28 March 2013

Budget downs and ups #nlpoli

Earlier this year, our government projected a deficit for 2013-14 of $1.6 billion. 
We are now forecasting that the deficit has been significantly reduced to $563.8 million – a billion-dollar improvement to our bottom line.
That’s the way finance minister Jerome Kennedy started the 2013 budget speech in the House of Assembly on Tuesday.  He said the dramatic change to two factors:  more money coming in and “deliberate actions” by government to “rein in spending.”

One Telegram story on the 2013 budget ran with the idea of extra cash:  “Unexpected oil revenues help with deficit”.  Eight million extra barrels of oil production will bring in $265.5 million in new cash.

A CBC online story said the billion dollars came from two places:
Just over $301 million of the billion-dollar boost over recent projections is attributed to government cuts. Another $696 million came from improved expected revenues for the coming year.
Take away the money the Telegram tallied up and you get about $440 million.  The CBC story said that came from “…royalties or corporate taxes from oil and mining.”  Another news report added in a windfall in HST money from Ottawa.

All sounds wonderful.

The only problem is that the whole story doesn’t add up.

27 March 2013

The Debt is Passed: Budget 2013 #nlpoli

[Note – see below]

The throne speech promised that the same Conservative financial management that produced the current financial mess would continue and they delivered in Tuesday’s budget.

The strategic problem remains unchanged

The Conservatives will continue to spend billions in one-time cash from oil and minerals.  That’s the structural deficit people have been talking about and the Conservatives have done nothing to change that.

Tuesday’s budget gave us the year-end cash figures for 2012 and the forecast for 2013.  Here’s the chart from Monday’s post on deficits and surpluses that shows spending and the non-oil revenue.  We’ve updated it to include the cash figures for 2012 (actual) and 2013 forecast from the 2013 Estimates.  Remember that the Estimates are presented on a cash basis.

26 March 2013

The debt is passed #nlpoli

Monday’s throne speech was so bad that people started making fun of it almost immediately.  On Twitter a few of us tried changing lines from famous John Kennedy speeches and giving them a local twist

You could find a variation on the moon speech:  we will go into debt,  not because it is hard but because it is easy.  Another tried German:  “Ich bin ein Bauliner!”

Or this one from the inaugural:

The debt has been passed to new generation, born in oil riches, untempered by profligacy, undisciplined by debt.

None could top the corrupted Kennedyism an actual speech by the Old Man, Hisself in 2006:

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."

25 March 2013

Oil Revenues, Surpluses, and Deficits #nlpoli

The Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour hired the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives to issue a report on the upcoming provincial budget that basically says all the things that labour federation boss Lana Payne has been tweeting for weeks.

Here’s what the report’s author said in a news release from CCPA:

“The province’s economic fundamentals are strong. The task for the government is to ensure it doesn’t rock the boat and damage the province’s economy and social fabric with spending cuts.”

Things are looking pretty good, in other words.  The government has to be very careful because any big cuts would damage the economy.

As much as some people might think this is a challenge to the governing Conservatives, that’s not really the case. 

22 March 2013

House of Cards (Part B) #nlpoli

Continued from Part A

Terry Lynn Karl is the author of The paradox of plenty: oil booms and petro-states., one of the best known books on the resource curse or rentierism.  Karl described the essence of rentierism in an article she originally wrote in 2007 and revised in 2009:

Oil wealth produces greater spending on patronage that, in turn, weakens existing pressures for representation and accountability. In effect, popular acquiescence is achieved through the political distribution of rents. Oil states can buy political consensus, and their access to rents facilitates the cooptation of potential opponents or dissident voices. With basic needs met by an often generous welfare state, with the absence of taxation, and with little more than demands for quiescence and loyalty in return, populations tend to be politically inactive, relatively obedient and loyal and levels of protest remain low -- at least as long as the oil state can deliver.

In the extreme, oil wealth can disconnect a state from its population.  By the same token, oil can disconnect politicians from the population, transforming them from representatives who must satisfy voters in order to get re-elected to bosses controlling subordinates.

House of Cards (Part A) #nlpoli


This is the third in a four part series on the current financial crisis the provincial government is facing.  The first instalment – “The origins of rentierism in Newfoundland and Labrador” – appeared on Tuesday and the second – “Other People’s Money”  - appeared on Wednesday.  The third instalment – “Rentierism at the national and sub-national level” -  appeared on Thursday.


Finance minister Jerome Kennedy told the Telegram’s James McLeod on Wednesday that the provincial government had a structural deficit problem.

