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Not “Our” Crisis

By: | March 9, 2016

An anti-austerity manifesto for N.L.

Hans Rollmann
To Each Their Own examines political issues impacting Newfoundland and Labrador.

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"If our provincial government is preparing to embark down [the path of austerity], we must prepare to undertake the necessary actions to stop them," writes Hans Rollmann. Artwork by Paula Graham.

What’s the point of all this grand show the provincial government is making? It’s theatre with a purpose, and that purpose is to convince us into thinking we’re all together in this fiscal mess, and that we must all take some ownership over it.

We are not, and we must not. Make no mistake — this is not our crisis. This is their crisis. Who, you ask? The small group of rich business folk who spent the past decade making poor decisions and throwing the province’s hard-won revenues out the window.

Now, faced with a ballooning deficit and no money saved, the elites of this province are engaged in a mass spectacle to convince us we are all in a crisis — one they created after the people of this province worked hard to create jobs, build communities, provide services and develop the economy.

We must not accept these absurd claims. We are not the ones who spent poorly. We are not the ones who squandered. We are not the ones who cut corporate taxes and privatized services and gave concessions to our corporate partners. These misdeeds, which have landed us where we are now, were committed by the same type of self-interested, rich business-folk who currently sit in the House of Assembly and debate whose jobs and services they will cut in order to make up for this mess they created.

Legal theft from the public purse

The truly corrupt nature of our political system becomes ever more apparent when we realize the public debt which the Liberals are bemoaning is merely being used as a smokescreen to cover a further shifting of public wealth into private hands.

It’s become a truism that there’s little difference between the PCs and the Liberals in this province, and that has become more evident than ever. Both are led by an elite class who trade government back and forth. Look at the typical profile of a Liberal or PC MHA: they work in private business, transition briefly into public government where they institute laws that benefit private business and which send public dollars into private hands, then they transition out of government back into private business to take advantage of the corporate climate they helped to perpetuate.

 The public debt which the Liberals are bemoaning is merely being used as a smokescreen to cover a further shifting of public wealth into private hands.

Spain’s recently-formed ‘Podemos’ — an anti-austerity party that has made massive gains in the face of that’s country ‘fiscal crisis’ — offers some useful insights on our own politics. In Spanish they have a name for this type of thing: turnismo. It refers to a style of 19th century politics which has come back into fashion in many countries in recent years. It’s a sort of revolving-door politics between two parties with different names but almost indistinguishable policies, where one party holds office for a term or two, then the other one has a turn (indeed, in Germany the practice of transitioning between business and political office is also directly referred to as ‘revolving door’ politics).

Neither of the parties, however, are remarkably different in practice. Superficially, one of them builds up the welfare state; the other dismantles it. (Note that the term ‘welfare state’ is used here in a positive sense—a state that provides strong, efficient public services for everyone.) The purpose of this build-up of social institutions, followed by the sell-off of these same institutions and services through privatization under conditions of ‘crisis’, is to keep the wealth in the hands of a closed political and economic elite. Building up the welfare state allows just enough of a release valve on public pressure to prevent any serious protest to the revolving-door political system, while dismantling it periodically in the name of ‘fiscal prudence’ and ‘crisis’ prevents any of the actual power from shifting to the broad mass of the public through greater economic equality.

In either case, to quote Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, “it is really a form of government in which the orders are given, in the last instance, by people who don’t stand for election” — corporate businesspeople and the bankers of credit ratings agencies.

Spectacle of crisis

Since the November election, the public has been witness to a theatre of crisis. First came the purportedly dramatic revelations of how deeply in debt the province was, with a ‘shocking’ new revelation every couple weeks. Then came the inevitable threats that things were so bad the Liberals might have to break their campaign promises (because a Liberal government’s word is only good under conditions of economic boom, apparently).

Then came the effort to implicate all the rest of us in the crisis: warnings that “we” were spending beyond our means, amid threats of downgraded credit ratings and skyrocketing debt, coupled with a ludicrous ‘public consultation’ process that consisted of crowd-sourcing ideas for what to cut. The inane and darkly comical results of those ‘consultations’, in all their transcribed glory, can be downloaded off the government website. According to these transcripts, solutions to the province’s economic woes involve such varied ideas as banning abortion, eliminating illness, eliminating agriculture, and throwing a grand provincial party in honour of Captain Cook.

The solution to our problem does not lie in coming up with clever little ideas to save a dollar here and a dollar there; the solution is to replace the elites who have been ripping off the public purse for most of this province’s short history. In the words of Iglesias, we must turn this economic crisis into a political crisis, and demand structural change that will take the public purse out of the hands of private interests.

We don’t have a fiscal problem. We have an elite problem.

The problem facing Newfoundland and Labrador is not an economic one — it’s a political one. It’s the fact that we have been, and continue to be, governed by an economic elite who legislate in ways that benefit themselves more than the public. The most glaring evidence of this is the irresponsible corporate and elite tax cuts that were introduced under the Williams government, which crippled provincial revenue at a time when we most needed to be saving it away.

Yes, the Williams government also spent extensively on education and other public services — this was the responsible part of what they did. The current crisis is not the result of this much-needed spending on public services. It is the result of the irresponsible part of what the Williams government did—of handing over the province’s tax revenue to corporations and wealthy individuals in the form of tax cuts. These were tax cuts that benefited precisely people like Dwight Ball, Cathy Bennett, Williams himself, and the other folk who comprised and continue to comprise our government.

