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PC shock therapy will kill this province, not balance its books

in To Each Their Own by

In a classic case of ‘listen to what we say not what we do’, the Progressive Conservative government—which repeatedly assured the public in the lead-up to budget day that it would “avoid precipitous cuts”—last week slammed the province with an austerity budget that will negatively impact the economy, deteriorate the quality and accessibility of the public services we use, and continue the counter-productive trend of profits-for-a-few over equality and decency for our province and its people. In this week’s column, we reflect on some of the highlights of this low point in political governance.

Budget day week

It went from “budget day” to “budget week” — with a series of announcements that did little to mitigate the pain or devastating impact of the Davis budget, instead prolonging it into a tortured death of a few thousand cuts.

First, the Davis government cut dozens of teaching jobs (and increased class sizes), tasking an already over-burdened and under-resourced system with having to ‘do more with less’. There is no such thing as doing ‘more with less’. What that means is more children learn less, which simply binds the province to a cycle of low performance, greater illiteracy and reduced prospects for future generations.

Next, the Davis government announced it was cutting 1,420 jobs from the public service, patting itself on the back for doing it through attrition as though this should earn it accolades from the public. Unions have been quick to point out the devastating impact of the cuts on the public service and on employment in the province, but even that does not fully capture the scope of the problem.

These are not only lost jobs — every lost job means reduced services being delivered by government. Given that we all use government services, we will now see our wait times increase, lineups for services grow, and reductions in the services that are offered. When public service jobs are cut, we all suffer.

And then, building their destructive momentum, the Davis government announced an intensified privatization of long-term care facilities. The public reaction—swift and overwhelmingly negative, with the exception of fringe groups like the Employers’ Council which represent those who stand to directly profit from this move—demonstrates that everyone except government seems to realize and accept that public-private partnerships are an outdated and wasteful model of public service delivery.

So it was a brutal week for this province. Throughout it all, the PCs insisted they would not deliver a shock to the system. But their actions proved the opposite.

The sins of Paul Davis

The tragic irony of the public service cuts announcement earlier in the week was underscored by the somber events which occurred that same day as part of the National Day of Mourning for workers killed or injured on the job.

In a solemn ceremony of wreath-laying at Confederation Building, honouring the lives of those workers killed on the job this year—11 in workplace accidents, and 18 from occupational diseases—a white-haired priest delivered a solemn prayer to the packed crowd which overflowed the foyer.

“God grant us the wisdom to enact legislation to protect workers on the job,” intoned the priest.

Either Paul Davis was denied God’s wisdom, or he’s chosen the sinning lifestyle, because his government’s announcement of privatized care facilities that very morning is precisely the sort of legislation which leads to heightened dangers for workers; privatized services are notorious for cutting corners on health and safety. Moreover, it will also endanger the poor seniors and family members who inhabit the privatized care homes, given that privatized care tends to be of lower quality than fully public care.

Conflict, and interest

To add insult to injury, it appears we’ve got to get the British Columbians to teach us how to run our public—oops, privatized—services. Partnership BC will be facilitating the transition to this private model. If the name sounds familiar, it might be from being in the news for undertakings like the Golden Ears Bridge project, a public private partnership that went massively over budget, had to be bailed out by taxpayers, and has been losing tens of millions of dollars a year. And earlier this year the BC Finance Ministry produced a review of the agency that was highly critical of some of its activities, flagging “issues of conflict of interest, dubious practices and questionable assumptions in the multi-billion-dollar program.” Add to that the enormous consultancy costs the agency charges — “hundreds of dollars an hour”. We may look forward to seeing what creative way the BC agency will find to drain this province’s coffers as it restructures our public services to perform more poorly at greater cost.

The self-interest which lies behind this move was demonstrated perfectly by those who spoke out to defend it. Paul Oram, former minister of health, now runs two private care homes, and championed the move in media from his clear position of bias. How many private care homes will the present members of government own in five years’ time, deriving personal profit from the delivery of care to our province’s elderly?