His proof was that government spent 60% or so of its total outlay each year on the social sector.  That includes health, social services, justice, and education.  If that’s what Jerome is worried about then he and his cabinet colleagues should know that in 2005, they spent 67% of their budget on the social sector.  In 2003,  the last year the Liberals ran the place, they spent about 64% of the budget on the social sector.

Before he goes all Grim Reaper, Jerome should know spending that kind of percentage on the social sector isn’t unusual for governments across Canada.  That’s been pretty much the norm since the late 1960s when governments introduce publicly-funded health care. In Ontario in 2012, for example, all but about $30 billion of the government’s $126 billion budget went to social program spending.

That doesn’t mean the provincial government doesn’t have a huge financial problem. They do. It just means that Jerome is looking in the wrong place to find a sign of it.

21 March 2013

Rentierism at the national and sub-national level #nlpoli


This is the third in a four part series on the current financial crisis the provincial government is facing.  The first instalment – “The origins of rentierism in Newfoundland and Labrador” – appeared on Tuesday and the second – “Other People’s Money”  - appeared on Wednesday.


A rentier is a person who lives off the income from property and investments.  That distinguishes a rentier from a person who earns income through labour.

For the past 40 years or so some political scientists and economists have studied something called a rentier state.  In simplest terms, a rentier state is one that derives a significant portion of its national government income from the money they get from oil and other high-value, but volatile commodities.  [FN 1]

For our purposes, we’ll rely on a definition of “significant portion” as being 40% or more of  government income.  [FN 2] We’ll also focus the discussion on states that derive most of their income from oil.

What we are talking about here goes by several names including  the Dutch Disease or even the resource curse.   Jeffrey Frankel of the Kennedy School of Government put it this way:

It has been observed for some decades that the possession of oil, natural gas, or other valuable mineral deposits or natural resources does not necessarily confer economic success. Many African countries such as Angola, Nigeria, Sudan, and the Congo are rich in oil, diamonds, or other minerals, and yet their peoples continue to experience low per capita income and low quality of life. Meanwhile, the East Asian economies Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong have achieved western-level standards of living despite being rocky islands (or peninsulas) with virtually no exportable natural resources. Auty (1993, 2001) is apparently the one who coined the phrase “natural resource curse” to describe this puzzling phenomenon. …

20 March 2013

Other People’s Money #nlpoli


This is the second in a four part series that offers an interpretation of the current financial crisis the provincial government is facing.  The first instalment – “The origins of rentierism in Newfoundland and Labrador” – appeared on Tuesday.


As much as people imagine a great difference between the Confederate and anti-Confederate forces during the National Convention, the two agreed on one thing:  someone else would have to pay for Newfoundland’s return to responsible government.

The London delegation asked the British government to provide the erstwhile country with money. The British balked, pleading their own financial hardship after a long and costly war.  That refusal is largely what prompted Peter Cashin to claim that the British were trying to sell the country the Canadians.  As many words that have been spilled and as many books sold trying to prove the conspiracy existed,  there’s never been a shred of proof that such a plot ever existed outside Cashin’s frustration.

The Ottawa delegation found wealthy Canada more receptive to the Newfoundlanders expectations and after a first referendum and a run-off vote, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians voted to become part of Canada.  For Labradorians the moment was especially sweet.  The National Convention and the referenda were the first time any residents of the mainland part of the country had ever been allowed to vote.

19 March 2013

Structural Versus Cyclical: a quick look #nlpoli

Is the government facing a structural or cyclical deficit?

Good question.  Their economist says it is a structural problem but his comments to the Telegram on March 13 suggest he is approaching the problem as if it would sort itself out.

The whole structural versus cyclical question hinges in part on the question of government revenue when the economy is working at full output versus when it isn;t.  Well, in Newfoundland and Labrador, that is a bit hard to figure, especially when the government claims that locally everything is great but that it doesn’t have any money.

People get confused.

Well, one  way to start getting a handle on this is to look at the 2011 and 2012 budgets and the related income and spending.

The Origins of Rentierism in Newfoundland and Labrador #nlpoli


Over the next four days, SRBP will offer an interpretation of the political underpinnings of the current financial crisis.  This series goes beyond the immediate to place recent events in both historical and comparative, international perspective. 

The first two instalments briefly describe some characteristics of the political system and Newfoundland political history before 1934 and from 1949 to about 1990.  The third post will look at the concept of the rentier state and the relationship between dependence on primary resource extraction and politics at the subnational level (states and provinces).  The fourth post will place recent developments in Newfoundland and Labrador in the larger context. 