 We must turn this economic crisis into a political crisis, and demand structural change that will take the public purse out of the hands of private interests.

To suggest the Liberals didn’t know what the province’s finances were like is ludicrous. They had every idea what they were coming into. Many of the newly elected MHAs were businesspeople who benefited from the tax cuts and other policies of the Williams era; indeed, the Liberals even embraced floor-crossing Progressive Conservatives who knew better than anyone what was going on. A simple glance through editorial headlines from the past five years reveals that everyone was fully aware of what was happening and were shouting warnings that went ignored: money was being siphoned from the public purse into the private, by means of tax cuts.

Now, the Liberals are by all accounts preparing to continue siphoning money from the public purse into the private—this time by means of public-private partnerships, which means handing over public services into private hands for private profit. It’s more of the same: a wealthy elite giving away the province’s publicly-owned wealth into the hands of private profiteers.

This is the most troubling part of the ‘crisis’: it’s not a crisis for them. Banks, transnational corporations, and wealthy business elites across the province are preparing to profit massively from the sell-off of public assets, public services, and austerity the Liberals are threatening to impose. This is not a crisis for them: it’s an opportunity. It is the average citizen who will face crisis, not the elites who caused it.

Rule of law sliding away

One characteristic of neoliberal crisis which Podemos and other anti-austerity parties point to as a warning sign is the eroding rule of law, wherein the wealthy elites enjoy a different legal standard from the average citizen.

Already we see the beginnings of this in Newfoundland and Labrador. The RNC bungling the Myles-Leger case, in which fraud charges against real estate developers were thrown out because it took police eight years to lay charges. The recent debacle at Exit Realty on the Rock—millions owed to dozens of creditors, trust accounts emptied, and recent revelations of links to multi-million dollar telemarketing scams—also reveals a situation that should have come under investigation much, much sooner.

And still there’s no sign of justice in the horrifying question of how and why a government security agent killed outspoken private citizen Don Dunphy in his own home last Easter.

Meanwhile, as the wealthy dodge trial and trade money to each other in unmarked envelopes, the law cracks down ever more ferociously on the average Newfoundlander and Labradorian. Let’s not forget Dennis Burden, the anti-Muskrat Falls protestor fined thousands of dollars for a single harmless act of symbolic, civil disobedience against a multi-billion dollar corporation.

The law looks the other way for the wealthy, but wastes no time in cracking down on a harmlessly idealistic citizen.

Toward an anti-austerity politics in Newfoundland and Labrador

Austerity drives by governments have been halted and those governments brought to their knees by popular movements around the world. From Spain to Greece to Iceland to Quebec.

If our provincial government is preparing to embark down that path, we must prepare to undertake the necessary actions to stop them. In the coming months, students and unions will no doubt be taking to the streets and the legislature to stop an elite class from continuing to stuff their pockets at public expense. It’s important they be joined by the broader public — by those who will face the consequences of cancelled surgeries, of attrition and job cuts, of higher fees and reduced services, of layoffs and reduced wages and benefits.

What demands should an anti-austerity movement in this province make? It should be based on the following principles:

  1. No cuts to social programs: education, post-secondary, social services, health care. These must be maintained at existing levels, funded through tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations, through redirected public spending, and through federal assistance.
  2. Cancel Muskrat Falls. In addition to a blight on Labrador sovereignty and a threat to Indigenous Peoples’ health and well-being, it’s a sinkhole that will continue transferring billions from the public purse into private, extraterritorial hands for years to come, and then be paid for on the backs of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.
  3. No privatization. Public services must stay in public hands, where they can be operated transparently and efficiently. Privatization and public-private partnerships lead to waste, inefficiency, and unaccountable decision-making .
  4. Greater accountability from government, in the form of holding governments accountable for their actions after they leave office, and with respect to the revolving door between business and government. Dozens of MHA’s who were responsible for the current crisis are now sitting back in the private sphere, contentedly building their private business empires while tens of thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians face misery. They must be dragged back into the public sphere and held accountable for their role in the crisis, much like legislators and bankers in Iceland were famously held accountable and some even jailed for their role in fomenting crisis in that country.
  5. Debt crisis must never trump equality. Achieving equity—for women, for Indigenous people, for rural parts of the province and all others who never benefited from the boom years the way they should have—and reducing economic inequality must be the goal of our fiscal planning, not rebuilding corporate profits for a few.

It’s time for us to draw a line in the sand, and make clear that the above demands are the minimum to which we will hold the current government for the next three and a half years.

House of Assembly N.L. Illustration by Justin Brake.

House of Assembly N.L. Illustration by Justin Brake.

“Everyone will have to accept some level of sacrifice in the months and years ahead,” announced Lt.-Gov. Frank Fagan, reading from Tuesday’s Speech From the Throne.

If only it were so. The ones responsible for this crisis have never sacrificed, and are even now scrambling to convince us to accept desperate measures designed to protect their privilege, wealth and power.

The time is past when we should accept their demands that we sacrifice for their mistakes and for their profits.

In the streets, in the legislature, and in our own workplaces and communities, the time has come to make a stand.

The theatre of crisis has offered a truly mind-boggling spectacle. But it’s time to let the actors know that the show is over.

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