My Thoughts, by Rob MacLellan
I’ve recently been invited to join the community editorial board for this paper, and I was thrilled to accept the invitation.
I’ll continue my column on education and education-related topics in the Colchester Weekly News, but in this space I’ll have an opportunity to share my thoughts with you on other topics.
Sometimes, I will throw some facts and figures at you in support of some argument. At other times, I’ll simply share my thoughts unbolstered by anything resembling facts. I do hope to generate some discussion. In a democracy, change begins with people discussing issues that affect their lives, and it is these latter issues that I will raise and discuss in this column.
People love to talk about the government, almost as much as they like to discuss the weather. The commonality here is that they are both changeable, and therefore they provide fodder for new discussions every day. It doesn’t matter the political stripe of the government of the day, or the level of government, you’ll always find people willing to argue for or against government policies and practices as well as the governing party/group itself.
Any time you have two or more people living in the same place, you have to have some rules to ensure the protection of individual rights and personal safety. Government is good for ensuring these items are covered; however, government is not content to restrict itself to these concerns, and it arguably takes its roles in these areas to some extremes. When we add in the need to pay for government, the whole issue becomes very personal very quickly. The more government we have, the more it costs us in taxes and user fees.
In early December, I watched an item on a nightly news program that really bothered me. It seems that as of Jan. 1, Moncton implemented a new law that will require adult recreational skaters to wear a helmet when they skate in public arenas. What’s the big deal, you ask? Other jurisdictions, including Nova Scotia, have helmet laws for all kinds of activities, so what is one more helmet law, and why should I care anyway, as I don’t skate? I think we need to be concerned, as it is one more unnecessary step on the part of a government to continue to intrude into our lives.
After watching this news clip, it got me to thinking about other unnecessary ways by which government insinuates itself in our daily lives, and I have come to the conclusion that we have a bit too much of it for our own good, and way more of it then we can afford. Government is a huge topic, so in this short article I’ll restrict myself to a few points.
The new helmet law noted above and many other government rules and regulations are put into place in the name of public safety. That sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? If you have fewer people cracking their heads open when they take a spill, while engaged in some activity, we’ll save lives and reduce health care costs, or so the argument goes.
On the other side of the argument are those who believe that the government should not intrude into areas that only affect individuals. As an example, it should be an individual choice to wear or not to wear a helmet when engaged in a physical activity.
Another issue that pops into my mind concerns personal property, specifically land. You’ve worked long and hard to purchase a piece of property that you and your family will enjoy. Once you have paid for it, it is yours. It seems to me that what you do with your property should be your own business, unless you’re engaged in criminal activities such operating a chop shop or running a meth lab; that’s a whole other story.
Unless it is a shed under 215 square-feet, in Colchester County, you’re not allowed to erect, renovate, or demolish buildings/structures on your only property without having first obtained the appropriate permits and/or inspections. Of course, the county will tell you that the purpose for this is to ensure that the building is constructed safely and meets the building codes. I say, it’s my shed, it’s my problem. If I go to sell the place and you don’t like it, or you don’t find it safe enough for you, don’t buy it. Many jurisdictions have rules on whether or not you can keep chickens on your property and the number of them, and others have rules on how many pets you can have. Doesn’t this seem like a bit much?
At the same time, government is always reaching into your pocket and making you pay for things in return for which you receive little or no benefit. Do the terms ‘user fees’ and ‘capital gains taxes’ sound familiar? As example, a few days ago, I received the renewal notice for the licence plate on my car along with a bill for $215.20. After paying this amount, I will receive a tiny little plastic sticker to affix to my licence plate that will legally permit my car to be on the road for the next two years, provided that I also have a current safety inspection sticker affixed to the windshield; that’s another charge. That’s a pretty expensive bit of plastic. It also represents a bit of a slap on the wrist. I’m a fan of older cars, especially big cars, and I drive one of those now. If my car was a smaller one, my renewal fee would be only $171.70; a government sanction on driving less fuel-efficient cars?
There was a time families left their properties to the next generation when they passed away, permitting family wealth to remain with the family. Today, unless it is a principal residence, those who inherit family property must pay capital gains tax to the government. In many cases, the heirs cannot afford to pay the tax without first selling the property, in which case the property is then lost to the family for both the current and future generations. What value do we receive for having paid this tax and lost this property? The government receives this windfall, having to have done nothing to earn it.
I watched the Dec. 31 yearend interview between Steve Murphy, of CTV News, and Stephen McNeil, our new Liberal premier. As McNeil spoke about his plans for the province in the coming years, Murphy pressed McNeil to use the word ‘cuts.’ McNeil refused to bite, instead saying that his government would work to increase revenues, without raising taxes, and to control costs. Controlling costs can mean a lot of things. It could mean reducing services, reducing the civil workforce, or a number of other things. We’ll have to wait and see on this one.
I do know that less government will cost us less money, but since people have grown accustomed to the services that government provides, who is going to decide about which services need to be continued, which services should be pared back and which services should be ended? For the government to provide services and enforce rules, regulations and by-laws, it needs employees. Government staff cost money, and that money comes from the public purse.
In terms of costs, how about we also consider the debt. Let’s not fool ourselves; we elect governments to do the work of governing for us, much as we hire teachers to teach our children for us. The accumulated government debts are our debts, not those of the politicians, except in their similar roles as municipal, provincial and national citizens. The more that government does in excess of the amount of revenues it garners in the form of taxes, user fees, investments and business incomes, the more the debt increases. Currently, the Nova Scotia provincial debt is in the neighbourhood of $14 billion. This is a burden for all of us, as well as for the generations of our children yet to come. I don’t know why we are not more upset about this than we are upset if we don’t see the snowplows going by the end of our driveways on a timely basis.
Most people probably spare few thoughts about accumulated government debt, but these same folks are probably only too aware of their burgeoning household debt. We like to have stuff, government services included, and because we want this stuff now, we perpetuate the notion of buy it now and pay for it later. Many people subscribe to the pay-as-you-go cell phones, so why don’t we extend this to the other facets of our lives? What happened to buying only what we can afford to buy now? Given the current federal and provincial debts, it is clear that we can’t afford the governments we have now, so maybe it’s time to think about reducing what government does for us and to us. Let’s add affordable to the term responsible government, and re-define exactly for what governments should be responsible.
Rob MacLellan is an advocate of adult education, an advocate of non-profit organizations, and a resident of Alton. He can be reached by calling 673-3269, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org