Anatomy of a Throne Speech

Liberals’ Speech from the Throne indicates Budget 2017 will deliver more of the same.

Last week the Liberals kicked off budget season with their Speech From the Throne.

As a general rule, government’s annual Throne Speech may be reliably divided up into three parts. One taking credit for other people’s hard work. A second blaming the past government for all of the current government’s problems. And a third replete with vague and nebulous hints of what’s to come in the budget.

Part One: Taking credit for others’ hard work

The speech opens with a salute to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and a proclamation that it be “fitting” and “imperative” we celebrate those rights: “The right to democratic government. The right to freedom of thought and expression. And the right to peaceful assembly.”

Obviously, the best way to do that is to achieve international notoriety for attacking press freedom—with national implications—by prosecuting a working journalist (this publication’s editor) for his groundbreaking coverage of the Indigenous-led occupation of the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp in Labrador last October. And why not follow that up by prosecuting dozens of Labrador residents—most of them Indigenous—for acting in self-defence to protect their water, food, families and way of life?

It’s a novel approach, but this is after all a government seeking “new ways to innovate” — all in the name of freedom of thought, expression, and the right to peaceful assembly, of course.

The Speech then goes on to a strange reflection on the cod moratorium, acknowledging its 25th anniversary and saying the government is “cautiously optimistic about the return of the cod and the ground fishery,” and that it’s “fitting that we mark this anniversary with reflection on what led to the moratorium that, in turn, depleted our greatest resource: our people.”

Excellent sentiment! Only…wait now, is this the government currently facing legal challenges over its slipshod record on environmental regulation in the province’s aquaculture industry? “Reflection on what led to the moratorium” should logically lead to stronger environmental protections for our remaining fisheries, shouldn’t it?

Well, no matter, let’s move on from awkward contradictions to, er, sports!

Government next pats itself on the back for the accomplishments of the province’s athletes. At times one can’t help wondering whether the premier yearns to be a sportscaster, not a political leader. He puts himself right in the centre of Newfoundland’s recent Brier win: “The last shot of the championship curling game rested on the dreams of [Brad Gushue’s] teammates, and the hopes of our province…in that perfect moment, when something that seemed too good to be true happened, we all won.”

It’s safe to say the province’s athletes have achieved greatness in spite of the lack of support of the Ball Government, not because of it. This is, remember, the government that slashed over $800,000 from provincial sports funding in the last provincial budget, including more than a third of the funding to Sports NL programs. Of course, today’s athletes were shaped by government policies of 10 or 20 years ago; it is the potential athletes of tomorrow whose futures are being compromised by the Liberals’ short-sighted cuts of today.

Government then devotes several paragraphs to praising the accomplishments of Memorial University students, from athletics to international business competitions. Stolen glory, coming from a government that also cut Memorial’s operational grant by over $14 million in last year’s budget, lifted the tuition freeze for international and graduate students and also allowed massive fee increases for students from rural parts of the province living on campus.

Of course, the Speech also trumpets the accomplishments of arts performances like Come From Away, the Broadway musical the Liberals recently came under strong attack for failing to use as a means to promote tourism.

Government goes on to praise the province’s embattled film industry, just one year after cutting $1.3 million to the N.L. Film Development Corporation – roughly a quarter of their budget.

But the ‘taking-credit-for-other-more-talented-people’s-accomplishments’ part of the Throne Speech that really takes the cake is the Liberals’ announcement that “our province has also become a world class foodie destination.”

Sadly, the government appears not to have been informed the local restaurant industry has struggled over the past few years. The list of cream of the crop casualties in St. John’s alone is extensive: Aqua, The Club, Legros & Motti, Coffee & Company, Bianca’s, Papa’s Pier 17, Relish Gourmet Burgers, and others. If the government did a better job of managing the economy and supporting independent businesses, which includes sensible funding to municipal governments to support independent business, perhaps our foodie reputation would be far more secure than it is.

Part Two: Blaming the past government for the current government’s problems

Here, the Ball Government—elected a year and a half ago—continues blaming the past government for leaving it such an awful “inheritance”. One may assume they will continue doing so until the next election, at which point it will no doubt be the PC’s turn to govern and blame the Liberals. Well, fair game—why waste time fixing things when you can blame someone else for the problem?

“Our government inherited a deep rooted reliance on oil, and with it, a culture of overspending… We inherited an economy lacking diversity and we inherited responsibility for a massive structural deficit, the true size of which had been hidden from the people.”

This, of course, is nonsense. Ball’s Liberals had full awareness of the scale of the deficit challenge they were wandering into, even if they didn’t know the precise figures to the final decimal point. And either way, “inheriting” a bad policy is never an excuse for not changing it.

