Residents take anti-austerity fight to streets of St. John’s

Province-wide, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are concerned and angry about the devastating consequences the Dwight Ball Government’s austerity budget will have on the most vulnerable people in the province and even the working class.

On Saturday afternoon about 200 people gathered at Harbourside Park for an anti-austerity rally to protest the provincial government’s budget handed down just 48 hours earlier.

The first stage of the Dwight Ball administration’s austerity program to address a nearly $2 billion deficit was unveiled Thursday in the House of Assembly, where Finance Minister Cathy Bennett told the province a number of programs and services would be cut province-wide while personal income tax, HST, tax prices on gas at the pump, insurance premium tax and a slew of fees are all going up.

The tax that angers people the most, however, is the new Deficit Reduction Levy, which charges various income brackets a tax for merely living in the province. It also disproportionately targets lower-income earners. Someone earning $25,000 a year will pay $300, while a person earning $202,500 or higher will only pay $900. Through the new levy, the more a person earns, the smaller percentage of their income they share to help reduce the deficit.

“Imagine, somebody that makes $20,000 a year in this province has to pay right now in taxes [almost] $300 per year to live here in Newfoundland and Labrador, while somebody who makes $4 million only pays $900 a year to live here. Where’s the equity in this?” Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) N.L. President Wayne Lucas said before the crowd Saturday.

Bill Hynd, who is with the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour and is an organizer with the Social Justice Co-operative N.L., which organized the protest, said he agreed taxes should be raised, but that the government could have done it in a more fair and equitable way.

“I expected on Thursday that I would be paying more taxes… but what I also expected to see is that taxes would go up on those who are able to afford to pay more taxes,” he told the crowd gathered at the park, explaining how Newfoundland and Labrador has lower personal income tax rates for higher-income earners and the rich.

“If you earn $150,000 in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, you’re paying 20 to 21 percent in personal income taxes. Here in Newfoundland it’s 14 [percent]. By 2017 it will be 17 [percent],” he said angrily.

NDP MHA Gerry Rogers took the megaphone and addressed the crowd too, saying people voted Liberal in last fall’s provincial election because Ball and his team made specific promises, ones they were now reneging on in the budget.

“I imagine some of you voted for Dwight Ball and his Liberal team based on the very concrete promises he and his team made to the people of the province: no layoffs, no HST increase, a strong plan for diversification, a stronger future. That’s what he promised all of us,” she said. 

“Some believed him — why not? We know that we’re a province of hard-working, smart people. Why wouldn’t we believe him? We know that we are a resource-rich province — why wouldn’t we believe him? We know that we have fantastic young people, we know that we have a great education system — why wouldn’t we believe him? Instead, we got a budget without vision, a budget full of tax hikes, extra fees, levies, and reductions in services.

“It affects working people, families, students, women, the arts community,” Rogers continued. “People who didn’t share fairly in the prosperity are those who are bearing the brunt and the burden in this lack of vision.”

At the rally the NDP circulated a petition calling for the Ball Government to cancel the levy.

On Friday The Independent published a letter to the editor from Natasha Blackwood, a young working mother who recently bought a home in the Goulds with her husband and their children. They have another child on the way, don’t drink or smoke and live frugally. But with the tax and fee hikes announced in the 2016 budget Blackwood said the budget could “ruin us”. She doesn’t know if she and her husband will be able to afford to pay down their student loans, make their mortgage payments, or put their children in daycare.

“We both work full-time. We both have ‘good’ jobs, and we don’t spend. But on this current budget, we simply will not be able to make ends meet. It is impossible,” she wrote.

The letter went viral almost immediately, being read and shared by tens of thousands of people around the province, some of whom have followed in Blackwood’s footsteps and shared their own personal stories about how they expect budget 2016 to affect them or their families. (You can read some of them in our Letters section.)

St. John’s resident Tom Beckett attended the protest Saturday. He said The Liberals and Tories are both to blame for the current deficit, and that the rich should be paying a fairer share of the burden. 

