of hands, confusion, and naysaying due to the likely subjective judgement of what "a waste of taxpayer money" would be. Canceling an order for capital items you desperately need to the tune of a half billion dollars? Clear waste. Budget overrun by more than two orders of magnitude? Could be waste, or could be an appalling lack of credible budgeting to begin with resulting in catastrophic price creep, which should also be criminal. Using a hidden tax that steals billions from paycheques and not reimbursing the overcharges? It's not waste, but amounts to what I consider fraud and/or theft - and thereby criminal.

In general, I want politicians to think before they leap. Far too often they make decisions with their hearts instead of their minds or even a clear direction from the voting public in their riding. Are politicians going to be extremely nervous about doing anything if this law is passed? You bet your boots they will be, and that's just what I'm counting on. Instead of just making decisions that seem "right" (or "just" or "fair") I want them to get some expert opinion on what burdens each major decision they make is going to do to the taxpayer. Perhaps it's not the perfect solution, but I can't imagine that having a few more independent, unbiased eyes looking over the books for our politicians can be bad. For all we know, Ottawa could be another Enron waiting to be discovered.

Am I going to hold my breath and wait for this new standard of accountability to be put into law? Yes, right after I start lactating and join the league of yogic fliers. It's a shame that the politicians I'd want to become accountable would be the ones necessary to pass such a law. The only foreseeable path for this law would be the election of the NDP or another strong left-ish party into federal government. I could see such a party voluntarily undergoing such scrutiny and entrenching it into Canadian law for all time. Alas, with Canadians seemingly wavering over and across the center of the political spectrum, that may not come to pass for another generation.

Meanwhile, I can only hope that somewhere in the dank underbelly of federal politics there brews a sense of accountability to the individual taxpayer. After all, even MPs pay tax - why aren't they pissed off at the waste of their money too? Those fat taxpayer-funded pensions must ease the pain.


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