Before 1949, the Newfoundland government’s main source of income was taxation of imports and exports.  The Amulree Commission reported, for example, that the government brought in around $8.0 million dollars in the fiscal year ending in 1933.  Of that, 71%  - $5.7 million  - came from customs and excise duties.  The next largest amount was $700,000 (about 9% of total) that came from income tax while the third largest source of income was postal and telegraph charges totalling slightly more than $587,000.

Newfoundland also had almost no experience of local government before the Commission Government in 1934.  St. John’s was the only incorporated municipality and the city council was quasi-independent of the national government. 

Beyond the capital city, the national government “managed a highly centralized system through the stipendiary magistrates stationed in each electoral district, “in the words of historian James Hiller in his recent note on the Trinity Bay controverted election trial in 1895(FN 1).  The central government also appointed the members of some local  boards to manage education and roads.  The money for all of it came from accounts controlled by St. John’s.

The members of the House of Assembly had enormous control over government and that public money.

18 March 2013

Hobson’s Choice #nlpoli

The provincial Conservatives love to spend public money. 

That doesn’t sound very conservative and it isn’t.  Politically, the provincial Conservatives in Newfoundland and Labrador are more like Republicans than the Progressive Conservatives who used to run the province in the 1980s. American Republicans like to cut federal taxes and jack up federal spending and then blame the resulting financial meltdown on the Democrats.

Around these parts, the Reform-based Conservative Party, as the Old Man used to call them, blames everything on the Liberals.  That is the Liberals who, in case you missed it,  haven’t been in power in a decade.

14 March 2013

The Wrong Tool #nlpoli

About two thirds of the people in the province who file tax returns earn less than $35,000 a year before taxes.

It’s the kind of detail that you cannot banish from your mind when you read about the politically popular economist Wade Locke.  The guy who directly and indirectly helped the provincial government create the current financial mess is on a leave from his university job to help with the new budget.

As the Telegram reported on Wednesday, Locke’s “contract with the government stipulates that he'll be paid $250 per hour for his consulting work to a maximum of $75,000.”  That would be on top of the 80% or more of his university salary that he is entitled to for being on what the faculty contract calls a “sabbatical” leave.

The Telegram also reported that Locke said he would only bill taxpayers one dollar at the end of his contract.  Let’s take him at his word.

Still, you have to wonder why he would sign a contract in the first place for more than twice what most people in the province make in a year.  Don’t misunderstand.  A consultant should get what he can earn and if Locke can get someone to pay $250 an hour for his services, then more power to him.  Given the context, though,  the contract is still rather distasteful.

Locke’s supporters will defend any amount of money because they value his advice. And that’s really where we can peel back the cover on this little can and see what is inside.

13 March 2013

Land of Confusion meets World of Hurt #nlpoli

From Tuesday’s Hansard comes this chilling reminder that even the Premier has no idea what is going on with the province’s finances.
Mr. Speaker, I again have to implore the members opposite to stop pretending that you do not understand the fiscal structure of the Province. The $600 million that was earmarked in the Department of Natural Resources was not contained in the current budget, Mr. Speaker. That was contained in investment. There is a difference between a capital budget, the investment budget, and the current budget. 
Muskrat Falls has nothing to do with the deficit we are experiencing this year…
Let’s break it down.

The Ongoing Net Debt Fallacy #nlpoli

In a post that starts out about Muskrat Falls, the Telegram’s James McLeod does a fine job of laying out some basic information about debt, deficit, current account, capital account and other bits of the provincial budget.

Read it.  Unless you have been living this sort of stuff up close for years, you will learn something.  If nothing else, you’ll get some insight into how some local politicians have been buggering up this sort of stuff because frankly it is complicated and they don’t understand it.

Regular readers of these scribbles will know that SRBP includes Kathy Dunderdale and Tom Marshall among the people who get confused.  You can add others from all parties.

The Arse that Laid the Golden Turd #nlpoli

The provincial cabinet has been burning the midnight oil the past couple of nights. 


Late night sessions that ended God-knows-when, night after night.

Apparently, they are trying to figure out what to do in order to get out of the massive financial and political hole they have dug for themselves over the past decade.

As bizarre as that might seem to some people,  the politicians who created the mess have no idea yet what they are going to do.  All that Premier Kathy Dunderdale and finance minister Jerome Kennedy have been able to offer lately are lots of vague comments about when the budget might be or how many lay-offs there might be. Dunderdale put a number of 500 lay-offs out there a few days ago but frankly, that’s about as reliable as her forecasts from last year. 

And when Jerome told David Cochrane that they were still working out the Sustainability Plan, he was not bullshitting.  He meant it, even though he claimed they had already started implementing the plan last year.

