Monday, 24 November 2014

BEGGING THE AUDITOR GENERAL TO SHOW COURAGE (PART II)

There is little doubt the A-G is deeply concerned over the state of the Province’s finances. In his 2014 Report to the House of Assembly, gravitas is expressed over our dependency on petroleum revenues, the structural deficit, the growing debt, a declining GDP, and other issues.  

Premier Davis would have us believe recent Administrations have exhibited sound fiscal stewardship and there is no need for change. The truth is the Williams’ years, and since, have been marked by a level of financial recklessness that is not only repugnant; it will take years to repair.   

The purpose of this Blog is to not just chastise unwise and undisciplined politicians.  It seeks to illuminate serious public policy issues. The A-G's Report needs plenty of light.

The statements that follow are extracts from the 2014 Auditor General’s Report, specifically Chapter I entitled “Comments of the Auditor General” and Chapter 5, “The Financial Condition of the Province”.  I think those selections represent his most prescient “observations”. (Click on this Link and go to Chapter 5 for more details.)

In my concluding comments I beg, yes, beg the Auditor General to display the utmost courage and uncloak Nalcor CEO Ed Martin and the Muskrat Falls project. First, the Auditor General has the floor:
Public Spending
·         Since 2005, the Province’s expenses have grown from $5.0 billion to $7.9 billion in 2014, an increase of $2.9 billion, or 58.0%.

·         Per capita expenses in Newfoundland and Labrador are approximately 45% higher than the average of all other provinces and are the highest of all the provinces in Canada.

Demography and Population
·         The population of Newfoundland and Labrador is getting older.

·         In 1971, the percentage of the population that was 60 years of age or older was 9%, while in 2013, 25% of the population is 60 years of age or older. Meanwhile, the percentage of the population that is under 15 years of age has declined from 37% in 1971 to 14% in 2013. Furthermore, in 2026 it is forecasted that 33% of the population will be 60 years of age or older, while 15% of the population will be under 15 years of age.

Muskrat Falls
·         The size and complexity of the development creates considerable risk that the Province and the proponents will have to carefully manage during the construction phase.

GDP Growth
·         Real GDP is virtually unchanged from $29.7 billion in 2007 to a forecast amount of
$29.9 billion in 2014. Real GDP is forecast to decline from 2014 to 2016.

·         The current softness in commodity prices has the potential to significantly impact the
forecast deficit in 2014-15 and the Province’s plan to return to surplus by 2015-16.

Surplus
·         The cumulative value of surpluses recorded by the Province from 2004-05 to 2013-14 of
$4.6 billion was almost entirely the result of payments received under the Atlantic    
 Accord arrangements.

Deficits and Debt
·          The forecast deficit of $538 million in 2014-15, will be the third deficit in a row.

·          Net Debt of the Province at March 31, 2014 was $9.1 billion.

·          By March 31, 2016, Net Debt will likely exceed $10 billion.


Offshore Revenue
•     In 2013-14, oil royalties were $2.1 billion, or 28.4% of total revenues. In 2011-12, 
oil royalties peaked at almost $2.8 billion.

•    The impact of the offshore sector on the overall revenues of the Province is even greater 
considering that a significant portion of corporate income tax, personal income tax, and 
other direct, indirect or induced revenues result directly from activity in the offshore sector 
as well.

Oil Production 
·         Annual production of offshore oil has shown a downward trend since 2007.

The Public Sector Pension Plan
·         Beneficiaries under the Public Service Pension Plans have increased by 17,000, or 33%,
since 2004.

·         Since 2007-08, the unfunded liability has increased by 117%, and as a result, at March 31, 2014 the total unfunded liability is now greater than it was at March 31, 2005, despite in excess of $3.6 billion in special payments over that period.

         ...employee future benefits expense has increased from $233 million in 2007-08 to $890 million in 2013-14 - an increase of $657 million or 282%.

·          Recent negotiated changes to the Public Service Pension Plan may impact the annual expense, however, the magnitude is uncertain at this time.


What do we make of these observations?

First, I suggest they need to be weighed in the context of the comments contained in Part I of this two part series. The A-G is less crusader than he is economic historian. The Province needs a champion providing oversight of its fundamental economic and financial interests.  

Second, on the Muskrat Falls project, the A-G warns that Nalcor "will have to carefully manage during the construction phase". With respect, that is empty rhetoric.  

Skilful oversight is the only way the worst impacts of the largest publicly funded construction project in the Province's history can be contained.  The A-G must know that the project is on a cost path that will dramatically increase the public debt and impair the Government's budgetary obligations. The A-G needs to expose Nalcor's excesses, examine the contracts already let, and analyse the extent to which they expose the public purse to unfettered risk.  He also needs to slam the Government for its "sham" oversight Committee.

