23 January 2013

The Annual Mixed-Message Season #nlpoli

Right after Ross Reid’s new job, Jerome Kennedy’s trip back to the finance ministry was the second most overblown story of the past week or so.

Most seem to think Kennedy is headed back to finance in order to tackle the public sector unions as part of the upcoming budget. That gives a bit too much credit to the individual in all this.  The budget isn’t handled by one person: it is the productive of collective action by a committee of ministers called the treasury board and ultimately by cabinet.

As the recent Telegram editorial on Kennedy’s appointment noted, the budget is all but finished at this point.  They are absolutely right.  What has normally happened in January since 2003 is essentially about the government delivering some kind of message or other.  In January 2008, part of the message was about a pile of new spending right after the 2007 election. And then right on the heels of that  - in the same year - was finance minister Tom Marshall and his debt clock warning about impending financial doom.

Sound familiar?

Same Old. Same Old.

It should. 

Since 2003,  the Conservatives have usually deployed contradictory  messages at this time of year.  They want everyone to know they are spending because things are wonderful.  (Yay!)  At the same time, they trot out some story or other that they are shit-baked by the public debt to explain why they won’t be putting money somewhere else.  (Boo-hoo!) 

The “somewhere else” is usually nothing more complicated than what other people might want.  Other people means anyone who isn;t sitting in cabinet or in the Conservative caucus.  Remember the year – 2005 -  they spent money on just about everything except one thing:  a cancer clinic in a Liberal district?  Money everywhere else but not for cancer. 

In 2012, the Conservatives did the same thing as they’ve been doing this year.  They must cut spending and let people go from the public service.  The debt, don’t you know.  And then when budget day came, they increased spending and hired more people than they laid off.

As completely nutso as it seems, that’s what they did. They are back at it again.

One Government.  Two Messages.

So last week, it was Reid and Kennedy.  This week people are talking about a television commercial aired by the provincial government’s largest public sector union, NAPE.  There’s another bit of non-news for you.  The commercials are pretty simple but notice that they are basically just a re-hash of government’s contradictory messages.

Here’s an extract from one news report to show just how obvious it all is:

"You can't go to one group when you talk to the business groups and say, 'it's a great time of economic prosperity, we're making very sound investments and things are looking good for the future,' and then come back to us and say, 'We have no money, the cupboard is bare,' " [NAPE president Carol] Furlong told CBC News.

"We have two messages coming out of government."

You shouldn’t have them, but you obviously can.  Without the two contradictory messages, Furlong and her union mates wouldn’t have had such effective commercials.

What’s more, you can have them after a massive communications shake-up – supposedly – in the Premier’s Office that you’d think would have cured them of this fundamental mixed-message problem.

Whatever is going on here, there is much more to it than the idea that stuffing Jerome into the finance ministry means a tough line on the budget. We’ve been down this road, or one much like, every single year since 2003 to one extent or another. 

Would you believe Jerome on the Road to Deer Lake?

As a result, it’s doubtful that the same Tories who steadfastly rejected balanced budgets every year they’ve been in office,  who budgeted for huge cash deficits every year, and who generally created the current financial mess in the government have had a come-to-Jesus moment when no one was looking and transformed into the most tight-fisted crowd ever to sit on the treasury board.   That just did not happen, anymore than Jerome saw a bright light while he was on the road to a party fundraiser in Deer Lake.

Whatever is going on here, we’ll likely have to wait a bit to see what it is.  The only thing we can be sure of is that one Conservative government saying two completely contradictory things is no sign of anything but business as usual for the crowd currently running the place.