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Peer loyalties in Budget 2016

By: | May 24, 2016

It might sound too simple or gauche, but is it possible the personal wealth of Dwight Ball and Cathy Bennett might actually lie at the very heart of the budget about to go before the N.L. legislature?

Paul Butler
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Finance Minister Cathy Bennet and Premier Dwight Ball (pictured above during the 2016 budget speech on April 14) have repeatedly said they faced "tough" decisions when deciding how to address the province's almost $2 billion deficit. Photo by Brian Carey.

If the modern citizen has one overriding fear when it comes to talking about politics, it’s that they don’t want to sound too primitive, too unlearned. It’s complicated, right? Debts and deficits, economic growth, economic downtowns, fiscal restraint, crippling interest on our debt.

When a premier or finance minister explains it to us all at a press conference, looking grave, warning of hard times to come, our collective instinct is to trust they know more than we do, especially when they seem to imply it’s all our fault. We lived high on the hog too long. We’ve lived beyond our means and now we must pay for it.

So when the “shock and awe” budget came to Newfoundland and Labrador a few weeks ago, when cutbacks dropped like bombs on so many different targets at once, there was perhaps a moment of inaction. What to protest and how: Loss of dental care for seniors? Loss of the air-lift food subsidy to Labrador? The levy, bizarrely shouldered by near-minimum wage earners more than by high earners? 

Economists have since argued persuasively for alternatives to austerity. Job budgets don’t necessarily make the sky fall. But somehow the single-minded strength of the mantra “hard decisions” is immune to theory. There’s a self-flagellating directness to the Ball-Bennett tough talk. We’ve been living on champagne and truffles too long. Now we have to pay. 

The more natural alternative, a counter argument with the same primitive visceral power as “hard decisions”, is simpler. Dwight Ball and Cathy Bennett are millionaires. No one is ignorant of this fact, and some even say so publicly. But, of course, these critics sound primitive, don’t they? They sound unlearned.

But should they? 

The Nalcor CEO’s seven figure severance was passed over briefly as a contractual obligation. The government’s hands were tied, we were told. This, it transpires, is not true. Meantime, rural libraries, some of them a day or more roundtrip journey from the nearest alternative public library (example, Fogo Island Public Library) are threatened with closure. The people who work, mostly part-time, in those libraries earn something in the region of $20,000 a year. The people who rely on these libraries for internet connections, for access to government forms and job applications do not have internet access at home. Many of them have low incomes.

 When was the last time Dwight Ball visited one of our province’s public libraries for personal use?

Millionaires do not automatically make poor leaders — as long as they are not out of touch. If they are empathetic people with a commitment to ongoing research and to listening before they act, there is no reason why their decisions should be unsound. But if they lack empathy and make assumptions, and more crucially still, if they do not think beyond the interest of their peer group, then we are in trouble. The peer group of millionaires is rather narrow.

When was the last time Dwight Ball visited one of our province’s public libraries for personal use? Does he or his finance minister even know anyone who relies on our library system? The closest they come to a connection is likely Bennett’s minimum wage-earning employees. When was the last time Bennett overnighted or even visited in the fly-in community of Black Tickle, which relies on its sole nurse practitioner (slated for withdrawal after the budget is passed)? Do Bennett or Ball socialize with anyone whose household earns less than, say, $50,000?  

These questions hardly need to be asked because we all know the answers. But the answers wouldn’t matter so much if we could be confident these politicians were imaginative and curious by nature. It wouldn’t matter if they were committed to life-long learning beyond their own specific ambitions. If they were, they could step out of their experience. If they were, they would be less inclined to dismiss everyone with their patronizing mantra “hard decisions”.

Paul Butler is a Newfoundland-based author. His blog is www.paulbutlernovelist.wordpress.com.

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