19 October 2006

Haec tibi dona fero

I say to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians: "Ask not what we can do for our country, because we have done enough. Let's ask our country what they can do for us."

- Danny Williams, April 2001, acceptance speech on winning
the Progressive Conservative Party leadership

Few people likely noticed those words when Danny Williams uttered them. That is, no one noticed them buried away as they word in a very long-winded speech.

Few people likely understood the meaning of them and certainly, when Bond Papers posted them a short while ago, quite a few readers e-mailed to question either the accuracy of the quote or the meaning.

Rest assured the quote is entirely accurate and Danny Williams' meaning - both then and as his consistent actions have shown - could not be more plain.

As much as Danny Williams likes to talk about developing a province which is self-reliant, economically self-sufficient and of making the people of the province masters of their own destiny, his actions have consisted of a relentless pursuit of increased federal transfer payments to the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

His first, and so far only, major political success was in securing an offshore revenue deal with Ottawa. However, the January 2005 deal was not based on increasing the provincial government's revenues from offshore oil and gas. Rather it was, from the outset, an effort to increase the amount of federal tax dollars pouring into the Newfoundland and Labrador treasury.

Never mind that Williams claimed Ottawa was receiving royalties from oil development offshore Newfoundland and Labrador. Never mind that some people still believe that falsehood and that Williams has repeated it as recently as this past weekend. The truth of the matter is contained in the 2005 agreement itself:
2. This document reflects an understanding between the Government of Canada and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador that:

Newfoundland and Labrador already receives and will continue to receive 100 per cent of offshore resource revenues as if these resources were on land;
Danny Williams political career has been a single-minded pursuit of getting his country to do more.

The reality of Newfoundland and Labrador's fiscal situation is clearly shown in a report released Wednesday by the Fraser Institute. The report proposes a change in taxation, but in the opening section, the report's authors show the relative position of the positions when it comes to percentage of government revenues derived from federal transfers.

In Fiscal Year 2005, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador received 42% of its total revenue from federal government hand-outs, up from 40% the previous fiscal year.1 This is the highest in the country. Four other provinces - Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick receive between 30% and 39% of annual revenues from Ottawa. The other provinces receive between 10.4% (Alberta) and 17.9% (Saskatchewan).

That needs to be put in a proper perspective. In 1991 - in the depths of a recession and on the eve of the cod collapse - the provincial government received 44.6% of total revenue from Ottawa. Two years later, the figure was 46%.

However, by Fiscal Year 2004, the relative portion of the provincial government revenue from federal transfers had declined to 33%. This was a result of both changes to federal transfers and improvements in the Newfoundland and Labrador economy, most notably in oil production. Equalization, the ultimate federal hand-out had declined by 2004 to 20% of total revenue from an average of 30% in the decade before.

By the same token, in the past two years, federal transfers generally have increased in part as a result of decisions taken by the former Paul Martin administration. However, the share for Newfoundland and Labrador has been relatively small. The major increase - over $300 million in FY 2005 - has resulted solely the 2005 offshore agreement.

In some measure, Danny Williams weekend tirade reflects his concern that the federal government will undermine his deliberate policy of increasing provincial dependence on federal transfers. Danny Williams singular accomplishment in the past three years has to restore the provincial government to a fiscal position within Canada it has not seen since the darkest days of the 1990-era recession.

Successive provincial governments in Newfoundland and Labrador have sought and end to most transfers, particularly Equalization. Dependence on federal transfers severely limits the provincial government's ability to develop the economy, reduces its capacity to provide services and generally undermines its political authority within its own jurisdiction. Former federal cabinet minister John Crosbie could tell Brian Peckford and Clyde Wells to stop biting the hand that fed their administrations solely because it was true. His hand did feed them.

Brian Peckford's goal in pursuing offshore resource jurisdiction was an end to that ignominy. He first used the term "masters of our own destiny" and when he said it, the objective was clear. He may have failed to gain jurisdiction, however the Atlantic Accord (1985) provided the provincial government with all the management and revenue tools to use oil and gas as an economic engine for the government and for the province.

Similarly, Clyde Wells' Strategic Economic Plan and government spending reforms were aimed at economic self-sufficiency. Wells implemented, among other things, a series of measures that reduced the provincial debt and steadily reduced the percentage of debt held in volatile foreign currencies. By 2003, and despite the Tobin misadventure, the Williams administration inherited a provincial government that was substantially better off than it had been at any point in the preceding decade and a half.

The Fraser Institute report contains simple information that makes the current situation plain. In a mere three years, Danny Williams has managed to unravel the steady progress to genuine self-reliance of a decade and a half. He has restored Newfoundland and Labrador to a position of fiscal dependence on the Government of Canada not seen in over a decade.

Not contented with this accomplishment, Williams is now seeking to increase federal transfers to Newfoundland and Labrador, already the highest in the country as a percent of provincial revenue. If his Labrador hydro venture succeeds, Williams will either double the provincial accrual debt load or, through federal loan guarantees, increase dependence on Ottawa by an unprecedented order of magnitude.

Few people will likely miss the meaning of Danny Williams' words in the future as easily as the did in 2001.


1 The Fraser Institute report shows the figure as 58.7%. This includes the $2.0 billion one time transfer under the January 2005 agreement. The figure given above is obtained by re-calculating the percentage without the advance offshore payment.