The Billion Dollar Rounding Error

The Canadian Alliance likes to throw the word "billion" around a lot. In 1993, the country faced a $45 Billion deficit. Our debt had ballooned to about $570 Billion dollars (a bit short of the "near $600 Billion" the Reform Party claimed, but within one bad year of being crossed). They should be credited with this; they made Canadians care about billions -- made them understand how truly large this number was. Did you know that a stack of $1 Billion worth of $5 bills would tower 20 kilometres above the ground? Can you imagine how high Canada's debt would be under these circumstances?

However, now that the deficits have vanished, and our surpluses are measured in the billions, and now that our debt has been reduced by $30 Billion, the Canadian Alliance have to work harder in order to come up with their Billion dollar epithets. Indeed, they have to use some suspect mathetmatics.

Take the gun registry cost overruns (please). The Alliance calls it another "Billion Dollar Boondoogle" that should be scrapped. But while the cost overruns are alarming and while the government should be called on the carpet for them, a billion dollars have yet to be spent on the registry.

The government said that the gun registry would only cost Canadians $2 million dollars. They came to this conclusion by saying that the registry itself would cost $119 million, and that license fees would pay for $117 million of that amount. The current cost of the registry now stands at $875 million, and the license fees have only covered $140 million of that amount, leaving Canadians on the hook for $735 million. More disturbing is the acrobatics some Liberals went through to conceal this information from parliament. Shame on them!

But the total spent is still well short of a billion. Indeed, the total overrun is $265 million short of a billion. The Canadian Alliance should be thankful that the cost overruns weren't $235 million lower, or else we could have rounded the costs to zero. And this ignores the fact that the registry has worked and is supported by the overwhelming majority of Canadians. Although bugs still need to be ironed out, since passing rudimentary gun control laws in 1990, the number of deaths by firearms in this country has dropped significantly.

In fairness, the registry isn't fully implemented, yet, so there is still time for the costs to exceed a billion dollars, but it is extremely questionable to call this whole program a "boondoogle". This isn't the only time the Canadian Alliance has been creative in its accounting of the government's excesses, either. Remember the original "Billion Dollar Boondoogle"? That was Human Resources Minister Jane Stewart's job retraining program. The questionable expenses that paid for training programs and job creation programs that never happened were the first taint of corruption that really stuck on the previously feckless Liberal government.

However, that "Billion Dollars" amounted to the total budget of the program. That program paid for, among other things, a job training program that took recent University graduates who were still out of work and helped them arrange internships at various companies around the area, giving them experience, and helping them to launch their careers. By the time that session was finished, 80% of the attendees had jobs they were extremely happy with. Where's the boondoogle in that?

I have yet to find a final summation of how much of Jane Stewart's budget was spent improperly, but taking all of the individual incidents and adding them together gives me a number no greater than $50 million. Shameful wastage that the government should be called out for, yes, but a waste roundup of $950 million, far beyond any mathematical leeway. In terms of waste roundup, the Canadian Alliance is guilty of creative accounting errors far in excess of what the Liberals are guilty of. But the Canadian Alliance sure likes to say "billion"!

Not that it matters too much, since the Canadian Alliance are not dealing with real money, and the Liberals are. The Liberals should be held to a higher standard. And, by and large, the Auditor General is holding them to that standard. Perhaps the Canadian Alliance is helping by providing the noise and publicity to get Canadians interested in the government's sloppiness, but shouldn't their attacks be grounded on more solid facts?

By not separating the real waste from the beneficial portions of the program, the Canadian Alliance simply increases Canadians' cynicism by showing that they are not interested in making the government operate better, but rather that they wish to use the waste as a battering ram to discredit the programs themselves. It doesn't matter that the programs which have done thousands of Canadians a great deal of good, they would throw it all away for a tax cut.

The Canadian Alliance may be Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, with a duty to call the government to account, but their lack of focus makes their opposition as blanket and as easy to tune out as the government's assurances that everything is fine, everything is good, don't worry, be happy.

The Canadian Alliance likes to paint itself as a different political party, one that doesn't play cynical partisan politics -- or was that the Reform Party, which had a lot more integrity under Preston Manning? I guess the higher values were tossed out with the name when Stockwell Day became leader, and even under Stephen Harper the Canadian Alliance is now just another political party.

Politicians are yelling at each other on both sides of the house floor. This is not new. Meanwhile, Canada chugs merrily along, with a good economy and a harmonious society. I think the only risk to ourselves is if we start listening to the politicians yelling across the floor without the requisite grain of salt.

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