a false sense of balance

Yukon News, it’s likely that Canadians will already have chosen a prime minister. Whoever that might be, let’s wish him well.

Yukon News, it’s likely that Canadians will already have chosen a prime minister.

Whoever that might be, let’s wish him well. Until there’s another election, we all succeed or fail as he does. And let’s be thankful that he will begin this term in office with one mighty advantage. The budget is balanced.

The balanced budget is the single unassailable fact of federal politics today. Canadians take pride in it. We tightened our belts for more than a decade, and came out of it in excellent financial shape.

And while we’re patting ourselves on the back for our efforts, how can we not acknowledge the leaders who brought us from the dark days of ballooning deficits to the bright future of yearly surpluses and personal tax cuts?

There may be no love lost between Jean Chretien and Paul Martin today, but once as cabinet colleagues they came together to slay the deficit dragon. Not everyone agrees that the deep cuts our heroes made to education, health, and infrastructure were necessary to balance the books, but these facts go unchallenged: 12 years ago we had spiraling debt and deficits, today we have surpluses and we’re paying down the debt. Another leader who deserves credit for pushing a balanced-budget agenda is Preston Manning, founding leader of the Reform Party. It was Manning more than anyone else who taught us to think of the federal finances as just a larger version of our household budget. What family could survive, he asked, if Dad and Mum maxed their credit cards every year, and never made their mortgage payments?

It all made sense after that. Of course the budget must be balanced. Otherwise the great Canadian family was headed for ruin.

It’s not a complicated thing, this matter of balance; they teach it in Grade 9 science. You just keep adding or subtracting weights until both sides are equal. Balance sheets work the same way, but with revenues and expenditures instead of brass weights.

Weighed in the balance, the national household finally has its financial affairs in order. There are a few things that have to be left off the scale to keep it from tipping, but that’s what balance is all about, isn’t it?

For instance, if we were to factor in the huge personal debts so many of our children have assumed to finance their higher education during budget-cutting times, all sense of balance would be lost. Let’s set that one aside.

Other factors have to be left out of the budget equation because they’re just too hard to measure.

Where’s the line for all the young Canadians who gave up on the idea of a university education because they couldn’t afford the tuition? What weight to place on the lives of ailing family members who die waiting for a hospital bed? What price the thousands who have no home?

Against what do we balance the Walkerton tragedy? How much for the misery of Kashechewan? For a thousand communities on boil water orders today? For thousands of cancer deaths due to unchecked air-pollution? Too complicated, put them over there with the rest.

The Liberals were elected on a promise to balance the books, and they did that, and I commend them for it.

But they led us, and we followed, into deficits that will be much harder to address.

The whole country has been playing the game of false prosperity and budget blindness, ignoring the ugly pile of human suffering and environmental degradation beside the perfect balance-sheets, pretending to have large surpluses of cash while so many life-and-death expenses go unmet.

There are no budget surpluses in Canada as long as there are homeless Canadians. What kind of family brags about its healthy bank account while some of its children sleep on the street and beg for a living? There are no surpluses while First Nation communities all over the country are crying out for housing. Who stows money away in a rainy-day fund when the roof is leaking?

Nor can the budget be truly balanced until it factors in the enormous environmental debt we’re piling up as we squander the last of the planet’s cheap energy and dump it back into the atmosphere in the form of greenhouse gasses and air and water pollution.

Here is a challenge to the new Parliament. The chequebook is balanced, there’s money in the bank. Now it’s time to get down to the real job. Put everything on the page, do a rational and fair accounting of the true state of this family’s finances, and start addressing the giant social and environmental deficits that still loom, and which will haunt our children for generations if we don’t deal with them today.

And good luck with it, whoever you may be. Heaven help us all if you fail.