Publicly funded partisan messages – the irony of it all

Last week’s flap over publicly-funded partisan ads produced a virtual flood of dramatic irony – i.e “a literary technique in which the audience can perceive hidden meanings unknown to the characters” (Oxford English Reference Dictionary, 2nd edition).

In case you missed it, the show began when the Liberals were whistled down for using their taxpayer-funded caucus budget to send a list of the government’s accomplishments into three provincial ridings where by-elections are to be held in the near future.  The obvious intent was to get the literature out to Dartmouth South, Cape Breton Centre and Sydney-Whitney Pier on the public dime before setting the by-election date. However. someone forgot to check the Elections Act which decrees – in effect – that an election period begins as soon as a seat becomes vacant. Oops. During such an election period parties must pay for their propaganda from their own partially publicly subsidized party resources instead of their fully subsidized caucus budgets. Caught red-handed, the Liberals (belatedly) agreed to pay the $7,000 cost of the mail-out from those party funds.

That part of the dramedy contained a certain amount of irony, given that during the 2013 provincial election campaign the Liberals dominated a day on the news cycle by catching one NDP candidate handing out caucus-paid material while canvassing. Even more ironic is the fact that the issue was pursued most vigorously by the Conservatives. Not satisfied with the reimbursement, the Cons wanted to see Liberal heads roll. Ironically, these are the same Conservatives whose federal counterparts have made a mockery of any attempt to put meaningful rules around the use of public funds for propaganda purposes. After subjecting Canadians for years with ads touting their non-existent Economic Action Plan, the Harperites are now flooding the airwaves with militaristic paeans to the armed forces and misleading claims about their recent budget. The estimated $7.5 million cost to the public purse of the latter campaign makes the Liberal transgression look like small potatoes. But while ethically reprehensible there are no rules against it. 

If the irony-perceptive audience sees the barely-concealed hypocrisy of the Liberal and Conservative players in this saga, what are they to make of the New Democrats? They too became tangled up in the affair and had to pay back $2,000 for material sent into Dartmouth South in April.  Their story is that those flyers were originally scheduled to go out in mid-March as part of a province-wide mailing, but were delayed by a month for Dartmouth South in a gesture of respect following the death of  the districts’s MLA, Allan Rowe. The irony here – summed up in the adage “let no good deed go unpunished” – is stark.

However, to me the biggest irony of all is the Liberal mail out that started the whole tempest-in-a-teapot.Presumably designed to impress with the Liberals’ achievements as they near the halfway mark of their mandate, the piece that landed in Dartmouth South last month was a weak squibb. It listed nine accomplishments. Two of them – a K-9 school in Southdale and upgrades at the Dartmouth General Hospital – were well underway when the NDP were in power. Several others represent modest expansions of existing programs and a few look like weak attempts to blunt opposition criticism. For example, the touted $7.1 million outlay for home care and seniors supports has done little to ease the crisis in long term care for seniors. And the Graduate to Opportunity Program is no solace for those working grads who have lost thousands of dollars from the Liberals’ cancellation of the NDP’s Graduate Retention Program.

The lead item in the Liberal piece is about education. It boasts that “$65 million in education means more supports, more resources and smaller class sizes.” Its inclusion is interesting because of the three big Liberal election promises – on corporate handouts, power rates and education – the latter is the only one the Liberals can claim to have kept. Whether they should have made the promise in the first place is another matter.

The promise, and the subsequent increase in grants to school boards over the last two years was driven strictly by politics and self-interest. The $65 million figure was concocted by the school boards association, trumpeted by the teacher’s union and incorporated into the Liberal platform. It purported to be putting back funding cut by the NDP, but the cumulative impact of those cuts was $56 million at most and they came over a three-year period when enrolment dropped by 5.5%. As a result, funding per student actually increased under the NDP, albeit at a much lower rate than during the previous three years when per student grants increased by about 6% a year. During those years, school boards used the increased cash to do what they are often accused of doing – beefing up administration. Figures published in 2012 by the Department of Education (Teacher Supply and Demand) show that between 2005-06 and 2008-9 the number of school board administrators rose by 16% while the number of classroom teachers increased by only 1.5%.  The Liberals compounded the error of their politics first approach to education after they took office. After their first budget doled out most of the promised increase – $51 million – they set up a panel headed by prominent Liberal Myra Freeman to make policy recommendations. By putting the the fiscal cart ahead of the policy horse, they have ended up with a bold new plan for education but no new resources to implement it.

They simple promise of more money for education worked once for the Liberals, and  may work for them again in the upcoming by-elections. But the fact that this tainted bauble represents the best the Liberals have to offer says much about their lacklustre performance over the last 20 months.

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About Richard Starr

RICHARD STARR has had careers as a journalist, public servant, broadcaster, political staffer and freelance policy adviser. He is author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, appearing in everything from Atlantic Insight to Atlantic Progress. A lifelong student of Maritime history, Starr is married to playwright and former MP Wendy Lill. They live in Dartmouth.
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