Sharing Provincial Wealth

Stepping back from the politics and looking at the reality

With the provincial election in full swing, and especially after the leader’s debate (argument) it occurred to me that it might do us all some good to step back from the political rhetoric for a moment and consider our future without the political spin.

I realize I’ll probably get plenty of nasty on this article. I also suspect I’ll be branded a “typical townie” or told my political leanings are overriding my common sense. So be it. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of being a Tory, a Liberal or an NDP (depending on the time of day and subject at hand). None of it is true of course.

The truth is that the only things I hate more than politicians who are willing to say anything to win is keeping my mouth shut or sitting in front of an idle keyboard. In this case all three of these pet peeves have combined to lead me to type this commentary rather fast and furiously, even for me.

So, lets start with a question: Has anyone living in, or who recently visited, the St. John’s area noticed that on nearly every major road there are numerous signs practically begging people to apply for a job?

I drove down Torbay Road a few weeks ago and counted no less than 11 such signs in a 1-kilometer stretch. It was inspiring.

Granted most of those jobs are in the service sector, but with the high demand for employees these days those companies are now offering everything from medical and dental plans to flexible shifts, above market wages and a myriad of other perks.

A quick scan of newspaper or online job postings reveals that employment opportunities in the metro area have skyrocketed and are growing all the time. Most often those jobs are for higher paying professional positions.

At this point you may be wondering if I’m bragging about how good things are this side of the overpass and what any of it has to do with the current election campaign. Well, it has a great deal to do with the election because while this new reality, where there are more jobs than applicants, might exist in the St. John’s area, once you move into rural parts of the province the picture gets much more bleak.

The unemployment rate across the rest of the province is staggering and it is this reality, our “dual economy” which is providing fodder for politicians, especially for Liberal leader, Kevin Aylward in this election. In fact I’d argue Mr. Aylward has hung the future of his party on perpetuating the myth that rural Newfoundland and Labrador has been forgotten.

Well folks, that position may make for good political spin and it may sway some voters, but is it true?

I don’t believe it is, not for a second, no matter how often I hear it repeated.

It wasn’t true under the Williams government, it isn’t true under the Dunderdale government and for that matter it wasn’t true under the Liberal and PC governments of the past either. In fact, I’d argue that a great deal of focus has been placed on rural areas for a very, very long time. Unfortunately, most of that attention wasn’t focused on what really mattered.

It wasn’t, for example, focused on protecting the fish stocks before they were destroyed. Rather it was more often directed at opening yet another unneeded processing plant to help ensure some candidate’s election victory. That’s just one example of course but one very reflective of the current election rhetoric by the Liberal leader.

No matter what any politician might say over the next couple of weeks, it is not the job of government to make work, beyond perhaps creating a job for themselves.

The point is that governments shouldn’t be in the business of creating jobs for the sake of creating jobs. I believe that’s where the misconception that rural Newfoundland and Labrador is being ignored comes from. It comes from those who see government as something it isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be.

The place of government is to make sure that essential services are delivered in the best way possible, that the public is safe on the streets and to foster an environment conducive to business growth. It’s business that should create employment, not government. Government can, and should, set the table, but its business that must pull up a chair and sit down. Anything else is smoke and mirrors.

A responsible government should, and usually does, encourage business growth. They do this by offering tax breaks or other incentives for business to set up shop in strategic areas. They also try to court investment and market the benefits of the places they govern. That doesn’t mean, no matter what any candidate might say, that government can, or even should, throw money at any particular industry or region simply to “make work” there.

I moved around the province and the country for years before finally settling in the St. John’s area. Essentially, I went where the work took me. I didn’t want to leave my home town and I still hope to return there when the opportunity arises. I did what I had to do and I’m still doing it every day.

It’s no secret that many people want to stay where they grew up, where they have family and where they are the most comfortable in their own skin, but most of us can’t do that. That isn’t government’s fault and it isn’t something unique to Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s happening across Canada and around the world.

Major companies generally locate in larger urban areas where they can more easily find suppliers, are close customers and have a bigger pool of potential employees (including those in outlying rural areas) to choose from. This is as true for oil industry employers as it is for secondary industries like IT companies, retail stores, restaurants, hotels, taxi services and the rest. It isn’t some sort of conspiracy or plot to deny jobs to those in rural areas it’s just the way business operates.

