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Liberals face mounting scorn as anti-austerity movement matures

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A week after the Liberal government passed its controversial budget, and amidst an ongoing filibuster in the legislature at the hands of the opposition parties, the anti-austerity movement continues to build momentum in the streets and across the province.

On Tuesday morning about a dozen protestors attempted to enter a hotel conference room in St. John’s where Finance Minister Cathy Bennett was set to speak to women about leadership at an event organized by the “Extraordinary Women” initiative, which is co-sponsored by KPMG, the accounting firm currently under investigation for its role in the Isle of Man offshore tax scheme.

Laura Moores, a social work student and activist who took part in the action, says while the group, which was organized through Coordinated Approach NL, didn’t get into the room where Bennett was speaking, the protests against Budget 2016 and the Liberal government will continue.

According to Moores a hotel manager intimidated her 62-year-old mother and asked the protestors to leave the premises, but not before the group could slip some pamphlets into a washroom that “highlighted some of the issues with the budget and how it disproportionately impacts women, especially Indigenous women, women in rural communities, women living in poverty, and the list goes on,” said Moores.

“There were a lot of tourists in the lobby reading them and we could hear them discussing it,” she recalled, explaining that after they were asked to leave they stood on the side of the road outside the hotel and through a bullhorn read a statement from Jenny Wright from the St. John’s Status of Women Council.

“They can tear down a poster but they’ll never tear down the women of this province. We are going to be united and continuing this fight for all the women who couldn’t be there. For Cathy Bennett to be lauded as an extraordinary woman…the extraordinary women are the ones on the streets and across this Island fighting against this.

Moores said any event where Bennett, who is the minister responsible for the Status of Women, is “trying to get on the side of women…we’re going to be there. We’re going to be watching. It’s going to be a lot more widely advertised.”

“The job is not done”

While the current filibuster is against the pieces of legislation that will create the Deficit Reduction Levy and raise the HST, most of the provisions in Budget 2016 were passed last Tuesday in the House of Assembly without the 24 hours’ public notice promised by embattled Premier Dwight Ball, and without any further dissent from within the Liberal ranks following MHA Paul Lane’s expulsion from the caucus after vowing to vote against his government’s own budget.

Since the budget bill vote last week concerns have circulated throughout the anti-austerity movement that the momentum it had built, evidenced by the thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who have joined protests province-wide and taken to social media to talk about the future of the province, may be lost.

But in recent days residents and groups have ramped up efforts to resist the budget, and austerity more widely, through online spaces like Coordinate Approach N.L. and other social media-based groups, arguing despondency is just what the government is hoping for.

Jon Parsons, an activist and academic who studies social and political movements and writes an occasional column for The Independent, says while the Liberals likely “breathed a hardy sigh of relief” after they passed the budget in light of the mounting public pressure on Liberal MHAs to vote against it, the anger, frustration and desperation many in the province are feeling is not subsiding.

“I don’t think [the budget bill passing] does anything to deal with the public outrage that still exists around the budget, and certainly that outrage is not going away as more of the tax increases and fee increases consequent of the budget come into effect over the next days, weeks and months,” he says.

On May 25, in a move observers predicted the Liberals could make in an attempt to quell the social unrest in the province, the government amended the Deficit Reduction Levy so that it doesn’t hit lower-income earners. While the levy is just one of many contentious issues in the budget, Parsons says the Liberals’ concession is a significant accomplishment for the movement but shouldn’t give Newfoundlanders and Labradorians the impression that with increased taxes and fees across the board and cuts to education, healthcare and other important public services the budget won’t still hurt many in the province.

“The job is not done,” he says. “People should not rest on their laurels now that the movement has achieved one concession from government. The resistance ought to continue and intensify; people ought to continue taking whatever opportunities they can for disruption or other sorts of actions.”

Jill Pittman, who grew up in St. John’s but moved away a few years ago, wrote about the student-led anti-austerity protests in Quebec last year, warning Newfoundlanders and Labradorians that given this province’s poor fiscal management and its dependency on oil, it’s only a matter of time before government tries to impose austerity at home.

 I’m proud to be a Newfoundlander right now [because] people are in the streets and they’re having discussions and understanding that what we’re facing are more systematic issues than just partisan politics or just the budget. — Jill Pittman

“What is austerity? Essentially, it’s the every day Joe being forced to pay off a government deficit created by financial mismanagement at the hands of those who are supposed to represent that average Joe,” she wrote in a column for The Independent. “Austerity is a move toward higher user fees for public services instead of free, or at least accessible, services through means like progressive taxation.”

Speaking to The Independent earlier this week Pittman said she’s “proud to be a Newfoundlander right now [because] people are in the streets and they’re having discussions and understanding that what we’re facing are more systematic issues than just partisan politics or just the budget.”

She said while people are right to call for the resignation of Premier Dwight Ball, she also hopes the focus remains on austerity, which any party in power could try to impose on the people of the province. 

“Austerity is a choice, not a necessity, and the issues that we’re facing are symptomatic of systems that have failed us — and we need systematic solutions for that,” she said.

“We should also be asking, if we don’t want [Ball as Premier], what do we want then? What are we trying to move towards in creating those sustainable systems that can support us? Whether that’s homesteading and growing your own food, or alternative economics, or people taking over closed spaces that can be used in communities — closed libraries, and making their own libraries. Looking at stuff like that while still resisting what the government is doing, at the same time.”

