When Off-Message is On-Message

by Ray Grigg

The federal government’s budget is probably the most crucial economic and political document that is presented to parliament and the Canadian people. So it is fastidiously tuned and scripted to give the best possible impression of the competence of the party in power. Crucially, everything said and done with respect to this document is subject to information control that must be on-message.

But sometimes off-message is on-message. On Tuesday, April 21, an interviewer from the CBC was pointing out to the Federal Minister of Finance, Joe Oliver, that the Parliamentary Budget Officer—and even the government itself—estimated that the Conservative’s recent decision to nearly double the maximum annual contribution to Tax Free Saving Accounts (TFSAs) would cost Canada’s treasury $1.3 billion in 2016 tax revenue. The interviewer drew the Minister’s attention to an economist’s calculation that the increase from $5,500 to $10,000 in allowable TFSAs would deprive the Canadian treasury of nearly $15 billion in a few decades. “I hear that by 2080 we may have a problem,” replied the Minister in an off-message comment. “Well, why don’t we leave that to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s granddaughter to solve?”

The reply was glib and dismissive. The next day the Prime Minister excused Oliver’s comment as a sarcastic response to “a clearly preposterous argument.” But are future tax implications “clearly preposterous”? This is a control-obsessed government that prides itself in responsible fiscal planning, meticulous management of money, acute business acumen and carefully considered economic strategies. For years it has been systematically eviscerating programs in an effort to balance its 2015 budget. The loss of $1.3 billion from 2016 revenue is no small matter for a government that wants desperately to be re-elected on sound fiscal management; the loss of $15 billion in future decades must have been a calculated consequence with definite political objectives.

In the government’s obsessive use of information control to massage public opinion, Joe Oliver’s “granddaughter” comment was an off-message that exposed the on-message so carefully hidden in everything this government thinks and does. Their only sense of future is the present. This is the only explanation for a pathology so bizarre that it still remains inexplicable to political pundits.

How can a government that is so neurotically fastidious about political and financial matters be so dismissive and negligent about environmental ones? For a ruling party that meticulously calculates the impact of every move and weighs the effect of every whit of information, how can it totally disregard an environmental future that is heading toward wreckage?

The Harper government has been promising emission controls on Alberta’s tar sands bitumen production since 2006 but has set none. It has cancelled Canada’s legally binding greenhouse gas obligations made in the Kyoto Protocol. It is failing on its Copenhagen carbon dioxide reduction targets to the United Nations. Its promise to move in step with the emission reductions of the United States has now been abandoned in favour of a less ambitious objective. It has assiduously refused to set any national emission limits, deferring to the provinces to do the best they can. After gutting Canada’s existing environmental regulations and using the Prime Minister’s Office to silence government scientists—most of whose data conflicts with government policies—the conclusion must be that Finance Minister Oliver’s comments were not off-message but on-message. Problems arising from the government’s neglect of environmental issues are irrelevant because they don’t exist in the present; they will be left to future generations to solve.

Beyond finding $15 billion in lost revenue, here is a partial list of some of the other problems Prime Minister Harper’s granddaughter will have to solve in 2080:

• Average global temperatures have exceeded the 2°C increase described by Dr. John Holdren, former Science and Technology advisor to US President Obama, as “the best we can do, while being the worst we can tolerate”; Canada is censured in the international community for its uncooperative, unhelpful, negligent and obstructionist measures regarding global climate change.

• Most of the glaciers feeding Canada’s east-flowing rivers from the Rockies are melted, causing seasonal water shortages for agriculture and cities in Canada’s prairie provinces.

• Stringent and desperate international carbon dioxide controls classify all fossil fuels as “stranded assets” unavailable for extraction.

• BC’s wild salmon, unable to survive in the high temperatures and depleted summer run-off of the new climate regime, have abandoned the province for Alaskan and Arctic rivers.

• Weather is eccentric and unpredictable, with more extreme storms, droughts and floods; insurance rates have become prohibitively expensive for many businesses and home owners.

• Sea level rise threaten Canada’s coastal cities; shorelines are eroding; tidal surges regularly inundate coastal communities.

• Ocean acidification has closed all shellfish industries; marine ecologies are collapsing; the world’s industrial fishing fleets are straining the seas for jellyfish protein.

• Food production is precarious because of weather anomalies; food shortages are common; California is too hot and dry for crops; agricultural regions have moved northward but poor soils limit farming options.

• Climate refugees strain humanitarian efforts, while collapsing social structures provoke innumerable military conflicts and create immigration chaos.

No one, of course, can be certain what will happen in 2080. Prime Minister Harper is technically correct in saying that any speculation is “a clearly preposterous argument”. But, if the scientists he is attempting to muzzle are correct, the problems confronting his granddaughter will far worse than $15 billion in lost revenue from TFSAs, and will no doubt affect her assessment of her grandfather’s environmental policies.