Why is it then that so many people believe because there isn’t a job for them in their small town they are being neglected or forgotten by government?

How can anyone expect government to spend millions to “make work” in places where there is none and where business itself does not, for whatever reason, want to set up shop?

No matter how much oil or how much gas is produced, and no matter what politicians promise on the campaign trail, most of the direct business spin off from the oil industry will continue land in the St. John’s area. That’s something government, of any stripe, has very little control over, but that doesn’t mean rural Newfoundland and Labrador is not benefiting from the improved economy.

Think about what it would truly mean if government actually responded to the expectation of creating employment in every town or propping up failing businesses enterprises with provincial revenues.

In today’s reality, it would mean that tax dollars desperately needed for infrastructure, schools and hospitals right across Newfoundland and Labrador would be eaten up trying to find ways to make employment in one part of the province while, as previously mentioned, just a few hundred kilometres away, in another part of the province, employers are screaming for workers.

Does that make any sense?

When it comes to certain industries like fishing, aquaculture, wind farms, smelters and the like there are valid reasons why those are built outside of the urban centers, and there is no doubt that this sort of development will continue to be supported as profitable opportunities arise. It’s doubtful however that those developments will grow fast enough to make a serious dent in the unemployment rate in rural Newfoundland and Labrador. Neither will pumping millions of dollars into fish plants unable to turn a profit from ever decreasing fish stocks. That is also a reality.

Spending millions to try to create or prop up work in rural areas at the same time there is a severe shortage of workers in urban areas is a recipe for economic disaster.

So why are there still those who believe that because there is a dual economy in the province, rural Newfoundland and Labrador is getting nothing from the oil boom?

I come from a small rural town in the province but I work in St. John’s and now live just outside the city. Do you want to know a little secret? I get the same benefit from the oil industry and the resulting government revenues as anyone else in the province, urban or rural.

I don’t get a cheque from the oil companies in my mail box each week. I don’t glide to work on gold paved streets, and I don’t spend my days sipping champagne at taxpayer’s expense while fairies cut my grass or shovel my driveway in winter.

I left my home town and moved to where the work was located like countless others. Each day I drive to and from my job over the same sort of pot hole filled roads many people in rural areas would recognize in their own towns.

On the other hand, I occasionally notice improvements in our highways when I travel across the island to visit family. (It’s here that the folks in Labrador may have a far better argument than most about being forgotten or neglected).

I sometimes read about new dialysis equipment, cancer clinics or seniors’ care facilities being built in different parts of the province.

I see attention being paid to refurbishing schools or to improving government services.

I see more or different medications being covered for lower income families through the government funded drug program. (Though not nearly enough)

I see provincial debt slowly being paid down and I see the amount of provincial taxes I pay slowly reduced thanks to the improved economy.

It’s these things that are all made possible by an increase in provincial revenues, much of it oil generated, and it is these things that are used to spread the wealth around the entire province.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not praising the current government for these things. It’s simply a fact that there is more money in provincial coffers today than there has been in the past and as a result more can be done to make life a little better for everyone.

I don’t doubt that more will be done as time goes by, no matter which party wins the election on October11. Though the specific spending priorities may change depending on who is in power the general way the wealth is distributed will not change, or at least it shouldn’t.

If it does change, if “Make work” replaces “Take work” (where ever you have to move to get it) then heaven help us all.

Don’t for a minute believe that rural Newfoundland and Labrador has been forgotten simply because unemployment is higher or because a particular mill or fish plant has shut down. You can blame that on a lot of things, the global economy, declining fish stocks, a limited need for newsprint, but it isn’t government that closed those industries and it isn’t government that can re-open them, at least not if they are to be profitable rather than a drain on taxpayers.

If the next government opts to spread the wealth, or worse yet, drive us all deeper into debt, by artificially creating work in areas where private industry is unable to turn a profit then we will all pay the price for their short sighted approach.

The future of our province and the full benefit of our economic growth can only be ensured if we recognize the most beneficial role of government and if we “take work” not “make work”.

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