This is a more serious issue than it’s been previously treated as. When governments offer public services, we know they are acting in the best interests of the public, or at least trying to. But when they open the door to privatization and public-private partnerships, we must start to ask exactly who winds up profiting from these measures. Can an MHA who owns or has investments in a care home vote honestly and conscientiously about public health care? Can an MHA who owns businesses in Cuba honestly debate trade policy and tariffs? Can an MHA who owns businesses that employ Temporary Foreign Workers or minimum wage employees honestly vote on labour issues? There was, in our less politically mature days, a simplistic attitude that businesspeople understand business and thus make good MHAs. But now we risk the opposite problem: businesspeople getting elected to government and then using their position to private advantage, at the expense of the public who elected them.

Looking for saviours (paid by the hour)…

One of the most insidious parts of the budget has been one of the least talked about. Not only must the provincial government call in the British Columbians to privatize care for our seniors, but with an entire Department of Finance it apparently can’t trust itself to do its own finances. Government says, “We will appoint an external consultant with the expertise to examine the structure of the provincial government and its agencies for efficiency improvements.”

An external consultant? How much more knowledge does an external consultant have than the local staff who have lived and breathed provincial finances for years? “External consultant” is a catch-phrase that’s come to be associated with efficiency, but it’s a remarkably inefficient and uneducated way to review what you do. It’s roughly like calling in a perfect stranger to live in your home with you for 24 hours, and on the basis of what they see, issue a report along with new rules for how you conduct your marriage, your parenting practices, and your personal finances. Would any of us accept such a proposal? No. And so we shouldn’t allow such an anarchic policy to be applied to our provincial finances.

The budget goes on to say: “This consultant will help us answer questions such as: Why does it cost 45 per cent more in this province than in certain other jurisdictions to deliver the services people need?”

All right, back up now. Do you remember that childhood game ‘telephone’? Where you and 30 other people form a circle, the first person whispers something to their neighbour, who whispers it to their neighbour, and so forth, and by the time it gets back to the first person the phrase has become totally garbled? This “45 per cent more” statistic is the public policy equivalent of that.

 How much more knowledge does an external consultant have than the local staff who have lived and breathed provincial finances for years?

Back in February, the Employers’ Council (remember them, the ones who want to privatize everything?) issued a press release announcing, with a sense of shock and horror, that the provincial government spends $15,000 per person in this province. Nice! We pay taxes, we work hard, we vote in elections, we help our neighbours, and we get $15,000 worth of public services (on average) every year: health care, education, sidewalks, law and order. Not bad! Go province!

Only, the Employers’ Council objects to the fact that this is more than other provinces spend on their citizens (poor them!) — 45 per cent more, to be precise.

And thus, in a mere few months, the wonderful and delightful fact that we have a government which redistributes more of its money back into public services than any other province—which is more accountable to its people, in other words, than any other province—has been garbled into the misleading and incorrect claim that we are 45 per cent less efficient than other provinces and require an external consultant to come in and save us from the democratic government that we collectively elected.

“And, how can we innovate to deliver those services more effectively?” is the question government will task that (highly-paid, unelected and unaccountable) consultant to determine. Which translates as only one thing: How can we cut the services we provide to our people?

What’s old is new is old again

"It is as impossible to ['provide better services for less money'] as to produce bigger pizzas with less dough, or clothe more people with fewer pants," says Hans Rollmann, in response to Finance Minister Ross Wiseman's statement in the 2015 Budget Speech that, “In a new culture of cost management, [government] will constantly strive to provide better services for less money.” Photo by Graham Kennedy.
Finance Minister Ross Wiseman in 2015 Budget Speech: “In a new culture of cost management, we will constantly strive to provide better services for less money.” Photo by Graham Kennedy.
One of the most counter-intuitive things about the budget is the way old ideas are constantly recycled and labelled new. This is almost as ridiculous as the construction of phrases which are fundamentally contradictory. For instance, take this line from the budget speech:

“In a new culture of cost management, we will constantly strive to provide better services for less money.”

First of all, there is nothing new about a “culture of cost management”. It’s the same tired old slogan that’s been slapped on budget announcements since the 1990s, and it is just as vague and meaningless today as it was 20 years ago.

Second, it is flatly impossible “to provide better services for less money.” It is as impossible to do that as to produce bigger pizzas with less dough, or clothe more people with fewer pants. This sort of gibberish is akin to saying, ‘We’ll produce double the cars using half the tires!’ Let’s at least be honest: less money will lead to worse services. If that’s necessary, then at least be truthful; don’t dress it up by saying that we can fill more bellies with less food. People are not stupid, but might be willing to sacrifice a bit if you make a reasonable case for it and if they trust you and believe that the outcome will indeed be in their best interests.

