No choice but to be cynical

You can't believe a word they say. We face a horrendous truth deficit.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty just said the federal government deficit will be $50 billion this year. And it might. But the fact that he said it makes it less rather than more believable.

Permit me to review the facts, a term here meaning "the long sequence of non-facts that issued forth from the mouths of senior federal politicians."

First, during the campaign the PM promised us no deficits.

Second, two days after the election the PM told us he wouldn't rule out deficits in 2009-10 but there wouldn't be one in the current fiscal year (2008-09).

Third, 10 days after that, the finance minister told us he couldn't rule out a deficit in 2008-09.

Fourth, in his Nov. 27, 2008 update he predicted a small surplus for 2008-09 and 2009-10.

Fifth, in December, Flaherty said there would be a deficit in 2009-10 but not 2008-09.

Sixth, a few days before the January budget, in what the Citizen called "an unprecedented move to soften the blow of next week's federal budget" a "senior official with the Prime Minister's Office, who declined to speak on the record" told journalists the deficit would be $34 billion in 2009-10 and $30 billion the year after that.

Seventh, in the January budget the government said there would be a deficit of $1.1 billion in 2008-09, $33.7 billion in 2009-10 and a cumulative $50.1 billion in the next three years.

Eighth, on May 25 they told us the figure for 2009-10 would be more than $33.7 but they wouldn't say how much until June.

Ninth, on May 26 they told us the 2009-10 deficit would be $50 billion and claimed they were telling us to avoid "inaccurate" speculation that might confuse markets. A bit rich given their own record of ... what exactly?

Are these lies? Perhaps. But at this point I am not willing to give them that much credit. Remember: A man who lies knows what the truth is and deliberately fails to convey it accurately or completely. He does not merely "say the thing that is not," he knows it is not.

And it is not now possible to state with any degree of conviction that the people just cited knew whether their remarks were accurate when they made them. Or even to maintain plausibly that they cared.

From a purely practical point of view it is hard to quarrel with the government's behaviour or to express surprise at it psychologically. It is manifestly clear that they can say whatever sounds good, then change their story months, weeks or even a single day later without political consequences. And psychologically, once you discover that you can utter self-serving fibs and pay no price the temptation becomes enormous. It is so much easier and more fun to assume an air of solemn responsibility and make oracular declarations as a Very Important Person dealing with Very Important Matters in a Very Important Way than to admit that you have no idea what's going on. And why not, if there's no price to pay?

Actually, there is a large social price to pay when you foster cynicism on this scale. It's just that, as with the financial cost of deficits, political leaders don't pay it, we do.

If I may quote my own Jan. 30 Citizen column: "Now it's obvious what the pre-budget leaks were about. They were softening us up, so when we saw the actual $84.9 billion five-year deficit figures we'd go, oh well, that's only $20 billion more than the $64 billion over two years they already said, and what's $20 billion to government?"

Does not this cynical passage seem that much more plausible now that we've been through a further series of apparent softening-up steps, including moving from a $34 to $50 billion deficit for next year in two slices of only, say, $8 billion each? But I confess to growing doubts about its accuracy.

Such an analysis makes the politicians sound devious and sinister. But when these guys talk, there may well be no deceit, no depth, no hidden pool of knowledge and cunning. What you see is what you get. Their conceit and fatuity make them say whatever sounds good, and believe it as soon as they hear their own voice saying it.

They couldn't tell us the truth if they wanted because they don't know what it is. I don't mean they don't know the specific truth about the deficit, though they don't. I mean they don't know what "truth" is. When Flaherty said Monday that he wouldn't reveal the true deficit figure until June, do you think he had a firm intention to reveal it Tuesday? Or a firm intention not to? If so, you misunderstand his mental landscape. It doesn't contain such items.

You can't believe a word they say. Not one word.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson