As the PERT is Delayed, a People’s Recovery Emerges

“There is a foundation here for something maybe even bigger, which is democratic and broad-ranging.”

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Members of the People’s Recovery NL coalition announced last week say the broad-based alliance could evolve into a powerful force in addressing longstanding, convergent crises within Newfoundland and Labrador.

“There’s no point in having an economic recovery where you’re just recreating the same old cycles of inequality, or environmental degradation,” says Angela Carter, an associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.

“That’s not a sustainable economy.”

Carter, who lives in Conception Bay, says she was “really worried” when Andrew Furey announced the members of his Premier’s Economic Recovery Team (PERT) last October.

She wasted no time reaching out to some fellow academics from the province, sowing the seeds of a people-led coalition to address what perceived deficiencies in PERT’s makeup and mandate—as well as the lack of transparency around its work.

Policymaking by the People, for the People

PERT is mandated to “review government expenditures, the province’s fiscal capacity, how services are delivered, and explore growth sectors such as clean energy and investments in technology,” a government news release reads.

St. John’s native Moya Greene, a former CEO of both Canada Post and Britain’s Royal Mail, was appointed chair of the team.

While the Liberals touted Greene as “globally-recognized for her change-management skills,” critics quickly pointed to her track record of neoliberal policies, such as her privatization of Royal Mail in 2013. As a deputy minister at Transport Canada in the early and mid-1990s, Greene was also instrumental in deregulating Canada’s airline industry and privatizing CN Rail.

(The Independent reached out to Moya Greene for comment on this story, but was informed that she is “not doing any further interviews at this time.”)

“[I]t doesn’t take anyone very long to see the perspective that she’s coming from,” says Carter. “She is a very wealthy, retired businesswoman.”

Carter isn’t the only one concerned. Dozens of individuals and organizations have united under People’s Recovery NL, including labour unions, the Canadian Federation of Students, Anti-Racism Coalition NL (ARC-NL), St. John’s Status of Women Council, Western Environment Centre, Council of Canadians, and others.

By January coalition members were organizing community meetings—where a “widely diverse and far more representative group of people at the table,” Carter explains, have since “done that hard collaborative work.”

People’s Recovery NL launched last week with a website featuring a set of values and principles that coalition members say represent an intersectional approach to collaborating on ideas for the province’s future. The principles prioritize Indigenous rights, centre anti-racism and feminism, promote equity for marginalized groups, declare support for strong public services, include decarbonizing approaches to addressing the climate and biodiversity crises, and explicitly reject austerity.

The coalition also released its first policy document via a set of progressive taxation and economic reform measures that it says would increase provincial revenues and narrow the income inequality gap.

Among the proposals so far are a $15 minimum wage and pay equity for women, a wealth tax, higher taxation of capital gains, restoring the corporate tax rate to 17 percent, eliminating fossil fuel industry subsidies, improving the carbon tax regime, exploring a one percent HST increase, and a 20 percent tax on luxury cars, recreational boats and private aircrafts with a value over $100,000.

The proposals precede what Carter says will be a more comprehensive policy document to be released in the coming weeks or months, ahead of (or in tandem with) the delayed Greene report.

“Decisions about the province cannot be just left to those who have privilege and power”

News of the coalition’s existence—and work—has been welcomed by many. But the group’s significance as a grassroots political formation was largely overshadowed by a focus on its more controversial proposals to raise taxes.

While some have engaged with the coalition and contributed to their effort, others—mostly white men—have outright dismissed the group based on its progressive taxation recommendations. 

“The only thing they’re thinking about is taxes—they’re thinking about their own privilege,” says Sobia Shaikh of ARC-NL.

Shaikh says the dismissal of People’s Recovery NL by those who have long benefitted from racial privilege and inequality is unsurprising. But it ignores the accomplishment of getting diverse voices around the table to collaboratively develop shared values and principles. She says this demonstrates the racial inequity within political discourse in the province.

“Racism is not top of their mind. They don’t actually understand what it would mean to really reconfigure our society based on [the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples], or [the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action],” she adds. “[They are] re-centring economic priorities over the well-being of everybody.”

The coalition’s first principle is to “respect the sovereignty and inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples by adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and taking concrete action towards reconciliation.”

Shaikh said progressive and left-oriented groups and coalitions often fail to incorporate anti-racism principles and practices in their work.

But when ARC-NL members attended People’s Recovery meetings, their ideas were welcomed and later incorporated into the founding principles.

“Decisions cannot just be made by people in power, whether that be power in the government or power through coloniality and whiteness,” she says. “These decisions about the province cannot be just left to those who have privilege and power.”

“We welcome engagement from all perspectives”

On Thursday, the Independent asked Premier Furey if he would consider, or commit to, including People’s Recovery NL’s policy documents and recommendations into any government decision-making processes alongside materials from the Greene report.

“As we have always said, we welcome engagement from all perspectives. That applies to this group as well,” Furey said in an emailed response.

“Members of the Premier’s Economic Recovery Team have a variety of experience and are consulting with a number of stakeholders, including social and community organizations, with hundreds of hours of meetings to date.”

Furey reiterated the government will invite public input following the Greene report’s release and “consult broadly on any selected recommendations prior to implementation.”

