The Devil is in the Details

Picture of Ted Hsu

In a time when it seems that politics is polarized beyond belief, I’m happy to say that I actually do share a few key beliefs with small “c” conservatives. I believe in spending money wisely and frugally.

Here’s a very basic example in our household: one of my favorite moments is when the last spoonful of mayonnaise is used up. It’s a simple moment, but one that says I got my money’s worth from every last drop of that purchase.

This frugal nature of mine and my interest in numbers has always led me to thinking very carefully about the purchases I make or, just as important, don’t make. This frugal nature is also, what I believe, a good MP should possess when spending other people’s money.

In fact, I believe that for an MP to make sure that his/her constituents are really getting value for their tax dollars, he/she must be willing to personally dig into the federal government’s spending numbers.

Now let me criticize something that I see all too much from politicians in Ottawa and bugs me a lot as someone with a math and science background. What bugs me is numbers thrown out with no context.

For example, when I asked the Public Safety Minister Vic Toews to provide details about the cost-savings rationale behind closing Kingston Pen and the Regional Treatment Centre, he quoted only a single number (in his latest letter to the Whig-Standard):  $52 million — the cost of running Kingston Pen in fiscal year 2010-2011 (for those interested in fun research, you can look this up in Public Accounts of Canada 2011).

Without any context, this number is meaningless and is no explanation for closing anything.

To explain what I mean, consider the fact that the cost of running Saskatchewan Penitentiary was even more: $68 million. But it’s not being closed down. The national headquarters of Correctional Services of Canada cost $294 million in 2010-2011 and I don’t believe there are even any inmates there. Toews is not proposing to close that, nor should he.

Clearly you should be analyzing what you get for each dollar you spend instead of just looking at the total number of dollars. With the minister’s decision on KP and RTC, there is missing data, missing facts, missing rationale.

Maybe there is a sound economic case for closing Kingston Pen and Regional Treatment Centre. Maybe Canada has used up every last drop of value from that old Pen. But maybe there is an even better case for renovating or re-purposing these institutions.

I say to small “c” conservatives that they should be proud of their frugal nature.  However, that is no substitute for providing facts. To the big “C” Conservatives, simply let taxpayers and families whose jobs will be disrupted see the analysis. If there is nothing to hide, and the facts play out in the minister’s favour, then he will have served his country well.

If the Conservatives cannot provide the facts and analysis, then they are simply trying to sell snake oil to the people of Canada and Kingston and the Islands.

You can read both my previous responses and Vic Toews’ letters to the Kingston Whig-Standard here.

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