Pittman also said that while solutions to austerity vary according to the unique circumstances of each place, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador are part of a bigger narrative in which those in other jurisdictions are also resisting government-imposed austerity that favours and perpetuates corporatism while protecting the wealth and status of elites.

“We could look at the movement in Spain, in Egypt, in Mexico in the Chiapas region, we can look at what’s happening in Greece, in Iceland,” she said. “Iceland might be a good example for Newfoundland because they’ve very similar in terms of population distribution and the primary resource being fish. What they did was incredible — they re-wrote their constitution, they jailed bankers, they had new parties [form]. 

“So we could look to other places in terms of what’s working there, and then tailor [some of those solutions] to our local reality.” 

Building a movement that includes mutual aid

Parsons says it’s important for the movement to evolve into one that focuses on mutual aid province-wide, since this is likely a pivotal moment in the province’s history and any positive and democratic outcome will require the full participation of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

 Alongside demonstrations and protests and these sorts of things, we have to go out and start to build the fairer world that we want, without expecting the government to help us do it. — Jon Parsons

“I think we really ought to shift the focus towards mutual aid, and towards figuring out ways to look after one another in our communities, figure out ways to help families who are perhaps being evicted from their homes, or perhaps figure out ways to help feed and clothe and shelter people in our communities outside the structures of our government,” he says. “Because you can see that what government is doing is downloading so much on to the public anyways; they’re just expecting that people are going to pick up the slack, and unfortunately that’s really where we’re at.

“Alongside demonstrations and protests and these sorts of things, we have to go out and start to build the fairer world that we want, without expecting the government to help us do it.”

Pittman echoed Parsons’ comment, saying while Newfoundlanders and Labradorians should “resist and lobby government for things and continue to keep that pressure on, we also need to work to transform the politics, not only of the big systems and structures, but [also] transforming the politics of our schools, or of our communities, of our households, of our workplaces — because these are tangible things we can do that can have great impacts [on our daily lives].”

“I think the word ‘politics’ — people think of government, of parliament, of big things. But the workplace is very political. Library spaces that are being closed down are very political. If they want to shut down the building and people want to take it over and start a book exchange, that is political. And I think we need to invest energy into those kinds of things while actively resisting and lobbying government at the same time.”

Next steps

Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour President Mary Shortall said in the wake of Budget 2016 the labour movement and the Common Front NL coalition she’s a part of will continue to facilitate a conversation throughout the summer, which could include more protests, and will certainly include more town halls and panel discussions, she said.

Shortall said a town hall event in Placentia last Tuesday was a potent reminder that “people are clearly upset and feel that their MHAs are not listening.”

Moores said while politicians continue to debate the budget in terms of dollars, “it’s not just crunching numbers — theses are people’s lives.

Facebook photo.
Over the past week hundreds of posters calling on Dwight Ball to resign have been plastered on telephone poles along roadsides near Confederation Building. Facebook photo.

“We’re hoping MHAs start to realize this is not just their constituents wanting things, or as [Exploits MHA] Jerry Dean put it, a ‘culture of entitlement’ — we have entitlement to survive, and to live, and to have food and accessible healthcare; that’s what we are feeling entitled to. It’s shocking, some of the rhetoric we’re hearing on the floor of the House of Assembly.”

Parsons says having watched other protest movements closely, one of the defining attributes of the one that has taken hold in this province is that people from different backgrounds and with different sets of beliefs have been brought together around a common cause.

“I’ve seen a lot of people buy into this idea of grassroots politics as this kind of political force that doesn’t need to have specific goals, or that doesn’t need to have a specific doctrine or mandate or anything like that — that simply the goal is to empower people, to empower regular folks to get politically active, and that where the greatest challenge comes from,” he says.

“It’s been inspiring to see the kind of solidarity that’s been formed.”

Meanwhile, the next action is set to take place this afternoon in St. John’s.

Mark Croft of “Free NL” is organizing an “occupation” of the Confederation Building lobby.

On Tuesday he told The Independent the peaceful protest will see people meet in the Arts & Culture Centre parking lot at 2:30 p.m. and march up to Confederation Building “and be as loud as we can and demand the resignations of Ball, [Minister Siobhan] Coady, and Bennett — they need to go and there needs to be a new election. Things have got to change,” he said.

 We have entitlement to survive, and to live, and to have food and accessible healthcare; that’s what we are feeling entitled to. — Laura Moores

“We’re going to make as much noise as possible and let them know this isn’t going to end until they step away and let us start making some decisions in what happens to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.”

Croft said he knows the resignation of Ball and senior cabinet ministers won’t fix the problem, but that it’s a necessary step.

“The system as a whole has failed us time and again. It’s a two-party system and it doesn’t work. It’s made up of elitists who pretty much can do whatever they want and hide it all from us. They’re the ones who put us in this situation, and they’re the ones who are now trying to break our backs to get themselves out of it, which is unacceptable.

“We need to get them all out of there — all of them. This is just a start. We need to get Ball and Bennett and Coady removed and new elections have to occur. We have to start a new party, a people’s party, and basically put good Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in there.

“The system has to change if anything is going to get better here.”

Just prior to publication plans for yet another direct action were published on Facebook. On Friday Moores is inviting members of the public to join her at the NL Housing and Homelessness Network Centre in Pleasantville, where Bennett is set to participate in a roundtable discussion about domestic violence in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“All women, feminists, allies and friends, please come out an take a stand for all of the vulnerable populations that will be so negatively impacted by this budget,” the event description reads. “Together we are strong! In solidarity!”

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