It’s not hard to tell that an election is around the corner.
A quick look at my Facebook newsfeed tells me all I need to know. ‘Friend’ invites from prospective candidates I don’t even know are pouring in, while the many confirmed candidates I do know are adding dozens of new friends daily like their careers depended on it (well, I suppose they do).
Indeed, I can almost predict who’s about to announce their candidacy, based on the acceleration rate of their new online ‘friend’ships. Not to mention the Twitter’ing candidates, who are tweeting the most intimate details of their lives away, every hour on the hour: from the flavour of their oatmeal to what they think of the newscaster’s hairstyle. (note to the candidates: there ARE some things that we don’t need to know about you. If you wouldn’t tell a TV camera crew, please don’t tell us)
It’s mostly good though: I don’t disapprove. It’s about time we saw candidates embrace 21st century technology, and in a strange way it does make you feel a greater sense of excitement and momentum.
And, for the first time in years, it might actually be an exciting election. The NDP and Liberals are virtually tied in the polls, and the PC’s are dropping like a stone thanks to their disastrous “let’s-make-friends-with-Harper” strategy, which has yet to produce any sort of benefits (or even a civil dialogue). Indeed, even if (as I suspect) the federal and provincial governments are waiting until September to announce a pre-election loan guarantee for the Lower Churchill, even that won’t be enough to balance out the damage already done to this province by the Harper government Premier Dunderdale supported. Between the closure of search and rescue facilities in this province, the devastating cuts to DFO, federal support for Quebec’s claim to the Old Harry natural gas reserves, not to mention pending reform to the Senate and Parliament which will see more mainland seats added, reducing this province’s already pitifully low level of federal representation, it’s hard to see how a loan guarantee (not even a grant, but a guarantee to allow us to proceed with getting in debt) will balance out the ledger.
The only thing we’re missing, it seems, is any real campaign issues.
But, whatevs. There’s nothing new in a provincial government being taken for fools by the federal one. The point is that this could be an exciting election.
The PC’s still have Danny’s legacy propelling them. They’ve built some of the strongest and most progressive social programs anywhere in Canada, and driven hard, tough bargains with the oil and resource development companies to benefit the province. These are things to be proud of. I’m sure they’ll soon start coming up with some campaign ideas of their own (and smartening up to the fact that Stephen Harper will never, ever be their friend, no matter how many toys they give him). Come on dudes, get with it: I’ve voted for you before, and I’m sure I’d be able to vote for you again, if only you’d smarten up.
The NDP, meanwhile, is already neck-and-feet into campaigning, with a more visible presence than ever before and a promising new team that’s no doubt buoyed with confidence stemming from their party’s strong performance in the federal election (a performance led by voters right here at home).
And even the Liberals have some principled rabble-rousers putting themselves forth as candidates.
The only thing we’re missing, it seems, is any real campaign issues.
Um, can we have some vision please?
Oh sure, there’s the Lower Churchill. To develop or not to develop? The Liberals tried to make this a key campaign issue, but little has come of that.
And there are other issues slowly coming out. The Liberals have put forth a strong platform around supporting seniors – very laudable, and about time parties started taking seniors’ needs seriously.
The NDP are developing a platform around strengthening our shipbuilding industries (in response to the unforgivable failure of everybody involved to try to get a piece of the huge federal shipbuilding funds when they had a chance).
And all of these are important, but there’s no cohesive vision here. A little bit of spending here and there, or shifting spending around, is not going to do much to prepare us for the dramatic changes coming in a few years’ time.
Where’s the vision, people?
All the debate around whether or not to develop the Lower Churchill – and how to do it – is ultimately pretty irrelevant so long as we’d be developing a resource whose revenues would be squandered like we’re squandering the oil. Natural resource revenue is finite. It will come to an end, sooner or later. In our case, that end is coming sooner and sooner. And we’ve done little to ensure a long-term sustainable future. Part of that future involves paying off our debt while we can, and building infrastructure, yes. But most importantly of all, we need to start investing our natural resource revenue into a legacy fund that will continue paying off long after the oil, and the nickel, and the iron and the uranium and all the rest of it is (just like the cod and the turbot and the groundfish, and now the shellfish): all gone.
So come on candidates: where’s the commitment to establishing a natural resource-based legacy fund?
Legacy Fund: our real last chance
This is our last chance, people. I’ve written about the need to create a legacy fund (also referred to as sovereign wealth fund) before. For those who are unfamiliar, the idea is simple: you deposit your surplus natural resource revenue into an investment fund. With the size of that investment, it grows quickly, and becomes its own self-sustaining form of revenue, even after the resources (i.e. oil) are used up. Norway, for instance, only started investing its surplus oil revenue in such a fund in 1990, and theirs is currently worth more than $500 billion.
That could be us.
For a legacy fund to start building the amount of investment revenue to produce lucrative returns, we need to start investing while our natural resource revenue is still flowing and still flowing well. This means not only oil, but mining, hydroelectric: the lot. And given that this is our last election for the next four years – during which time we will reach our peak oil production and peak labour boom – this is our last chance to wrangle a commitment from the future government to create a legacy fund. No matter which parties that future government will be comprised of.
We now have a chance – one golden, shining chance – to put plans in motion that will change the course of our history.
Short-term thinking has been the bane of Newfoundland and Labrador for as long as any of us can remember. We have a tendency to go for the quick short-term fix without any real idea how we’re going to manage 5 or 10 years down the road, and just trust blindly that somehow we’ll muddle through. And for the most part we have, thanks to our creativity, ingenuity, and solidarity. It’s not really surprising: survival has been a struggle here in the North Atlantic, and when you’re struggling to survive you learn to focus on the immediate future; you have no luxury to plan long-term. But we now have a chance – one golden, shining chance – to put plans in motion that will change the course of our history. That will establish a source of revenue – of fiscal and social security – which, if managed wisely, will not be dependent on the unpredictability of natural resources and international corporate investment. One that will grow into a solid fiscal backbone on which we can build a society to be truly proud of. When our ancestors voted to a split tie over confederation back in 1949, their votes were split but the dream both sides had was the same: a prosperous, secure future for Newfoundland and Labrador. And that is finally within our grasp: but only for a brief moment, and if we do not take action on it now, we will lose yet another opportunity to the cruel waves of history.
It is vital that we make this an election issue. Actually, it’s vital that we make this THE election issue. The cat’s out of the bag, and people are talking more and more widely about the need for a legacy fund. I’ve been going to meetings and forums about Newfoundland and Labrador’s future for the past decade now, and finally people are openly talking about how urgent it is that we set one up.
But seriously. You know how things work here. People will talk endlessly, and unless somebody or something forces their hand, we’ll keep talking about the need for a legacy fund until the oil is gone and all the rest of it too.
We need to make a stand here, with this election. We need to take advantage of the fact all three parties are more competitive with each other than any time in the past decade, and we need to force them to commit to creating a legacy fund with their first budget in 2012.
This is something we can actually accomplish. It’s something no party has actually said they oppose; all parties have hinted is a good thing, but no party has shown the commitment – the leadership – to actually say they’ll put the work into making it happen. No wonder: it’ll restrict their own ability to spend freely of that resource revenue. But that’s a good thing. It’s a responsible thing. We need to start investing some of that revenue into a fund for our future, as responsible jurisdictions like Norway, Alaska, Singapore and elsewhere have done.
So let’s put our politicians to work. We have two and a half months to make this the election issue, and to wrangle a commitment from each of the three parties to establish a legacy/sovereign wealth fund within the year.
Our future, and the future of Newfoundland and Labrador, could very well depend on it.