If you are familiar with government budgets and how these things normally get sorted, then odds are you are reading this now that someone has been able to revive your unconscious form.  

12 March 2013

Are you ready for this again? #nlpoli


It seems like only yesterday that the young man from the Pearl was the mayor of the cozy city.


Tories below 30 #nlpoli

By now you’d be living in a cave if you hadn’t heard any news of the latest Corporate Research Associates poll.

The NDP are slightly ahead of the Tories and both are about 10 percentage points ahead of the Liberals.  More people want Lorraine Michael as Premier than want Kathy Dunderdale.  And a majority are unsatisfied with the government.

Now this is an historic set of poll results as Don Martin tweeted to tease people about the release on Monday morning.  The release doesn’t make any reference to that, preferring instead just reporting the results blandly.  By contrast, Mills hyped the living crap out of poll results a few years ago that hit historic highs. 

11 March 2013

More and Less #nlpoli

Finance minister Jerome Kennedy is supposed to know about the economy and stuff.

During an interview with CBC provincial affairs reporter David Cochrane for On Point, Kennedy said that in the 1990s the government was the main employer in the province.  The implication was that the public sector wasn’t what it used to be.  People laid off from the public service could find work much more easily in the private sector as a result.




Muskrat Falls weakness: the North Spur #nlpoli

The north side of the site of the future Muskrat Falls dam has a problem.  The soil is made up of clay that has a tendency to sheer away in landslides when it gets too wet. The North Spur, as it is known, is a key part of the reservoir.

Cabot Martin has documented the whole thing in a slide presentation based on documents released during the environmental reviews of the project.

According to Martin, Nalcor won’t have a potential solution to the problem or know the cost until sometime this year.

08 March 2013

No adult supervision #nlpoli

Not even 24 hours after the Premier insisted that the daily layoffs would continue until finance minister Jerome Kennedy delivered his budget speech,  Jerome issued a news release  - at 1:30 PM - announcing that they would be holding off on further layoff announcements until he delivered the budget speech.

As it turned out, NTV’s Mike Connors had tweeted around noon that the “Premier says government has decided to stop the trickle of layoffs until budget day.”  CBC’s David Cochrane tweeted the same thing.

Cochrane and Connors also noted that -  as Cochrane put it -  “Premier says more than 500 jobs will be cut in budget. Not all layoffs. There is retirement incentive. No more cuts until budget.”

Meanwhile, 17 employees in a raft of departments got word today that they were headed for the door. 

Apparently, those are the last ones until the budget speech.

Body Count #nlpoli

“We've now confirmed 98 layoffs across government today,” tweeted CBC provincial affairs reporter David Cochrane on Thursday afternoon.  “Working on departmental breakdown…” 

Cochrane broadcast the casualty figures for each department later:
Breakdown by department: 10 Advanced education/skills. 6 CYFS. 13 Environment. 4 Finance. 6 Fisheries. 23 Health. …7 Exec Council. 2 IBRT. 10 Justice. 9 Natural Res. 2 Tourism. 6 Transportation. 62 of 98 jobs cut were union jobs.
That’s the way it has been for the province’s political reporters since the end of February. Cochrane, NTV’s Mike Connors, and the Telegram’s James McLeod tweet on how many layoffs happened on that day, the number in each department,  how many belonged to which union and how many were non-unionised.

07 March 2013

No planning and priorities: Conservative cabinet committees - 2013 #nlpoli

There’s one little gem in James McLeod’s pile of censored orders in council that isn’t censored.

It dates from January 2013 and gives the current list of cabinet committees.

There’s the economic policy committee:
economic policy
There’s the social policy committee:
There’s the treasury board:
And there’s the routine matters committee:
Charlene Johnson and Tom Hedderson also sit on that routine committee.

There’s a curious omission in this list and it doesn’t appear to be a case where the committee make-up didn’t change after the cabinet shuffle with Jerome Kennedy and Tom Marshall.

There’s no planning and priorities committee, apparently. That’s odd because P and P is usually the key cabinet committee chaired by the Premier and responsible for the strategic direction of government. Kathy used to have one in her cabinet.  Every cabinet in Canada uses a planning and priorities committee.  Most have had one for the past three decades or more.

At some point, the Newfoundland and Labrador one seems to have vanished without an effective replacement.

That would explain a great deal.

It would explain, for example, why the Premier often seems to be unaware of what is going on inside her government.  She wouldn’t know because she doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the running of cabinet.  And that, more than anything else, is what the Premier is supposed to be doing. 

