Friday, April 13, 2007

Ministers victims to media reports - Can't read

I've worked for ministers over the years and I've seen the kind of briefing notes, files, books, binders, and boxes they have to plough through. Before any decision is made or any action taken, ministers are briefed with more information than you can imagine.

In my experience, there is rarely a problem with insufficient information. In fact, the reverse is true. Most times there is so much information coming at ministers on all kinds of issues, large and small, that they are overwhelmed.

Sometimes, it gets so bad that it's hard to distinguish what is an important issue from what is trivial.

Finance ministers, by virtue of the job they hold, get vast volumes of information, possibly more than any other portfolio. The get more kinds of numbers, scenarios, analysis and projections than you can shake a stick at.

Federal minsters who are also the regional ministers for their province, are flooded with information for their own portfolio and also the information for every other portfolio as it pertains to their province.

Under this system, in this province, you can be sure that Tom Marshall, Finance minister, and Loyola Hearn, federal regional minster, would be kept up to date on the most important fiscal issue and political hot potato in this province today - equalisation.

So why are these two politicians acting like they don't have a clue what the numbers are? Are they reduced to picking information out of the newspapers like the rest of us? Do they ever review their briefing materials or are they sailing along by the seat of their pants?

Early this week, local economist Dr. Wade Locke said that the federal offer, over the next 20 years, represented $6.5billion more while the provincial position represents an additional $4.5billion.

Keep in mind he was clear at the time that these were preliminary figures based on a provisional interpretation of the legislation and a whole lot of numerical assumptions. Locke's hope, he said, was that both sides would be forthcoming with numbers of their own so that clarity could come over this issue.

No such luck.

Instead both Hearn and Marshall seized the results and dashed to the news media claiming how Locke's research vindicated them. Hearn crowed about an additional $6.5billion and Marshall whined about a lost $4.5billion.

Then Dr. Locke has revised his numbers fairly dramatically. Now the federal offer apparretly represents $1billion LESS than the status quo, a shift down of $7.5billion from his earlier interpretations.

You would think the Hearn would release numbers of his own to defend the federal position. He does not. Instead he's reduced to a weak claim that no province will be harmed.

But does he actually have any real idea whether the province will be harmed? Apparently not.

As for Marshall, he's definitely on the warpath now. And you can expect the Premier to be leading the barbarians at the federal gate as soon as he gets home.

But didn't Marshall already know that Locke's numbers were off in the first place?

Both of these senior ministers have to have projections of their own. Are they keeping them to themselves for some high strategic reason? Are they getting around to reading them at all?

What happens next week if Locke or another analyst announces that the provincial and provincial offers are both exactly the same at, say, $16billion over the status quo. How will Hearn and Marshall respond then?

Will they know any different? And if they do, will they let us in on the secret?

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