01 December 2010

The finance minister who loved deficits

Give finance minister Tom Marshall credit for one thing is nothing else. 

Tom told a CBC Radio Morning Show [audio file]audience in St. John’s on Wednesday the God’s honest truth about oil royalties and recent windfalls;  Danny didn’t do it.

Those royalties are a function of three things, according to Tom:

  • price
  • production, and
  • the relative value of the dollar. 

And, sez, Tom, those are things the provincial government doesn’t control.  Regular readers of these e-scribbles will be familiar with the idea.

So there you have it, straight from an authoritative source:  Danny didn’t do it.

But the interview on Wednesday was also a chance for Tom to slip back into his regular routine of saying one thing that sounds sensible, all the while denying the insensible stuff he’s actually doing as finance minister.

He told CBC that:

"It would be a travesty if we don't use this windfall we have, this oil — which will be gone one day — if we don't use that to get rid of this massive debt that our people and our governments have accumulated," …

Only Tom Marshall could say that with a straight face. 

Don’t misunderstand:  not using the oil windfall to reduce the public debt burden in this province should be one of the provincial government’s main uses for the gigantic oil windfall.

The funny part is that the provincial government has been doing just the opposite of what Tom said.  He got the verb tense wrong and he ought to know it.  It is a travesty that the provincial government has not been using the oil windfall from the middle part of the decade to pay down the huge public debt. 

Not “would be”.


Tom Marshall, finance minister, has consistent refused throughout his entire term of office to accept any suggestion that would significantly reduce public indebtedness.  Marshall has been very clear about his desire to retain the right to overspend the public accounts free of any fetters:

I certainly would agree with fiscal responsibility legislation … but I'm not prepared to be locked in automatically to a balanced budget every year," he said [in April 2007].

The most he’d accept, apparently,  is a law that said balanced budgets might be an interesting idea.

Then Tom went right on jacking up spending whenever he could.  In fact, he boosted it up so high and so far that people have called the current financial state of the province as unsustainable.

Who said that?

Well, not just your humble e-scribbler.  There was – according to Marshall himself - an analyst for Moody’s bond raters who questioned the sustainability of public spending. Then there was a cabinet minister who muttered the word as he left cabinet.

And most recently, an analyst for the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council warned that the provincial government needed to tackle its massive debt before it started thinking about piling on even more debt for an energy megaproject.

That would, of course, be the massive increase in the public debt Tom Marshall and his colleague’s announced a week and a bit ago.

Tom Marshall:  debt fighter.

Or not.

- srbp -