23 March 2005

Budget Spin Control 2: the good, the bad and the ugly

After a couple of days of sifting through the budget and listening to the various comments on it, I thought I'd offer a general opinion on the whole package.

The Good: On the whole, this is a decent budget. There are sensible investments and good programs being funded. The health investments are well placed, especially the long-term care facility in Goose Bay. Whether the new money is all federal or not, the provincial government has spent it on health, despite musing earlier about doing something else with it.

The same can be said of education spending. Government needed to spend some cash on infrastructure especially as crumbling ceilings due to poor maintenance or no maintenance create a potential legal liability. Adding a new culture program is a minor outlay in the greater scheme of things but it looks good and government can claim to be saving a few teaching jobs.

And yes, Danny Williams, the amounts are "small money". A few hundred thou here. Even two or three million are tiny in government terms. The big expenditures like the $26 million in education capital actually gets broken down into small packets. The key thing is that the money is handed out all over the place. Is there anybody out there unhappy enough to go to war with you over anything in this budget? Since the future promises only more cash, anyone who didn't get their school roof redone this year or find a fresh can of paint by their door courtesy of John or Tom can just keep talking it up until next year when you'll even more cash to hand out. At worst they wait 'til election year and find out how much cash you do have to toss around.

Politically, the investments are smart since health care and education consistently poll at the top of people's issues. The government has been doing a lot of polling and I am sure they know what is irking people. This is a budget full of balm.

Politically, the budget also trumps the Opposition. As much as the Liberals have been making some solid comments since Monday - full marks Roger and company - the hard reality is that they really can't get very much mileage out of saying "You didn't spend enough, Danny". Wally Anderson complaining about a lack of a theatre space in Goose Bay doesn't trump the long-term care facility. Besides from what I hear, there could be a workable solution to the theatre problem if people weren't clamouring for a new-build hall.

Politically, Danny Williams has used the word "miraculous" twice today - at least twice - in describing his triumph over the deficit demons. My spin metre redlined badly on that one since Danny Williams didn't do a single thing to generate the bulk of the cash he got this year. Thank George Bush and the invasion of Iraq for driving up oil prices. Thank Paul Martin for shovelling out bags of federal cash.

In the end, though, even after we counteract all the stroke-me spin, this budget is a good document. It delivers the promise of sensible fiscal management coupled with social responsibility. Politically, that lines you up with the majority of the electorate (See my post on "The Independents") and therefore you are safe, Danny. Safe, that is unless the political Opposition attacks you where you are vulnerable.

The Bad: Oddity that I am, this is one public relations guy who hates spin. It makes me physically ill. Whenever I hear it, I itch in places mortals shouldn't have to scratch . This budget is full of spin - like the claims of Saint Daniel in the Deficit Lion's Den for example. Self-massage in public is a crime and political self-massage in public is no less distasteful.

As I said in a post on the budget already, the government would do well to make a really simple set of promises on the budget and deliver them. Paul Martin's secret of restoring confidence in federal budgets was to make consistent predictions and then failing to meet them, but in a good way. He coupled that with a clear commitment to spend every extra nickel on paying down the debt. He hit the target time and time again and people re-elected the government based on nothing more spectacular than accountability and credibility.

In 2003, the Tories promised to balance the current and capital account. Rather than spin out the old "cash" balance hooey, Loyola Sullivan should be sticking to the "Promise made; promise kept" line. Tell us now exactly where the extra oil money will go. When you get it, spend it exactly that way. Don't wait 'til mid-year and then claim yet another demon has been slayed. Don't drop it on The Rooms without telling us when you do it. It is my money I want to know what you are doing with it.

That's the sole basis of accountability.

The Ugly: The ugly part of this budget for me remains the lack of a longer term plan to tackle the deficit and debt. Government has everything at their disposal to map out a three to five year plan and stick to it. We had one plan last year. This year we actually have a different one. What will next year bring?

More importantly though, I do find it a little offputting when Loyola Sullivan - a man not prone to exaggeration - starts opining about a provincial debt running somewhere beyond $14 billion. When he shamelessly tosses out the figure of $17 billion, I shudder.

Let's start seeing the long-range fiscal plan.

Summary: Overall, this is a fine budget for the times. It is smart politically and smart financially. What else can I say?