The buck stops where?

In about 18 months we will see the dawn of a new year which, though it lacks the numerical neatness of the year 2000, will mark a far greater change in the affairs of rich Western nations: 2011 is the year when that most talked-about of demographic groups

In about 18 months we will see the dawn of a new year which, though it lacks the numerical neatness of the year 2000, will mark a far greater change in the affairs of rich Western nations: 2011 is the year when that most talked-about of demographic groups, the Post-War Baby Boom, begins to draw its collective pension.

When that day comes, the economies of such places as Britain, the United States, and Canada are in for a serious shock. Millions of experienced and productive workers will cease producing and turn to such pastimes as golf, lawn bowling and the gradual descent into the grave.

A reduced workforce will find itself supporting the behaviours of the people they have for so long resented, that giant voting and consuming block whose tastes and habits have ruled politics, commerce and the arts since about 1965. Pensions are only a small part of the burden the young must soon bear; health care will be a far greater weight.

Like me, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is a Baby Boomer, though neither of us are scheduled to mature in 2011. Like me, Flaherty must surely have been aware of our mutual approaching decrepitude when he declared his record-breaking deficits to be “short-term,” unlike the evil “structural” deficits that he and his party exist to fight.

Irony is a dish best served hot. After six months of ever-growing deficit announcements it gets tiresome pointing out that the entire raison d’etre for the Reform/Alliance/CRAP/Conservative Party was to fight debt and deficit, which had soared like an eagle during the Mulroney years. Let’s leave that aside.

The questions that jump out from Flaherty’s constant upgrading of his fiscal projections from a surplus to a small deficit to a giant but temporary deficit have nothing to do with irony, and everything to do with duplicity.

If Flaherty genuinely believed that he had balanced the books with his November mini-budget, he’s a fool and should be out of a job. If he made it all up he, as they say in Parliament, misspeaks himself—and see above consequence. Since he managed to hang onto his job, the problem today is that he continues to either (a) get it all wrong or (b) misspeak.

Now this week the opposition and most of the country’s political pundits want the Minister of Natural Resources, Lisa Raitt, to take the big leap because a member of her staff left a cabinet document lying around in a meeting room.

Many have gone so far as to equate this story with last year’s Bernier affair, despite the fact that the Raitt story lacks the three essential elements of that far more interesting gaff: cleavage, bikers, and incredibly stupid behaviour on the part of the minister. Globe blogger Adam Radwanski sums up the general mood when he declares, “the buck stops with ministers.”

Radwanski calls to mind a well-worn phrase, perhaps without fully considering its origin and implications. Former US president Harry Truman had a sign on his desk declaring “the buck stops here”. “Here” was the desk of the most powerful man in the country—some would say the world. It’s a statement about supreme authority, and the responsibility that comes with it.

There is only one such desk in any government. If Raitt is responsible for the carelessness of one of her staffers, her boss Stephen Harper bears a similar responsibility for Raitt’s actions, or inactions, or whatever it is she’s accused of. Much more importantly, he bears the responsibility for the far worse actions of his finance minister.

It would be absurd to suggest that the prime minister of Canada should step down because a now-unemployed staffer misplaced a document. Somewhat less absurd is the proposition that he should be tossed out on his ear for the follies or fabrications of his most senior minister.

Recent polls reveal a growing dissatisfaction with the Conservative government, coupled with a general unwillingness to endure yet another election. Come on, Canada. Flaherty’s fumbling is only one of many good reasons to toss him, his boss, and all that walk with them, out on the sidewalk at the earliest possible opportunity.

True, the only likely looking alternative on the horizon is Michael Ignatieff, but let’s not dwell on the short term. Consider instead the long-term implications of a 2009 election. Defeated after twice failing to rise above minority status, Harper will have no choice but to pack up his saddle bags and ride off into the sunset. And oh what a glorious sunset that will be!

So it takes an hour out of your busy life to rid the world once and for all of the worst government since Brian Mulroney redefined the term “old hoor.” Get over it. Dump the bums. You’ll be glad you did.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.