If I told you I was the best, thank you very much, would you consider me an egotist? Out-of-touch? Deluded? Or simply “a politician”?
I ask because Newfoundland & Labrador Premier Dwight Ball just announced his sudden retirement and in so doing said he felt “great” about his record. I’m having trouble imagining George Washington or Sir John A. Macdonald thus awarding themselves a “A+” on leaving office.
To be fair, Macdonald died in office and was not the retiring sort so he wasn’t in a position to award himself anything on the way out. But you know what I mean. He would have thought it unseemly even if in private he regarded himself as marvellous. Which he might reasonably have done unlike some premiers I could name.
As for Calvin Coolidge, my favourite 20th-century President, his verdict on himself was a characteristically tart “I should like to be known as a former President who minded his own business.” But back to Ball.
His retirement was unexpected and his excuse, that he wanted to spend more time with his family, is always suspicious in such settings. Maybe he really does; politics is a gruelling and lonely business. And maybe they really want him to, not always exactly the same thing. But like his insistence that the decision to quit was his and his alone, it tends to raise skeptical eyebrows.
Be that as it may, my real question is what’s the deal with the lavish self-praise? At least, my first real question.
As my reference to Washington, Macdonald and Coolidge indicates, it is unseemly. Still, we live in unseemly times, where restraint and modesty seem hopelessly square. Kim Kardashian famously tried to “break the internet” by revealing her intimate parts. Not a good look in the era of #metoo, one would think. But it has apparently done her no public relations harm.
Indeed one publication said “Whatever you think about the photos, you’ve gotta give the girl credit for owning her curves and sharing her body confidence with the world. Let’s face it, the woman knows what people want.” Which turns out to be, rather unoriginally and I’d have thought unprogressively, a shapely young woman with no clothes on. But apparently I’m behind the times.
I’m also behind the times, I gather, in objecting that a certain recent American president is fond of calling himself and his policies the best ever, his events the biggest ever and so forth and, again, it raises fewer eyebrows than it might once have done. Self-praise and self-promotion are no longer faux pas, and may indeed have become de rigueur.
Even so, here’s my second real question. Assuming Ball is allowed to pronounce himself great, and need not actually have been so, can we at least know what he thinks was so great about his performance? He had been premier since December 2015, with a majority until 2019 and in a minority parliament since, and I can see him pronouncing himself tired. Or discouraged. Or unsuccessful.
Let me dwell on the last. You see, the day before the National Post carried the story of Ball’s resignation, it ran a very bleak piece by Jackson Doughart on the state of governance in Ball’s province. Its centrepiece was the disastrous Muskrat Falls hydro project, already backed by Ottawa with large subsidies because what the heck the money’s free to us, and now needing and getting more because it has more than doubled in cost over 10 years without generating a watt of power.
Muskrat Falls is now projected to cost over $13 million, which is $26,000 for each person in the province. Also known as $104,000 per family of four. Ouch. Now the province is scrounging for quarters down behind Parliament Hill to avoid a near doubling of electricity rates next year. And while Ball did not start this ball rolling, he’s been premier for much of the unfolding disaster. And what has he done to fix it?
Um yes well. But wait. It’s just one thing, albeit a ruinously expensive, ill-judged one. What of his broader record? Unfortunately, as Doughart noted, “this story isn’t only about Muskrat Falls, but also its impact on an over-leveraged government that’s careening toward a fiscal cliff.” Newfoundland & Labrador has the highest per-capita public debt in Canada. And Ball has done what about that issue?
Made it far worse, of course. Now again, he didn’t invent living beyond your means. We’ve all been doing it, most of the time, since Trudeau Sr. (And yes, it was Stephen Harper who made the original federal loan guarantee to Muskrat Falls, during a federal election of all things.) And remember how much people loved feisty former Premier Danny Williams, the guy who refused to fly the Canadian flag, for his bad attitude. The guy under whom Muskrat Falls got started. And under which, as the Post noted, the already parlous state of provincial finances was made far worse because under Williams the province received a massive oil revenue windfall and of course spent it all on voters.
In case you don’t remember, Williams’ approval ratings in the province were consistently in the 70s and even 80s. Yet he was premier from 2003 to 2010. And guess what? Doughart notes that from 2005-14, which roughly overlaps with Williams’ effective budgeting years, provincial per-capita spending adjusted for inflation rose 30%. There were three premiers between Williams and Ball, two holding office so briefly they may never have located the Treasury. But then came Ball and he added nearly $6 billion to the provincial debt, something on the order of $8,000 per person.
As I’ve said before, if you suddenly handed every family in the province a bill for $32,000 a surprising number would be in bankruptcy the next day and quite annoyed at this profligacy. But as the bill is hidden in the basement of the legislature everybody goes woo hoo, free money.
Oh, one more thing from that Post piece: “if the government had chosen to spend at the national average relative to population over the past five years, it would have saved $12 billion by now and accumulated more than $6 billion in budget surpluses.”
So Ball is getting out of town as the Muskrat Follies unravel in a province that he and his predecessors have run ever deeper into already alarming debt, and feels “great” about his record. Well, I guess you’ve gotta give the man credit for owning his yield curves and sharing his fiscal confidence with the world. Let’s face it, the man knows what people want. Which turns out to be free money and soothing words.
As for what they need, well, it’s his successor’s problem now. How great is that?
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