Gov’t different from business

Dear Editor:

Being a provincial politician is often a tough business. Just ask Premier Ed Stelmach. Pressures come from structures like the party, the caucus, the cabinet, urban and rural constituencies, the opposition, the bureaucracy and a range of wider, quite diversified provincial interests.

An effective premier has to gain the support, even consciously cultivate the support, of many of these groups, and still govern effectively. Governments are one of the largest organizations in the world and a provincial premier in many ways is like a chief executive officer of a large corporation. But unlike CEOs of corporations who are accountable to their boards and shareholders, premiers are accountable to a wider, often more diverse provincial electorate. That surely is one of the dilemmas that led to Mr. Stemach’s plan to resign as premier.

The business model of politics, in balancing the books, managing resources appropriately and being cost effective, is helpful up to a point but the analogy has limitations. Unlike businesses, the primary task of governments is not to make a profit. The primary task is to organize provincial resources it controls for the benefit of its people. In Mr. Stelmach’s speech prior to the release of the provincial budget he made that exact point. His budget, he said, will not gut “funding to municipalities, mothball health projects, halt school and road construction.” The proposed balanced budget will come into effect a year later than originally proposed, two years from now, in 2013.

His reasons for this seem credible. This is a time of recession, when people need jobs and the cost of loans for public projects are significantly lower that they have been since before the slump of 2008. And there’s nothing on the horizon to suggest the demand for oil will decline dramatically in the next decade.

Businesses can rarely tolerate multi-year deficits. Shareholders who expect significant dividends from investments would revolt. But government is not a business, though clearly at times it does use business practices. Those who see government exclusively as being an extension of a corporate mindset overlook the fact that government’s task is to respond to the needs of its citizens.

The word ‘public servant’ is often seen negatively but surely this merely demonstrates how little regard we have for public service. Often we see it in a small-minded way as a vehicle to power, influence, status, or financial reward. Yet resourceful and committed people, not interested primarily in accruing power or wealth, can enthusiastically work, in political roles, at dealing effectively with human needs at a community and provincial level.

Ed Stelmach, no matter what our political stripe, represents some of the qualities of being a good public servant, who recognize that dealing with the needs of the electorate is the reason they are in elected office.

George Jason