Was the New Brunswick journalist crap-o-meter broken last week?

Around the time of elections going back to 1999, I have been asked to provide input into various economic development-related party platforms and campaign ideas. In this election cycle, I was asked by the Liberals to conduct an independent economic assessment of several of the campaign’s proposed initiatives. The impact was estimated using Statistics Canada input-output multipliers and related CANSIM tables.

Anyone who follows this blog or reads my column or talks to me directly knows I support the Progressive Conservatives’ position on shale gas development. In addition, while like most people I struggle with the extent of austerity measures I think Blaine Higgs has done a fairly good job over at Finance. I have made very positive remarks about Dominic Cardy over the past six months on this blog and in my column.

I also like some of the ideas proposed by the Liberals. I think the idea to show the economic impact of their spending initiatives is an important contribution by the Liberals because they are showing the cost of their campaign promises but also letting people know the potential economic impacts.

Now the politicians need to have a fair and open debate about public spending and criticizing the $150 million spend on infrastructure is fair game. In an age of budget deficits and weak economic growth, the voters need to know where and how the various parties will spend the taxpayers’ money.

But ‘fair’ is a term that needs to be interpreted by journalists. The public relies on journalists to put claims and proposals into context. I think there was a failure this week by journalists to properly set the $150 million spending per year in context.

First, to the spending itself. We know that total provincial government capital expenditures in 2013-2014 were $448.5 million and are budgeted to be $555.2 million in 2014-2015. This is 39% below the average annual capital expenditures between the 2010-2011 and 2012-2013 budgets. The $150 million proposed by the Liberal would only bring spending back up to a level below the average for those three years.

Again this level of spending can and should be open for debate but journalists are the translators – the interpreters for the public. For example, does the public realize the provincial government has spent on average around $690 million per year on capital expenditures and the Liberal proposal would bring spending in 2015 back to a level below that average?

Sure it is certainly important to debate that. Maybe the government should cut capital spending further. Maybe it should drop to $400 million or $300 million. But that, too, would need justification and scrutiny by journalists.

But the strangest aspect of this story that was passed on almost completely by journalists was Dominic Cardy’s linking of the Liberal plan to boost spending on public infrastructure – schools, roads, bridges, etc. to Atcon. For effect, Cardy broke it down like this:

“It doesn’t make any sense. The province cannot afford this.” “It’s completely unacceptable that the vision for our province would be so poor, so feeble, that the best that we can hope for from our governments is subsidies for people so they can take part-time work for a few years so they can get on EI,” Cardy said. “Mr. Gallant’s suggestion this week is one of the most irresponsible things I’ve seen in my time politics.”

Now Mr. Cardy is free to say anything he likes. He could compare the spring flood on the St. John River to the great flood of Noah. It is the role of the journalist to put that into perspective for the public.

In what way is $150 million spent on public infrastructure comparable to Atcon? Would he get away with that statement if the Liberals were proposing to boost health care or education spending by $150 million?

Without journalists, how do we get perspective?

The only way – and the connective tissue is very loose – to connect the $150 million to Atcon is to say they were both bad decisions. But by that standard you could compare the $150 million to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand or the war on Iraq. If a politician did that, surely journalists would not be happy.

Instead of journalists calling out the NDP for the strange comparison between public spending on roads and Atcon, they think it was a master stroke. At least, STU journalism prof Michael Camp thinks so. Although the piece is a political commentary not an article, it is clear he doesn’t feel the need to set any context either.  He praises Cardy’s use of this kind of analogy.

The final thing I would say is that politicians and journalists risk a lot by allow this kind of amped up rhetoric to go unchecked.

Cardy saying that a moderate increase in spending on public infrastructure was “one of the most irresponsible things I’ve seen in my time politics” ends up diluting the impact when he speaks about any serious issues. It’s like the boy who cried wolf. If a moderate increase in public spending on infrastructure sets a new low for irresponsibility what terms will he use when some serious issue – fraud, theft, bribery – Gomery – Rob Ford –  comes along?

Great journalists have a very sensitive nose.   They can smell b.s. coming a mile away.  Cardy’s comments should have set the crap-o-meter over the top.

 PS – I don’t read every single story or blog or commentary in the NB media.  If anyone can point me to a story where a journalist questions the use of Cardy’s Atcon analogy, post it here.  Thanks.