A new fiscal journey on a hazardous road

It's a perilous road ahead with regard to Nova Scotia's financial and economic condition, but at least we're on it. That's progress. It's better than being lost in the bushes looking for the path, as we've been doing for the last 20 years.

Forward movement will depend on how the various elements of the society can be made to pull ahead together -- whether with a spirit of common purpose, compromise, equity and transparency, or with a political fractiousness that could put the wagon into the ditch again.

Admittedly, the early indications look bleak. No sooner are we preparing to depart -- thanks to the premier's economic panel painting a grim picture of "structural" deficits and the need for both cuts and taxes to balance the budget in future -- that it looks like a political donnybrook.

The Dexter government is taking a beating for having to back off from its unwise promise to balance the budget in its first year, the opposition is eager to peck back at the NDP's hide the way the NDP pecked at it for years, accusations that the government is hiding behind the panel for political cover and, notably, hits from both wings. From the right, there are business voices freaking at the word "tax increases" while from the left comes the accusation that the government is trying to manipulate public opinion in order to induce "deficit hysteria" and go on a cutting spree.

Believe it or not, however, that's less politics than there was before. In Nova Scotian terms this is, relatively speaking, the condition for a near-rational debate at last about where we're going, what we want to clean out of the attic and how we should rearrange the fiscal furniture. For one thing, the commotion over the NDP breaking its promise to balance the budget right away is a thing of the moment and we'll move on. No more fancy meals and helicopter rides on the on the public tab will help, too.

Still, the guy with the buggy whip trying to herd us along has to command a broad obedience and respect, and about that we find still some dangling questions. It's not just that the NDP missed its call about balancing the budget in its first year (which I doubt that anyone believed anyway), but its other promises were problematic too -- keeping all emergency rooms in the province open 24-7, and cutting the HST off power bills (now done).

Then, to unnerve some of us even more, Premier Dexter has, out of the blue, given the NewPage Corporation the green light to create a huge forest-fed biomass power plant in Guysborough County before his energy review initiative under David Wheeler has reported, and with a review of natural resources policy still dangling. Apart from sticking it to many hardcore NDP supporters who thought the NDP would want to mitigate clearcutting, this raises doubts about political judgment.

Nevertheless, on the larger economic question, the NDP has advantages. Being hit from both sides is always a good thing for a government. That allows it to sit in the middle and look wise, especially when both sides are over the top.

After some 30 years of belief that taxes can never go up, only down, the chickens have come home to roost for the right wing. Heretical as it might sound, citizens are on the hook for the services they demand from the governments they elect.

From the economic left, the argument is that deficits are no problem if they're kept to a certain percentage of the overall economy and we shouldn't fret about them. We'll recover and carry on -- let's just have faith in the capitalist cycle. I find this a peculiar "left wing" argument -- especially since it's the one Stephen Harper is now using as he plunges the entire nation into record deficits. Personally I have little faith in the capitalist cycle to bail us out. It worked from the Second World War until now, when North Americans were the world's spoiled children. But we're in hock and getting poorer now and the "recovery" will be full of trouble. We must, in fact, watch our pennies. The left is right, however, when it insists that the poor not be sacrificed. The premier's panel didn't mention the poverty angle. Dexter quickly responded to the criticism by insisting that poverty and the issues related to it won't be forgotten.

And, of course, there's the NDP and the public service unions. We are, after all, into a new dimension. If experience elsewhere serves, the unions will restrain their demands for the NDP that they wouldn't for the Liberals or Tories, who have had a tendency to impose wage freezes.

Anyway, the NDP has us on the road. But hang on to your hats. It's going to be a rough, muddy, exhausting journey.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County.

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