But following decades of neoliberal policies from both Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments, People’s Recovery coalition members have little faith that anything truly transformative is coming.

“If we look back through settler history of Newfoundland and Labrador we see a lot of the same problems being repeated over and over. We look to megaprojects with huge environmental impacts, and impacts on Indigenous communities, as solutions,” says Carter.

“And yet we never get to economic diversity or stability. Every time there’s a problem with our economy our knee-jerk reaction is, we’re going to cut spending… [or] give tax breaks to corporations or wealthy individuals to try to lure them to come, stay and invest,” she continues.

“We’ve tried those things [but they] don’t actually work to generate economic stability. If they did, we would be okay now.”

Carter says People’s Recovery NL is partly inspired by other grassroots initiatives that have gained significant momentum in mainstream discourse and are gaining traction in political circles, like the Green New Deal and the principles of a just transition from fossil fuel economies to clean energy. These frameworks maintain that any just economic recovery or solutions to the climate emergency must address economic inequality, racial and gender inequities, and decolonization.

“COVID-19 is the formative experience of a whole generation”

Lars Osberg, a professor of economics at Dalhousie University, says the emergence of People’s Recovery NL “is a really positive development, because it has potential to involve a broad spectrum of society to get buy-in from a large number of different interest groups and different sections of society, and to think innovatively and cooperatively” about the province’s future.

This week the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives published a paper by Osberg titled “From Keynesian Consensus to Neo-Liberalism to the Green New Deal: 75 years of income inequality in Canada.” It argues that during Canada’s post-war period (the mid-1940s through to the late 70s), policy-makers “grew up experiencing the world of stable inequality and balanced growth which the Keynesian consensus had produced—and thinking it was normal.”

“Social stability and balanced growth became, for them, something that could be taken for granted—assumptions, not objectives,” Osberg writes.

The 1980s through today marked the neoliberal era, when “unbalanced growth became the norm.”

Neoliberalism is associated with unrestrained capitalism and other market-oriented social policies. It has many defining characteristics but is most commonly marked by privatizing public services and institutions, deregulation, free trade, and austerity.

Osberg writes that the burgeoning inequality under Canadian neoliberalism, now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, forces Canadians into an unprecedented situation.

“It is unlikely that the political economy of the post-COVID-19 world can be shaped by the same faith in low taxes and market-based individualism that fuelled Neo-Liberalism,” he writes. “The COVID-19 pandemic is the formative experience of a whole generation and will shape its lifetime political perspectives. In a pandemic, each individual’s chances of remaining healthy depend on the health and behaviour of their fellow citizens.”

Osberg says where the post-war decades marked by Keynesian economic orthodoxy saw “stable inequality,” and the neoliberal era saw growing inequality, the global economic crisis exacerbated by the pandemic demands new ideas and policies.

“The danger is that you’ve got a lot of people who are highly invested in the market model, in the austerity model,” Osberg tells the Independent.

“And that’s a very top-down model, where the government comes in, it cuts all over the place—and that creates a lot of social conflict, which then sets off a downward spiral of more social conflict, less and less cooperation, and less actual solution of the fundamental problem.”

A Decade of Organizing Citizen Engagement—and Resistance

People’s Recovery NL follows a decade of grassroots-led resistance to economic policies that presupposed the profitability of Muskrat Falls and perennially high oil and gas prices.

A decade ago Occupy NL emerged at Harbourside Park in St. John’s and became the longest-lasting encampment in North America. The grassroots-held spaces it created opened conversations across diverse communities and perspectives.

That was followed by the People’s Assembly NL in 2012 in opposition to Muskrat Falls, the West coast-based citizen-led resistance to fracking in 2013 and 2014, the grassroots-led #NLRising and the labour-led Common Front NL coalition in 2016 against austerity, as well as others.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour (NLFL) has endorsed the People’s Recovery.

In January NLFL President Mary Shortall left the PERT, saying the process did “not [feel] like a real ‘team’ approach for such a serious issue.”

“The recommendations that will be made by Chair Dame Greene may very well shape the next several decades of the type of economy and society we will live in,” Shortall said in a statement at the time. “It is imperative that the voices of workers, as well as marginalized and underrepresented groups, be heard, considered, acknowledged, and truly reflected in any discussion around economic recovery. Most importantly, it must be real collaboration and consultation, not simply window dressing.”

Shortall says People’s Recovery NL represents the collaborative approach she was hoping for in the PERT.

“At the end of the day, we all should welcome a report that is truly reflective of workers’ lived experiences and… supported by the people who have been able come together from all walks of life, as a document to help inform those critical next steps that will we hope, support an economy, and society where no one is left behind,” she said in an emailed statement.

For her part, Carter stresses the coalition is “citizen-led, and the way we expand the initiative is we keep saying to everybody, if there’s somebody you think should be here and you don’t see at the table yet, reach out and invite them to come in.”

She said it’s “been a very inspiring process” and that members have “been challenged in different ways to think about life in Newfoundland and Labrador in ways that [otherwise] maybe we don’t necessarily.”

She says whatever comes of the People’s Recovery initiative, “there is a foundation here for something maybe even bigger, which is democratic and broad-ranging.”

“This could be powerful.”

Photo by Josh Smee.

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