MHAs, what do we tell our children after Budget 2016?

Many are hoping Liberal MHAs, with a long weekend to ponder their role in shaping the province’s future, will return to work on Tuesday with their minds made up to put their constituents before their party and land on the right side of history.

I sent a letter to Minister Gerry Byrne, my MHA, on May 8. He has yet to reply.

Mr. Byrne was very visible during the election campaign and he’s always been forthright and outspoken. So I, rather foolishly it turns out, expected some kind of a response. In the letter
I reminded him that, as a result of the proposed budget, more than 65 percent of west coast libraries will be closed
, the fly-in community of Black Tickle, Labrador will lose its only nurse, people with diabetes will have their test strips reduced, seniors will lose dental care and home care, a disproportionate number of women will lose their jobs, people on near-minimum wage will have to pay a levy, and so on and so on. 

I also reminded him that experience and research elsewhere in the world shows that austerity budgets do not work. Meanwhile, the people feel hopeless and this is especially true of the generation of young people we will lose. I asked Mr. Byrne to vote against this budget and urge his colleagues to do so. It is hard not to conclude from Mr. Byrne’s deafening silence that he shares the contempt for the people of Newfoundland and especially Labrador that is the hallmark of the Dwight Ball government. Another signature trait of this government is their stubborn, almost proud, determination to turn a blind eye to people’s obvious pain. And this combines with their brick wall response to the many rational arguments put forward by academics and other citizens about their devastating budget.

Two days before the election, the premier claimed that he listened to his “500,000 advisors,” as he called us. Well, he is clearly not listening to us now. And, unless this budget is defeated, there will be a lot less than 500,000 advisors to listen to when his mandate expires in three years. It will be too late then, of course. Never mind making progress: rebuilding an economy back to 2016 levels will not be easy.

That’s why Justin Trudeau, another Liberal, avoided austerity. That’s why Alberta’s Rachel Notley brought in a jobs budget as her province tries to transition to a climate-friendly economy and diversify in other ways. These politicians are thinking ahead. 

 I  fully understand that we cannot afford many of the things that we have enjoyed for many years. But there has to be a rational and just way to have this conversation as a province.

Not here, though. The 2016 N.L. budget reads like a panic budget. And it’s worse that we think. Read Robert Sweeny’s analysis; you’ll see that the April 14 budget doesn’t match the government Estimates, which are the real meat and where our attention ought to be. If the budget is not knee-jerk and incompetent, it’s dishonest. 

Before I get dismissed as naïve, let me say I have two graduate degrees, I have traveled a great deal and I have lived in three countries and several provinces. I fully understand that we cannot afford many of the things that we have enjoyed for many years. But there has to be a rational and just way to have this conversation as a province. I know some fixing needed to be done and several economists explained to Ball and Finance Minister Cathy Bennett what to fix and how. These experts did not advocate austerity. 

This province has been stunted by the long history of politicians of every party stripe who raised expectations that there’d be every service in every cove on the Island.  How many of you in the House of Assembly went there with a plan to do anything differently? Honestly? Now, after entrenching this ghastly patron-client relationship, they tell us it’s all our fault. No, it isn’t. There is no plan, none. Only, presumably, a vague hope that oil prices will rise again sometime.

We’ve been taken in and then taken for a ride. People on minimum wage will suffer when they have to pay the head tax (or “levy”). Children who need mental health services will suffer. Students who need French in this bilingual country will suffer; actually, they are suffering already as their friends get their names picked out of the hat and they don’t. People with diabetes will suffer because strips are being withheld. People with tooth cavities will suffer because dental care is being withheld. Children who go to the shared school/public library to avoid bullying at lunchtime will be stuck in the school yard, and they will suffer. Seniors who can’t deal with e-readers will suffer. 

The library issue is especially painful; we are a recently literate culture and we are proud of the readers and writers we have become. Reading is part of what makes us human. This is the root of the grief over the coming closure of over half our libraries.

Even worse, I know from working there that the suffering in Labrador is of a whole other order, one which merits another column

Corner Brook MHA and Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Gerry Byrne listens as Finance Minister Cathy Bennett delivers the 2016 budget on April 14. Photo by Brian Carey.
Corner Brook MHA and Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Gerry Byrne listens as Finance Minister Cathy Bennett delivers the 2016 budget on April 14. Photo by Brian Carey.

The message to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador is that our government has little but contempt for us. With their patronizing admonishments, some of them actually seem to think we deserve to be punished. Do we want our children growing up with this message? Is it any better than Commission of Government? What jobs can our youth look forward to in this province? Who’s hiring? Government? No. The beleaguered university? Not much. Health authorities? Probably not. The oil industry? No. The increasing number of businesses that are hanging on by their fingernails? No. Who? Can you honestly encourage a young person to start their own business here? What do we tell our children about their future in this province?

Minister Byrne seems to think citizens don’t deserve his attention. Premier Ball and Minister Bennett seem to think that, if they repeat the ironic phrase “hard decision” enough times, we’ll take it. They’re not thinking and they’re not empathizing. My hope is that those Liberal backbenchers with a conscience — and there are enough of them to put this budget in jeopardy – will do lots of thinking this weekend. If they rise to the occasion, they will go down on the right side of justice and history.

Maura Hanrahan, PhD (London School of Economics and Political Science), is a professor at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University. Her writing has won awards in Canada, Britain and the U.S.

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