VICTORIA – Auditor General George Morfitt is walking through a political minefield these days. He’s conducting an independent inquiry into last year’s budget fiasco.
Morfitt’s path is fraught with obstacles you usually find only in a war zone, but if he succeeds in rooting out the culprits that derailed the process which normally should lead to a responsible and fairly accurate fiscal forecast, then, in the parlance of his profession, he will have delivered value for the money..
When Clark was one of the pitbulls in opposition, he very much wanted Morfitt to become auditor general, which he eventually did. That was in 1988. In 1994, Morfitt was re-appointed for another six-year term.
And just about now, Clark probably wishes Morfitt was fine-tuning his golf game instead of fishing in murky political waters.
What Morfitt intends to find out is how a budget that, before the last election, according to the government, would deliver a surplus, ended up deeply in red ink. And the outcome could be very embarrassing for the government and a handful of top bureaucrats.
The way in which Morfitt proceeds signals a tough inquiry. He is placing witnesses under oath, a procedure employed very effectively by former Conflict of Interest Commissioner Ted Hughes. Remember, Hughes got the ball rolling that eventually bowled over former premier Bill Vander Zalm.
If Morfitt simply interviewed the key players in the budget fiasco, chances are they would color their accounts to protect themselves. Under oath, they are compelled to tell the truth to the best of their recollections.
Placing senior finance ministry officials under oath also protects them against possible retaliation from their political masters. In short, under oath, witnesses tend to run for cover.
There has been much speculation how a budget forecast can promise a surplus during an election campaign and turn out to be deep in deficit right after the election.
The government has steadfastly maintained the discrepancy was due to economic fluctuations and a flawed forecast procedure. Critics says the government knew damned well before the election that the budget was headed for a deficit, but hid that fact from voters to win the election.
I agree with the critics. Since the controversy first flared up, a lot of finance ministry documents and memos have surfaced, many of which warned the government at the time that its budget forecast was too optimistic.
But the premier knew that the forecast of a budget deficit would severely hamper his chances of squeezing another mandate out of the voters. So he stuck with the optimistic forecast.
Both critics and defenders of the government agree that any budget forecast is somewhat flawed, particularly in a province that relies so heavily on revenue from natural resources, which can fluctuate wildly and without notice. But even that doesn’t account for the fiasco of last year’s budget projections.
Morfitt’s inquiry may produce two beneficial results: the forecast procedure may be changed to reflect the vagaries of economic forecasts, and governments may in future be less inclined to hoodwink the public.
At times like this, it becomes obvious why we have agencies, independent of government, to keep the system on the straight and narrow. Can you imagine the results of an internal finance ministry investigation into this or any other matter, the results of which may or may not be released to the public?
Morfitt has shown in the past that he’s no patsy. If he finds dirt, he’ll expose it, albeit in somewhat more diplomatic language than your average newspaper columnist would use. But that’s alright. I’ll translate Morfitt’s findings into very plain English.