THE BLOG

Three Events That Mattered More Than the Budget

03/24/2013 11:02 EDT | Updated 05/25/2013 05:12 EDT

While most attention last week was focused on the Harper government's 2013 budget with all it's wishful thinking, missed opportunities and neglected obligations, three other events were probably of greater significance.

(1) Still in the realm of finance, just before his budget, Minister Flaherty strangely instructed his political staff to call senior officials at ManuLife Bank to convey his "displeasure" about the bank's decision to give consumers a small break of "20 basis points" on mortgage loans.

For certain qualifying customers, the going interest rate was 3.09 per cent and ManuLife proposed to bring it down to 2.89 per cent -- just a bit better than BMO which had a mortgage product in the marketplace at 2.99 per cent. When BMO created that rate a couple of weeks earlier, Mr. Flaherty phoned them personally to say he didn't want to see any mortgage market competition.

That's a rather odd position for free-marketers like the Harper Conservatives. BMO held its ground despite the political pressure and kept its lower rate. But ManuLife caved, going back up to 3.09. Who knows what was actually said, promised or threatened in either conversation? But the result is an uneven playing field, less competition, and higher consumer costs -- for the average home buyer in Toronto, the added cost could be over $12,000; in Regina it would be about $9,000 more. All thanks to Jim Flaherty!

If he has legitimate concerns about excessive household debt, the Minister has well established, legitimate tools to deal with those concerns. He can set the rules on down payments, amortization periods, credit qualifications, etc. for all lenders and borrowers in an open, transparent and fully competitive way. What he shouldn't do is distort the market with one-off personal threats or promises. Such behaviour is discriminatory, risky and unprofessional.

(2) Another big story last week was news from Elections Canada that they are looking for additional qualified investigators to pursue an unprecedented flood of complaints about serious violations of election laws. Up to six new people may be engaged. It's about time! And even six more may not be enough.

Since the Harper government took power in 2006, Elections Canada has been under more pressure and scrutiny than ever before because more Canadians than ever before are worried about election misbehaviour that taints the quality of our democracy.

It started with the "In-and-Out" election financing scam which took nearly five years to run to ground, through a barrage of Conservative denials and obfuscation. But in the end, the Conservatives were charged, had to plead guilty, paid a fine and had to make restitution.

That was followed by obvious campaign problems in Etobicoke Centre, dubious events under investigation in Peterborough, the Pierre Poutine/Robocall fiasco which started in Guelph and could have contaminated more than 200 ridings across the country, and most recently the Peter Penashue scandal in Labrador.

It falls to Elections Canada to get to the bottom of exactly what happened in each of these cases. And they must do it in a timely fashion. Before future elections roll around, Canadians need to know that the system by which they vote is clean and honest.

(3) Last week also brought the sad end of Kevin Page's distinguished tenure as Parliamentary Budget Officer.

Despite never having the authority or the resources he was first promised, Mr. Page acquitted himself as a thorough, competent, professional whom Canadians and Parliamentarians counted upon for truthful, impartial, reliable information about public finances.

Always dignified and respectful, he was fearless in speaking truth to power, and "power" (i.e., the Harper Conservatives) never forgave him, despite the fact that they created his office and hand-picked him for the job. They thought they had recruited a lapdog, but found him to be a genuine watchdog instead -- fully dedicated to advancing the public's right to know the truth.

Stephen Harper loosed all manner of attack dogs to silence Mr. Page, but it never worked. With every Conservative assault, the PBO's stature and reputation continued to grow. Thanks to him, Canadians know about the deceit and mismanagement that permeated the F-35 boondoggle, the real costs of Mr. Harper's criminal justice agenda which mimics expensive failed experiments in the United States, the impact of corporate tax cuts, structural deficits, and much more.

The Conservatives could refuse to extend Kevin Page's mandate, but they will never be able to diminish his legacy of courage and trust.