“Collectively, Danny Williams and Brian Tobin provided so many tax cuts to the rich that they really are not paying their fair share. The premier said that those with money are paying 80 percent of the taxes. That’s crap!” he said vehemently. “They own 99 percent of the resources. They’re short by 19 percent, [and] 19 percent gets us out of this deficit.”

 The Liberals have lied on the HST, they have lied on attrition versus layoffs, and now they are attacking the people who can least afford to pay. — Tom Beckett, St. John’s resident

Beckett says the people of the province should be calling on Lieutenant Governor Frank Fagan to dissolve the House of Assembly and call a new election.

The House of Assembly Act, Section 3, gives the lieutenant governor the ability to dissolve the House of Assembly and set a new election,” he explained, acknowledging that Fagan is likely unwilling to break with tradition and set a new precedent in the province.

“But if we as a society had followed tradition we’d all be sitting around a campfire wearing furs,” he continued. “It is time for the lieutenant governor to stand up and say, ‘democracy means the commitments you make in an election must be carried through when you start to develop your policy.’ The Liberals have lied on the HST, they have lied on attrition versus layoffs, and now they are attacking the people who can least afford to pay. The lieutenant governor must take his responsibility, dissolve the House of Assembly and set a new election.”

After several people addressed the crowd at Harbourside Park the people marched down Water Street and up to Duckworth.

During the march St. John’s resident Helen Webster told The Independent she blames Crown energy corporation Nalcor and its CEO Ed Martin’s handling of Muskrat Falls as the biggest impediment to economic stability in the province.

“Nalcor in this budget got $1.3 billion. That’s a lot of money when you’re [projecting] a deficit of $2.6 billion. We did not choose this, we did not encourage this.

“Muskrat Falls must be scrapped because right now it’s gone over $9 billion. It will cost, in my estimation, between $10-12 billion,” she said. “We are bleeding because of Nalcor, we are bleeding because of Muskrat Falls. We don’t want this debt, we don’t want these cuts.”

Webster, a computer engineering student, rang off some numbers as to why the people of the province can’t afford to fund Muskrat Falls and said she would like to hear people start talking about the value of organizing a general strike in the province as a way to fight back against the Liberals’ austerity, to cancel Muskrat Falls and disband Nalcor, have the levy dropped.

“We did not incur this debt. I am not paying for this debt,” she said. “We need a general strike.”

On Friday insolvency expert Sean Stack published a post on his professional website that said the budget “is going to bankrupt people” in Newfoundland and Labrador, arguing that even before the budget announcement “bankruptcy and insolvency rates increased dramatically [in 2015].”

According to Stack’s calculations, the average family in N.L. “spends 96% of their after-tax income on household essentials, leaving only $207 per month for entertainment, kids’ activities, emergencies, gifts and debt servicing (aside from vehicle and mortgage payments meaning: student loans, credit cards, lines of credit etc.).

 [Budget 2016] is going to bankrupt people. — Sean Stack, insolvency expert

“This would be stressful for households even before the impact of the 2016 NL provincial budget is factored in,” he wrote. “Instead of families being able to pay their bills and service their debt we are going to see them relying on credit cards and lines of credit to get from month to month eventually leading them to bankruptcy.”

On Friday, 24 hours after the budget dropped, Premier Ball took to Twitter to justify the measures his government is taking.

“This is a perfect storm but it has drawn the ppl of NL together, so we can tackle this head on,” he said, prompting several to respond.

“We’ve been drawn together mostly in opposition to your government,” said one Twitter user. 

“It has been hard enough as it is, now you have us taxed beyond what is reasonable, and no plan for the future is the scary part,” wrote another.

“Drawn together? All I’ve been hearing is people ready to jump ship not help bail the water,” wrote yet another.

At Harbourside Park Saturday Lucas announced “it’s time for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to rise up and fight against these regressive taxes here in Newfoundland and Labrador!

“We will not take it anymore! We have to somehow along the way bring this government down. People in Newfoundland [and Labrador] will starve, families will move out, children will not be able to go to school, people will lose their mortgages if we don’t do something. So I call upon Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, I call on everyone here today, to rise up against the inequality that’s in our province.”

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