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Related Reading:
A-G's REPORT IMPORTANT BUT NOT COMPLETE (PART I)
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While the media continues its preoccupation with traffic tie-ups and weather, we rely on a few institutions like the Office of the A-G, ordained by Statute, to stay above what Thomas Hardy calls the “madding crowd”.  

If the A-G wishes to avoid history’s condemnation, he will express more than the equivalent of a "tut, tut" over the Government's unbridled excess; he will stiffen his spine and head over to examine Nalcor’s books.  He will unabashedly exhibit the moral courage that should always be a hallmark of his Office.  

The A-G's reluctance may be connected with the right given the Nalcor CEO to restrict publication of information he deems "commercially sensitive". That is not a reason to be fearful or to hide. On the contrary, any dark corner where the expenditure of huge dollops of public money is conducted, in secret, is where we should find him.  

If Ed Martin wishes to restrict information the A-G deems appropriate for public viewing, let him. The A-G has the right and obligation to report the same to the House of Assembly and to the public thereby.  

Muskrat is a project once "sold" as a $6.2 billion investment.  At last update, the figure has reached $8.3 billion including interest during construction.  Nalcor's monthly reports fail to note schedule slippage and continuing cost overruns. Some highly placed engineers suggest Muskrat is a project heading towards a final cost of $13 billion; others place the figure at 2.5 times the estimate at DG-2.  The implications of such an outcome are staggering. The obligation of the A-G to spring into action is incontestable.  

I beg you to show some courage, Sir.

4 comments:

  1. Unfortunately, I see the AG as not having what it takes to provide a complete and thorough report on the current state of the province's financial affairs. Not that he lacks the technical or mental capacity, but more of not wanting to totally sink the current government's ship, which most recognize as being well below the waterline at this point. Should he surprise me and do as you have suggested, Paul Davis and his team of less than competent PC caucus members will be totally eliminated in the next provincial election. Rumor has it, that an election call will be made prior to the next provincial budget. To do otherwise, will leave them no wiggle room when trying to convince the electorate that they deserve another term in office and a steady as she goes approach is just fine.

    I hope the next election will provide an opportunity for stronger leadership and most importantly and opportunity for the incoming government to purge the management team at Nalcor. It is only after that action is taken will the people in this province have an opportunity to see just how poorly they have performed and what it will mean for generations to come. They continue to show just how poorly they manage Nalcor when we still do not have the new or should I say refurbished generator with out of date software at Holyrood and I expect power outages and rationing to occur in the coming months. It will interesting to see how Mr. Davis deals with that event.

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  2. Again, the issue of Muskrat Falls and its inevitable doubling in costs will dominate our existence for decades. There is little doubt that we are nowhere close to the final costs for this project and it will exceed $10 billion, at a minimum. A final cost of $12-14 billion would not surprise me but that figure is almost too frightening to contemplate in a province with an aging population, finite resources, a profligate government with its head buried in its collective behind, and a compliant electorate.

    Furhermore, the office of the A-G(Auditor-General), the watchdog of public expenditures, should be completely and utterly above the machinations of politicians so it is time, as you say, for the A-G to act in accordance with the mandate of that office. That should give him carte blanche to examine each and every public institution in the province, notwithstanding NALCOR's clock of secrecy and public pronouncements about "commercial sensitivity". In my opinion, their secrecy is a smokescreen for their lack of competency in managing a project that is completely off the rails and one whose final outcome will be a fiscal wreck of historic proportions.

    The other aspect of this Muskrat Falls scenario that truly bothers me is the way in which the Opposition parties have capitulated to big business interests and are now complicit in this deal. There was a time when the Liberals fully opposed this project, but now….they talk about managing the risk. In my opinion, it will be too late to manage the risk when the the project is completed and the we are saddled with a $10 billion plus headache. They are likely the ones who will be saddled with the fallout from that headache but this it will affect everyone else as well.

    There is still a limited window to stop the project….although the cost will be a heavy burden…but not nearly as much as the continuation of the project, no matter what the final cost.

    It is time for the ordinary person to speak out and for people to stop hiding behind the excuse that they don't know enough about it. The information is out there but we have been sleep walking through this crazy scheme.

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  3. Sleep walking through this is a lot less painful and depressing! Or, Ignorance is Bliss if you like.

    I agree it is time for people to speak out, but I think it's going to take a very large, well-organized, noisy bunch to accomplish anything on this. My MHA is Steve Kent, just as well for me to turn around and talk to the wall behind me. Maybe when the next general election rolls around, hopefully sooner rather than later, there ~might~ be ~someone~ running for one of the other parties who'd be receptive to my concerns on this. Where else to turn? Maybe if a bunch of people start prodding Cochrane and others? Open to suggestions.

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  4. Its hard to believe that the current AG or, former DM of Finance and Treasury Board has found religion in his new role. His calls for plans to deal with the current situation should be perfectly mature and ripe now if he had sown anything remotely related while he occupied his former role.

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