Commentators are lining up to praise Jim Flaherty. Andrew Coyne is not among them. Under Flaherty, he writes, budgets ceased to have much meaning. They became masterpieces of obfuscation:
Under Flaherty, not only did budgets cease to be budgets — now they are Economic Action Plans — but they ceased to mean much of anything.
The budget and the estimates are not only expressed on different accounting systems, but parliamentarians are provided with no means of reconciling the two. Actual departmental spending, as recorded in the public accounts, routinely bears no resemblance to either.
More and more spending is now disguised as tax credits, materially understating both expenditures and revenues. Even the official spending figures have proved harder and harder to trust. Requests for details on spending cuts from the Parliamentary Budget Officer, which departments are statutorily obliged to provide, have been rebuffed. Sometimes, as in the case of the F-35 program, they’ve simply been false.
And, instead of budgets, we got omnibus bills -- all supposedly in support of the economy. Those bills hid a mountain of contradictions:
Should we remember the Flaherty who, against every axiom of economics, cut the GST rather than cutting income taxes, then larded up the tax code with all manner of special tax breaks for favoured political interests? Or should we remember him as the tax cutter who made deep reductions in corporate tax rates, the policy innovator who brought in the Tax-Free Savings Account and the Working Income Tax Benefit, the free trader who eliminated all tariffs on intermediate goods?
Of course he was both, but the confusion underscores how far afield the Tories have wandered in the last eight years. Even after the recent cuts, Flaherty leaves with spending higher than it was at the start of his tenure — after inflation, after population growth. It wasn’t the GST cuts that drove us into deficit: had Flaherty only left spending where he found it, revenues would have exceeded spending in every year but 2009-10, when with the help of the recession it might have hit $10-billion — versus the $56-billion actual figure.
Of course, the real finance minister has always been Stephen Harper. Those contradictions are his contradictions. They are what the prime minister wants to hide. That is why Joe Oliver's swearing in yesterday was done in secret. Harper's paranoia is now full blown.