More than ever, we need our leaders to consider their lasting legacy: will they leave their grandchildren clean water, safe roads, and functioning sewers, or just a huge bill and long to-do list?
By Michael Borrelli
Published February 01, 2012
Around the same time U.S. President Barack Obama intentionally stepped on to the obscured third rail of American politics by uttering two incendiary words - "class warfare" - in his State of the Union address, a Canadian public figure took a principled stand against the status quo in a similar appeal.
Just a few days before Obama invited Americans to consider the fairness of their economy, Nova Scotia's Auditor-General released an annual report that dared citizens from Halifax to Digby to ask themselves, "Is it fair to pass on the bill?"
In his remarks to the media, A-G Jacques R. Lapointe observed that Nova Scotians are some of the most indebted citizens in Canada. This province of less than one million people services a provincial debt of $12.8 billion, costing $861 million a year in interest.
Astoundingly, these payments are equivalent to about nine percent of provincial revenue.
Noting that the province's debt was the result of decades of decisions by Liberal and Conservative governments to spend beyond their means, Mr. Lapointe did not blunt the pointed question that followed:
Is it ethical for Nova Scotians to expect and receive services that they will not pay for, deferring those payments to future generations, who have no say in those decisions?
That uncomfortable query directly challenged the perceived correctness of sustained deficit spending by governments, begging a response from the generation of big spenders who rightly own it.
But no response or serious discussion about the topic was forthcoming, as the Auditor General would soon discover.
Nova Scotia's government did its best to distance itself from Lapointe's very focused criticism, with NDP Finance Minister Graham Steele taking issue with the use of the term 'ethical.'
If you wanted to know how much regard the 21st century politician has for ethics, you couldn't do much better than Steele's response:
The word 'ethical' is such a loaded word with so much baggage that it's possible to say an issue is a serious issue that needs to be seriously discussed without adding into the debate a loaded word like the one he used.
Ethics, a loaded word?
Once upon a time, judging and defending the rightness and wrongness of actions, especially those that impact a broad swath of society, had a place in directing, or at least informing our public behaviour.
Now, a Minister and duly elected member of a provincial parliament obfuscates when invited to consider the fairness of a generation living beyond its means.
Hamiltonians know this dithering well. It wasn't long ago that our Mayor and Council mortgaged the city's future, deciding to spend $45M of the Future Fund on a taxpayer-funded gift to a for-profit corporation.
And while Ivor Wynne 2.0 is being constructed with money meant to "create economic prosperity, enhance our community's social fabric, and enhance community life" for future generations, our city's underfunded infrastructure will continue to disintegrate beneath our feet.
For instance, the $45M the City will hand out to a private sports franchise is not much more than the annual budget for roads and traffic, which the Hamilton Public Works report card rated a D- in 2009.
In a 2011 report [PDF] on the state of the city's roads, consultants estimated:
[B]ased on the current projected funding level, the roads will continue to deteriorate, with the most significant decrease being attributed to the Urban Local roads - the neighbourhood roads the public uses every day.
The city's stormwater system does not fare much better. When it was rated as a C- in 2009, consultants [PDF] yet again found a public work operating at capacity and left to deteriorate due to age, climate change, and "No dedicated funding for system management."
Yet with the fiscal challenges of maintaining our crumbling infrastructure undeniable, our Mayor and Council continue to try to reconcile the irreconcilable: maintaining low property tax increases while pursuing new, big-time public expenditures of questionable value to future generations.
Of course, few of these elected officials expect to be around when the bill finally comes due, and maybe that explains their confidence in a belief that tomorrow's leaders will somehow find the billions it will cost to maintain or replace the essential but oft-overlooked guts of our city.
With the days of unlimited growth behind us, more than ever we need the generation of leaders that has held the reins of power for so long to consider their lasting legacy: will they leave their grandchildren clean water, safe roads, and functioning sewers, or just a huge bill and long to-do list?
If Hamiltonians want the city to stay above water (literally and figuratively), it's essential that we begin a conversation about the fairness of this unhealthy generational habit of buying now and paying later.
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