Just one more example of why politics gets a bad name

Jérôme-Forget's about-face on deficit damages her financial credibility

Budget de MJF - mars 2009

What are truth and honesty worth in politics these days? Not much, it seems. The latest and perhaps most spectacular illustration of this came yesterday.
Finance Minister Monique Jérôme-Forget finally admitted that Quebec was heading for a deficit and a recession. The problem was that she had sworn the opposite until now, promising we'd be sailing smoothly through the economic storm thanks to her government's rigorous policies.
So now the deficit is on. How high will it be? She won't say. Anyway, who'd believe any number after such a stunning about-face? You'd think this would lead her to admit that it was an error to use more than $700 million of Ottawa's fiscal-imbalance money for tax cuts instead of services. Or that it was a mistake not to recoup the annual $2 billion from Ottawa's slashing of two GST points. Don't hold your breath.
Never mind that the Charest's government line going into the Dec. 8 election campaign was completely the opposite: We need a majority to weather the economic storm, but Quebec will suffer no deficit or recession. Cherchez l'erreur.
At a press conference on Jan. 14, Jérôme-Forget, still saying there would be no deficit, was asked to justify her prediction of an early recovery. Her answer: "I'll admit very candidly that I'm just as good as all the forecasters out there. I take my inspiration from what I read in The Economist, and especially in the Financial Times to say what I'm saying. It is on this that I mostly base my predictions." Cute, but not quite reassuring.
This is the same minister who, along with her premier, has been saying for months that she has no idea of the extent of the losses incurred by the Caisse de dépôt et placement. La Presse seems to know it - $38 billion. But the minister in charge says she doesn't.
As for the Caisse's administrators, she said a month ago that they bought up investment products no one fully understood, as did many other financial institutions. This week, she's defending the Caisse officials tooth and nail.
Either this minister is in the wrong job or she's simply reflecting her government's choices in these trying economic times. But if, as rumour has it, Jérome-Forget does resign sometime this year, she would do so only after taking the fall for the government's record on the economy. But her departure would not erase these contradictory messages, nor this absurd saga of a headless Caisse de dépôt stuck with huge losses.
Mind you, avoiding a deficit had become such a dogmatic posture over the past 10 years in this country that even former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion was forced to retreat last fall when he dared to predict that a federal deficit was probable.
So much for truth. But in politics, there's also what we call the appearance of truth. Take Health Minister Yves Bolduc who came out yesterday saying he'd no longer set goals for reducing wait times at hospital emergency wards: "We'll make no commitments. Maybe that's the solution." Some lauded him as a politician who was finally telling the truth when, in fact, it is his job to set targets and find ways to meet them. It would have sounded more honest to admit that not enough was done and say what will be done now.
Still, the lack of truthfulness and honesty in politics is as old as politics itself. Tactics, strategies and manoeuvring can lead to that kind of thing. But in this era when people are better educated and communication is easy, prevarication serves only to feed this monster called cynicism. This, in turn, accelerates the disengagement and disinterest of citizens in how they are governed.
So it might be no coincidence that after eight years of hearing George W. Bush's lies on Iraq and so many other topics, Americans were swept away by a man who took to speaking more truthfully and honestly. Even when it's not too pleasant to hear.

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