On New Year’s Day Newfoundland and Labrador became the first province in Canada to impose a tax on books, a move by the Dwight Ball Liberals that has provoked outrage.
While many are justifiably angered by the new tax, there’s something bigger going on in our province that the public ought to be even more concerned about. The book tax is part of a systematic pattern of policies that take aim at the right of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to achieve the dignified life which modern education and knowledge are supposed to bring.
From cuts to literacy, schooling and libraries, to hiking taxes on books, these are government policies that achieve the smallest of savings at the highest of costs. And they are—perhaps deliberately—designed to cripple the ability of this province to retain an educated, intelligent population.
It’s little wonder Newfoundland and Labrador consistently winds up in crises—like the present one—that have less to do with markets and economic resources than they do with elite-dominated governments that just don’t understand how to build a modern diversified economy.
Our province will never rise to its full potential so long as the tools for education and self-improvement remain in the hands of an elite few. Policies that promote education and skills training ought to be sacrosanct and preserved from these pointless and self-defeating cuts — cuts which produce minimal fiscal impact on the debt and yet cause maximum damage to our province’s social and economic foundations.
Let’s examine the record.
Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest illiteracy rates of any province, according to 2012 Statscan data. Only the two territories – Northwest Territories and Nunavut – placed lower. Another 2013 report by the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) placed our province second only to Nunavut in terms of illiteracy rates.
Rather than tackling the problem, in 2013 the provincial government made things worse by privatizing Adult Basic Education. While the Dunderdale Government touted the bogus arguments of elite business lobbyists that this would reduce costs, critics warned that the facts in other jurisdictions proved otherwise. In 2016, access to information requests revealed the critics were right; following privatization the cost of operating the program rose by 31 percent, tuition costs rose by 88 percent and enrolment dropped by 30 percent.
Privatization failed and is depriving people in this province of the right to education and dignity. Yet the Liberal government has upheld the failed policies of their PC predecessors on this matter. Arm in arm, Liberal and PC policies have contributed to sustained high illiteracy rates.
To make matters worse, in 2015 the provincial government cut funding to Literacy NL—the provincial non-profit literacy organization which had already lost federal funding under the Harper Conservatives the year before—and the group was forced to close down in July 2015.
In April of 2016 the provincial government announced the looming closure of more than half the province’s libraries. The move sparked protests province-wide and was eventually suspended. The provincial government granted a temporary reprieve to the libraries while commissioning a costly review process that has come under criticism of its own.
The public outrage that forced government to halt the closures was based on the well-documented relationship between libraries and literacy. Public libraries have astounding value, with Canadian studies showing a 563 percent return on investment.
During times of economic downturns public libraries see increased usage and have been shown to play an important role in combating unemployment by providing free access to skills improvement.
Moreover, in a province with patchy public internet access libraries have also served an important role connecting people in rural communities to the world. More than half of poor Canadians do not have internet access at home, and in a province where some communities don’t even have cellphone service the importance of these public spaces becomes even more obvious.
The most recent cuts have only been the latest in an ongoing process of undermining public libraries in this province. In 2012-13 a half million dollars was cut from the Community Access Program that supported public access computers at the province’s libraries. In 2013-14 another $1.2 million was slashed from the system, resulting in library staff cuts. The system was left with only five technical support staff for the entire province, and 77 of the province’s 95 libraries were left operating with a single staff person.
Again there is a pattern here of systematic cuts to one of the cornerstones of an educated society in this province.
The much-maligned book tax is the latest step in this broader pattern and it’s an astonishingly backward policy. There is a reason no other province in Canada is taxing books. Books are key to an educated society that is able to know right from wrong, and truth from fiction.
Books are key to an educated society that is able to know right from wrong, and truth from fiction.
The biggest victims of the book tax are the poor and the young — students who could barely afford overpriced textbooks to begin with, and those seeking to improve their knowledge, skills and basic understanding of the world.
Local publishers have argued that the tax immediately places them and N.L. authors at a disadvantage relative to the rest of the country. St. John’s bookseller Matthew Howse reported a meagre $6,600 salary last year. How the few remaining locally-owned bookstores in this province will survive is anyone’s guess. Local publisher Gavin Will of Boulder Publications has pointed to other jurisdictions like Latvia, which saw a 35 percent drop in book sales when that country began taxing them in 2008.
The biggest casualty is, again, the broader public in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Education and more
All of this compounds the consequences of recent larger and more direct cuts to education programs themselves. In a province that faced national embarrassment when it could barely produce a Supreme Court nominee who was bilingual, cuts to the K-12 system hit French-language education and led us backward to the era of multi-grade classrooms (the modern version of our grandparents’ one-room schools).
PC and Liberal governments have jointly eroded post-secondary education as well, with cuts that have kept infrastructure and maintenance from being addressed and hiked fees for students from rural parts of the province moving into campus residences. They’ve also undermined the much-touted tuition fee freeze (graduate students and medical students both faced devastating fee hikes this year, and international undergrads are no longer protected by the freeze).
What was once a national model for post-secondary education is now barely clinging to the edge of a fiscal precipice from which it may never recover, if these cuts continue.
A pattern of undermining educated society in N.L.
Each of these moves has sparked controversy and protest in their own right. It’s easy to be swept up in the latest turn of events and focus one’s outrage on individual cuts and policies. But this is a pattern, and it’s important to keep an eye on the bigger picture.
Government policies under both Liberals and PCs have resulted in a pattern of cuts that amount to a direct and devastating attack on an educated society in this province.
The politicians, mind you, are not the ones who will feel any of these pinches—neither they nor their families. They are by and large members of a rich class, who benefited and took advantage of the very institutions they are now cutting. They send their children to expensive mainland universities and they are able to continue buying books because they raised taxes on products we all pay for while keeping taxes low on their own excessively high salaries. In other words, they privilege themselves at the public expense.
[The cuts] are a systematic pattern of undermining education and the right to a dignified life for all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.
Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are right to react angrily to this. There is nothing new in an elite class dominating government and pandering to their own interests. But over the past decade this elite class has systematically pillaged the one thing that does allow for self-improvement, social mobility and a life of dignity: education.
Education and knowledge are important for individual self-improvement and crucial for the improvement and growth of our society. Education and knowledge enable us to think for ourselves, and to critically understand and analyze public policy.
Undermining literacy and knowledge benefits those who prefer to pull the wool over people’s eyes and diminish the voting public’s ability to think for itself.
These astonishing cuts have been minuscule in the grand scheme of things—a million here, a million there—while sacrificing so much. Slashing half the province’s libraries was aimed at saving a mere million dollars. The book tax has—with little evidence to back up the claim—been touted as generating $2 million. Yet this is a government that doesn’t bat an eye at tossing $3.6 million into the pockets of its own sitting MHAs by grandfathering them into a lucrative pension scheme.
So it’s clearly not about the money. There is relatively little being saved in the grand scheme of multi-billion dollar budgets and multi-billion dollar debts.
At best, the book tax reflects a government so ignorant and wrapped up in its own bubble of privilege that it doesn’t grasp what it has been destroying. At worst, it reflects a government bent on depriving the public of the ability to think critically and understand when government and other elite leaders are telling the truth and when they are lying.
These are more than just haphazard cuts. They are a systematic pattern of undermining education and the right to a dignified life for all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.
When the 2017 budget drops this spring, we will serve ourselves, our families, communities and our province’s future well to keep our eyes peeled for any attempts by the Dwight Ball Liberals to further entrench this systemic attack.