“Our Government inherited Muskrat Falls,” lament the Liberals in their Speech. Although they regret that the province is saddled with the disastrous project, they’re quick to emphasize they don’t intend to do anything to change it: “We are in too deep. Cancelling the project is not feasible and it would put more financial burden on the people of the province.”

Nonsense again.

“Inheriting” a bad policy is never an excuse for not changing it.

It would put a lot of hard work on the Liberals to cancel it—and as we’ve seen, it’s always easier to blame others than to do hard work of one’s own—but cancelling the project is entirely feasible. It might impact the province’s ability to obtain future multi-billion dollar loans for megaprojects, but that can only be a good thing.

Right now Muskrat Falls is poised to increase our energy bills once it comes online, and it has further entrenched a culture of wasteful spending when it comes to energy megaprojects in this province. It would also start to turn around this province’s culture of exploitation and disrespect of Labrador and Indigenous Peoples. Cancelling Muskrat Falls would offer an opportunity out of all that.

Of course, it’s much easier to simply blame the previous government than to do the hard work necessary to turn things around.

Although the Liberals lament “inheriting” Muskrat Falls, they are also “pleased to announce we secured $2.9 billion in additional loan guarantee support for the Muskrat Falls project.”

The icing on the cake? “We also forged a historic partnership with Indigenous governments and organizations.”

Yes, after dozens of residents occupied the site and forced the premier and self-appointed Minister of Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs to acknowledge Indigenous and human rights. Ball will now go down in the history books as the political leader who promised reconciliation, then watched as Innu and Inuit were criminalized for defending their food, culture and rights. This is all happening on Ball’s watch.

Part Three: Doublespeak

Government’s plan for the future boils down to three euphemisms, the sort where government stretches the English language to a bursting point in an attempt to avoid saying what it actually means.

“We will do better with less.”

I don’t know how many times I’ve said this, but it is logically and empirically impossible to do better with less. You can try to make do with less. But you can’t do better with less. It hearkens to some late medieval Protestant philosophizing, the notion that somehow you’re being burdened by all the good things in your life, and ought to go lock yourself up in a cave, fasting in order to achieve salvation.

Which is fine if you’re aiming to be a religious ascetic, but idiotic if you’re aiming to govern a province.

But it does tie into another ideological misnomer that government is fond of: the notion that “we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem.”

This fallacy actually originates with the province’s conservative business leadership. Frightened that rich people like themselves might actually have to pay fair taxes like the rest of us, corporate business lobbyists have been running around preaching that government’s problem is not that it doesn’t have money but that it spends too much.

It’s nonsense, of course. Government’s problem is very precisely that it has a revenue problem. Oil’s not as profitable, fish are gone, the economy has never been properly diversified. It’s a simple and straightforward revenue problem.

But it’s in both the elite business community’s interests and government’s interests to hide behind this fallacy. After all, government is made up of mostly elite business people who lack ingenuity (otherwise, they would have better ideas to address our fiscal woes) and can only think to cut spending, rather than increase revenue.

Government’s problem is very precisely that it has a revenue problem.

The spending problem fallacy is reinforced by the notion that we can do more with less; together they create a nice, well-rounded fantasy world.

This component of the Throne Speech also includes the statements “We will collaborate” (read: sell out public services to the private sector at bargain-basement prices, despite overwhelming evidence that privatization is wasteful, inefficient, and leads to shoddy standards), and “We will challenge ourselves” (by which our well-off government leadership pretends they share the sufferings of the average unemployed Newfoundlander or Labradorian).

What promises lie in store? Well, despite poor performance on protective environmental standards for aquaculture, “we will seize opportunities in aquaculture.”

Despite cautioning at the beginning of the speech against reliance on oil — and despite the science of climate change — “we will position Newfoundland and Labrador as the preferred destination for oil and gas development.”

Despite hundreds of recent layoffs, and trying to pick a fight with the public sector unions, which will undoubtedly lead to further layoffs, “jobs will be our top priority.”

“Our world-class tourism experience and rich culture will greet you at the door” – along with ‘closed for business’ signs at all those shut-down restaurants and other independent shops and businesses, no doubt.

Of course, there are the old standards, the sort of vacuous catch phrases that are generally safe to use because they don’t really mean anything: “We have set targets for sector growth”; “We will adopt a new approach to innovation”; “Better outcomes” and “Better services”. One might assume the latter is a variant of “do better with less,” or ‘less services is better services’, perhaps.

Oh well. It’s just a speech, right?

They wouldn’t actually make policy around these sorts of things, would they?

Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.

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