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Could You Be Finance Minister? Take Our Quiz!

And learn how Carole Taylor made $446 million seem like nearly $2 billion.

By Will McMartin 3 Oct 2006 | TheTyee.ca
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Taylor: Special way with numbers.

A new school year has begun, and across British Columbia thousands of students are pondering career opportunities that await them upon graduation.

Some will have their hearts set on a profession such as the law, accounting, teaching or medicine. Others will be eyeing a trade, perhaps bricklaying or carpentry. A few will look to administrative or service positions, and many will become self-employed. A handful may even dream of joining the circus.

But some are not certain of what they might do upon leaving school. To these individuals the Tyee poses a question: have you ever thought of being B.C.'s minister of finance?

Consider the life

The pay is attractive. Your workplace will be a spacious office in a historic building in Victoria with a lovely view of the city's inner harbour. Best of all, you will be treated with courtesy and respect by a wide array of people.

Your assistants and staff will bow and scrape and call you "minister" (to your face, at least). Cabinet colleagues will be courteous and respectful because they won't want you to cut the funding for their departments or pet programs. Lose funding, lose face. Backbenchers will do anything -- seriously, anything! -- to get your attention. And members of the news media, nearly all of whom react to numbers the way Superman does to kryptonite, will gaze at you in open-mouthed wonderment as you effortlessly recite statistics or confidently refer to a PowerPoint presentation. (Some may even swallow their gum.)

To find out if you have the intellectual capacity and math aptitude required for this unique career opportunity, The Tyee invites you to participate in our exclusive quiz: "Do You Have What It Takes To Be B.C.'s Finance Minister?"

A perfect score means that you are an ideal candidate to be minister of finance; you really ought to consider a career in politics. A single incorrect answer, however, means that you are unlikely to succeed in this field. You may want to get some practical work experience as, say, a stock promoter or a casino worker, to prepare you to take the test again a few years from now.

1. Aptitude

Here is the first section of our three-part quiz. It will determine if you have the traits needed for the job. Just answer each question with a simple "yes" or "no"

The correct answer to all three questions is "yes." If you answered "no" even once, you failed. And these were the easy questions! You'd best forget about having a career in politics, ever. Those who answered each in the affirmative, please continue to the second part of the quiz.

2. Fiscal History 101

This section deals with notable examples of fiscal fudging in British Columbia. Again, please answer each question with a simple "yes" or "no."

If you answered "yes" to these questions, well done! Not only do you have the skills to be a budding finance minister, at the very least you might want to consider a career as a political consultant, a lobbyist or an advertising executive. And for those who answered "no" to any of these questions, please, there is no point in continuing. You'll just be wasting our time.

3. Current affairs

You've now arrived at the third and final part of our Tyee quiz. While the first section dealt with aptitude, and the second referred to recent history, this component is based upon present-day politics and finance. It's tough. Take your time.

We call it: "Could You Manufacture a Frightening Fiscal Crisis out of Thin Air (so as to frighten newspaper editorialists and radio talk-show hosts who in turn will scare British Columbians into thinking that the government must implement dramatic changes to the public health system)?"

Or, as it's known around The Tyee office, "We're Doomed!"

Below are three multiple-choice questions. Choose the answer that you believe is correct.

The correct answer is (c) "almost $2 billion."

Confused? Of course you are. According to British parliamentary tradition, and even B.C.'s own Financial Administration Act, the legislature only may approve expenditures for one fiscal year. (It's called the "principle of annuality," and is practised in democratic countries around the world.)

In the current fiscal year, B.C.'s Legislative Assembly approved a health expenditure increase of just $446 million. That's all.

But Gordon Campbell's government presents three-year spending plans with each annual budget. So this spring, while the budget for the current year lifts health spending by $446 million, it also outlines an increase of $237 million next year (2007-08), plus another $138 million in the year after that (2008-09).

The latter two increases have not been approved by the legislature, and they may never occur. But that hasn't stopped the BC Liberals from claiming credit for them.

Moreover, where most people -- you know, taxpayers, and other simple, honest folk -- would calculate the three-year increase at $821 million ($446 million + $237 million + $138 million), the Campbell government adds up those same numbers and arrives at $1,950 million. (See pp. 11 and 20 of Budget and Fiscal Plan, 2006/07-2008/09, here.)

That's because they figure that the $446 million will be spent this year, and then it will be spent again next year along with the $237 million. And in the final year, the $446 million and $237 million will form a base for the $138 million. You add it up like this: $446 million + $446 million + 237 million + $446 million + $237 million + $138 million.

Got that? The new, improved total is $1.95 billion.

Just like that -- presto! -- a rather modest funding lift of $446 million has been transformed into a gargantuan boost of "almost $2 billion."

(Do not try this at home. If you measured the growth of your children in this fashion, they'd be over 20 feet tall by the time they left home, and your grocery bills would be huge!)

Sorry for the trick question; the correct answers are both (b) and (c). Remember, the objective is to create the perception of a looming catastrophe.

If you are this far in the quiz, you're smart enough to know that the answer is "c." Moreover, you probably know that the chart not only showed health costs rising at eight per cent annually, but it kept education expenditures to just three per cent per year, and held every other category of spending to less than zero -- less than zero! -- in every year.

Not surprisingly, the finance chart showed that health care, by 2017-18, would consume three-quarters of the government budget, while education will eat the remaining quarter. Nothing will be left for anything else.

Oh, please, will somebody save us?

You're a natural!

Congratulations to those of you who got this far in the quiz. You passed! Join the party of your choice. There's a future for you.

It is evident that not just anyone can be a B.C. finance minister. Indeed, only 42 men and three women have held the post since our province joined Confederation in 1871. A few presided over the province's finances for inordinately long periods of time -- John Hart and W.A.C. Bennett for 18 years apiece -- but many measured their tenure in mere months. You just never know when there might be a vacancy.

On the other hand, what's the point of any of us thinking about future career opportunities in British Columbia? As Gordon Campbell is saying, there's a fiscal tidal wave coming toward us. We're freaking doomed!

Veteran political consultant and analyst Will McMartin is a regular columnist for The Tyee.

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