Proposed changes to Nova Scotia’s Financial Measures Act would erode trust

Democracy is built on trust and trust is built on openness.

April 15, 2021

3-minute read

The government has proposed a change in the Financial Measures Act (2021) that will provide the provincial government with the ability to borrow money any time without having to first bring the matter before the Nova Scotia Legislature—that is, to borrow more than what has been approved in the budget.

I understand that the reasoning is expediency.

I appeared to speak against this change at the Law Amendment’s committee for several reasons.

First, the message that is being sent right now is that democracy is inconvenient. This is a dangerous message to be sending. Especially from a government that is not known for its transparency.

The suggestion that an election every four years or so is enough accountability is absurd. Why sit in the legislative assembly ever? Given that MLAs had not been at Province House for more than 15 minutes in a year during which we had a pandemic, what other conclusion should be drawn from this move to give executive council even more power?

First, the message that is being sent right now is that democracy is inconvenient. This is a dangerous message to be sending. Especially from a government that is not known for its transparency.

Second, voting is only part of our democratic process and, given how many people feel disenfranchised by the first past the post system, we know this is only one way to hold a government to account. It is critical that the government is held to its decisions between elections.

The very heart of any democracy is how easy it is to hold a government to account. Unfortunately, this government has eroded other ways in which local communities can hold government to account and have a say between elections: by getting rid of school boards, centralizing health decisions, and making restrictions to the Public Accounts Committee. Now restricted to only deal with topics that stem directly from reports filed by Nova Scotia's auditor general, it was good previous practice to ensure that all three parties could pick topics and decide who will be called before the committee.

Third, the budget is the most important policy document a government can pass—resource allocation affects every single person, daily, in this province. Any decision to spend must be carefully scrutinized.

Even if the review of the budgetary process itself became more robust, perhaps more Nova Scotians would have confidence that the government was making sound, evidence-based decisions. It is striking how little scrutiny there is of a $12 billion budget. Given assumptions made in these budget documents, it is even more important that decisions not be made behind the closed doors of cabinet; decisions that are never open to public scrutiny—even if the freedom of information process could be used to shed light on decisions to hold government to account. But that, too, needs modernizing (an understatement).

It is striking how little scrutiny there is of a $12 billion budget.

Nova Scotians have the right to the scrutinize how the government makes decisions and why. Again, the message that is being sent by the government right now is that our democracy is inconvenient.

I still have many questions and concerns about this budget and the fiscal plan that has been presented. This government is stuck in the neoliberal mode of governance—concerned more about its own budget deficit than about households struggling to pay their bills.

If the economic council is any indication of what is to come, there is a lack of economists, a lack of workers’ representation, and a lack of academic experts on things like social policy. Those need to be central to any economic discussion. How will we make evidence-based decisions to care for the people who are the backbone of the actual economy or, as I like to call it, the society?

Premier Iain Rankin signaled that he is concerned about well-being, yet his government still touts physical infrastructure spending as an investment in the next generation—not spending to support human infrastructure. That needs to be reviewed, because inaction and underinvestment in humans has a cost right now and investments have a significant return.

That includes lifting the current generation out of poverty, supporting them to afford post-secondary education, providing access to quality early learning and child care, and extending universal public health care.

Another way to think about the deficit and the debt is deferred taxation. If you agree that there are unmet needs that must be met and that our government has an obligation to meet them, then we need to address those needs. We need to not let children get caught in the cycle of poverty, to ensure everyone has a home, and to ensure that everyone can reach their full potential.

If the economic council is any indication of what is to come, there is a lack of economists, a lack of workers’ representation, and a lack of academic experts on things like social policy.

If we agree on that, then there is a different question that we should be asking: what do we need to do to ensure those needs are met? The response includes ensuring our tax base is fair and based on ability to pay and that the support and programs that we spend our tax contributions on benefit the many—not the few.

Don’t want to raise taxes today? Then borrow, since borrowing rates have fallen well below the projected growth of nominal GDP. There has rarely been a better time for the government to invest in Nova Scotians’ long-neglected public services and in its people.

So let’s stop fear mongering about the deficit and debt. And let’s not shut down opportunities to have government decisions—especially budgetary ones—undergo the scrutiny that they deserve, especially during a pandemic.

Democracy is built on trust and trust is built on openness. We need to open up decision-making and ensure much more meaningful participation, not less.

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