Oil, oil, oil. Enough about oil!

The worst thing about Budget 2015 is that it reveals the government has not yet begun to move past its obsessive fixation with oil. Let’s be clear:

Oil is not our future.

It cannot, and must not, be the basis of our future economic planning. Yes, it provided some extra dollars in the early 2000s. It continues to provide some revenue today, and shall undoubtedly provide extra revenue in the future too. We may be grateful for this, and try to use this extra money wisely.

But it cannot be the basis of our economy.

Something so unpredictable and volatile, and so destructive to our environment (Newfoundland, an island, is one of the more vulnerable places in the world to suffer from future climate change, from eroded coastlines and sea level rise to exterminated fisheries), cannot be the basis of our future. We must urgently transition our economy off of oil and onto other industries: technology, innovation, eco-tourism. The current quandary we’re in—itself the product of addictive oil-fueled fantasies—demonstrates the urgency of this.

 Something so unpredictable and volatile, and so destructive to our environment, cannot be the basis of our future.

Yet Budget 2015 reveals our government is nowhere near doing so. Instead, it tells us reassuringly: “all forecasters agree on one thing—the price of oil is coming back.”

To prove it, the government consulted 11 different forecasters. One of these forecasters provided a composite index of 26 other forecasters. Finance Minister Ross Wiseman rattled these “forecasters” off as proudly and confidently as a medieval court magician proudly announcing the consensus of a dozen astrologers, whose interpretations of the planetary alignments all concurred. Or a modern-day Nero, proudly proclaiming the prophecies of high priests who’d consulted the entrails of sacrificial lambs (or seals, perhaps) and discovered the future holds glory and greatness, although we must suffer a few years of skewed taxes and poor services to get there. Convenient prediction, hey?

The other problem with the government’s orientation toward oil—and energy generally—is that it consumes all their attention, as well as their confidence for the future. Take some other phrases from the budget: “Newfoundland and Labrador is well on its way to becoming an energy powerhouse”, “our energy policy is commercially focused”, “the long-term potential for oil”, “any time it rains in Newfoundland we’re making money”, “the crown jewel in Newfoundland and Labrador’s energy powerhouse”. This is not responsible government — this is a government which has been bedazzled by the gaudy robes of its court astrologers and their “forecasts” and is now unable to make sensible, rational decisions that don’t involve visions of energy greatness.

Talking taxes

The increase to the HST has already been loudly condemned from all corners. Unlike corporate taxes or income taxes on the rich, which properly target the wealthy instead of the poor and middle class, it is a ‘regressive’ or flat tax which means that it is applied equally to everyone, and therefore those with low or fixed incomes suffer disproportionately because they have less ability to absorb it in their daily budgets.

Government is increasing tax breaks for low-income earners, which is something, but not enough. But the truly nefarious nature of this move was revealed in the budget speech, during which Minister Wiseman proclaimed—as though he were proud of it—“It is broadly based, so the burden is distributed over the entire population base.” Say what? Why should the burden be spread over the entire population? The problem arises from a minority of the population—the wealthy and corporations—having gotten away with highway robbery in the form of tax breaks over the past decade. So why should the entire population have to cope with the “burden” that they were not responsible for?

Faking out on post-secondary education

And then comes Davis’ attack on the greatest achievement of this province in the past nearly two decades: the post-secondary education system. Newfoundland and Labrador has achieved the most accessible, quality post-secondary system in the country — truly a jewel of North American public policy. It’s one thing we can all be proud of. Only, not any longer, because the Davis Government has decided to gut it. It slams the university with funding cuts and opens the door for tuition fee hikes for international students (goodbye, immigration strategy!) and graduate students (goodbye, future skilled workforce!).

At the same time as it announces a “legacy fund” for future generations, the Davis Government cuts the future out from under our province’s future generations. If it allows the fee hikes the half-million-dollar-salaried university president is hinting at, it will go down in history as committing the single most destructive public policy act of this century.

What is to be done?

There are the streets, and there is the ballot box.

Take your choice, but speak your mind.

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