Rather than being the boss, Kathy Dunderdale often appears to be nothing more than the government’s official spokesperson, the dead parrot as it were.

In the absence of a P and P committee,  cabinet would have to hope that the key committee chairs could sort out among themselves what to do.  They would be:
  • Joan Shea, chair of economic policy,
  • Susan Sullivan, chair of social policy, and,
  • Jerome Kennedy, president of treasury board.
Whatever the government is doing, these three would know about it and approve of it. 
In December 2010, cabinet had a P and P committee.  It’s members were:

p and p 2010


The New Secret Nation #nlpoli

On the front page of Wednesday’s Telegram was another instalment in James McLeod’s blockbuster on the provincial government’s policy of censoring public documents.

This one focused on the claim by a spokesperson for the public engagement office that orders in council were not covered by a section of the province’s access to information law that prohibits disclosure of cabinet decisions even though the orders are essentially cabinet decisions.

At the same time, the spokesperson said the orders were subject to other sections of the act that allowed government officials to censor them selectively.

Yes, that is exactly as screwed-up as it sounds.

06 March 2013

Exploits on the Exploits #nlpoli

In Nova Scotia, the provincial government has to beat prospective woods companies with a stick to keep them in line in the rush to take control of lands from the former Bowater mill in that province.

Seven groups want to get some part of the 220,000 hectares, a power plant, a mill site and all the timber that used to go into the paper plant.

Pennies and Pounds #nlpoli

In May 2011, the provincial public works department issued a call for proposals to replace the lift bridge in Placentia.

In August 2011, the department scrapped the project and went back for a re-think.  They got only one proposal for $43.25 million, which upset them given that they had figured it would only cost $24 million.

In March 2013, they accepted a tender for $40.6 million to replace the bridge. The release noted that the new tender was $2.5 million less than the one they’d cancelled.

Nice thought, that, but it actually isn’t a true reflection of the situation, is it?

Budgeting Control and Resources #nlpoli

Shortly after the 2003 general election, the newly elected Conservative politicians accepted a proposal to cut down the number of health boards and education boards across the province.

Save money, they said.

Save money, the politicians repeated.

And so it happened.

As it turned out, the consolidation didn’t save any money.  It certainly didn’t reduce the public service payroll, a goal the Conservatives set out in their election platform.

05 March 2013

Where once they stood… #nlpoli

Labour federation boss Lana Payne made an interesting comment on Twitter over the weekend:  “there is never a time for austerity.”



You can hear all those Newfoundland politicians from the 1920s applauding her from the grave.  Those were the same politicians who spent the government into bankruptcy in about a decade.


Just when we needed new ideas… #nlpoli

There’s no small laugh to be had listening to Wade Locke, the government’s favourite economist.

He was all over the media on Monday talking about fiscal responsibility, cutting spending and all that sort of stuff.  You can find a tidy summary from the Telegram.

A couple of decades ago, Locke was advising the public sector unions.  Back then he was all in favour of borrowing and spending and spending and borrowing despite the crushing public debt and the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression. Fast forward and Wade’s singing a different tune.

The laughs Locke can generate get much bigger when you look at the rest of what he had to say to reporters.

04 March 2013

Kent to preside at envelope opening #nlpoli

As we approach the umpteenth anniversary of the internationally-accessible Internet, a website is about as far from news as anyone can get.

That’s why it was so laughable last week to see the junior fart-catcher apprenticed to the province’s minister of secrecy and obfuscation issuing a news release and holding a news conference to herald a completely trivial event like the launch of a new front page (!) to a website..

The only thing left for Steve Kent to do is invite the representatives of the province’s news media to gather ‘round as he opens an envelope. Even the Voice of the Cabinet Minister might not attend that sort of snore-fest or the subsequent events in the series: Kent to check e-mail and Kent posts Twitter message.

Censoring Public Documents… or not #nlpoli

Not only does the provincial government now censor public documents called orders in council, they can’t get their own scheme right.

Public engagement minister Keith Hutchings published a letter to the editor claiming that government had always censored orders in council.  The Telegram dutifully went back and asked for some of the same documents they’d received before with censored sections blacked out.

A front-page story in this Saturday’s edition (March 2) lays out the details.

01 March 2013

Party Spending on Polls #nlpoli

Over the past decade, the provincial Conservatives have consistently outspent the other parties in the province on polling and similar research in both election and off years, according to figures filed with the province’s elections office.

The table below shows the amounts each party reported as spending on research and polling. In general election years, the figures are the reported figures for the general election periods.  Parties also may have spent money outside the election period. That isn’t included here.