27 October 2014

“We are an island economy” and other nonsense #nlpoli

CBC’s On Point  this weekend delivered up some all-too-familiar conversation on the budget and a political panel talking about Judy Manning but sometimes you have to look closely at things to appreciate the value in public comments by politicians and reporters.

In an interview with David Cochrane, finance minister Ross Wiseman confirmed that he cannot even think about trimming government spending because the economy is heavily dependent on it.  Wiseman put the figure at about 30%.

Regular readers of these e-scribbles have know this for years.  What’s news in this is that we have a finance minister admitting it publicly.

Then there is the stuff Wiseman said about the importance of waiting for the OPEC meeting in November to see if the cartel can hook a deal to drive oil back up.  Wiseman also said there’s lots of oil out there to be developed.  The provincial government strategy is to hold things together until prices go up and big oil production cranks up again.  In the meantime, Wiseman and his colleagues will just keep spending more than the people of the province can actually afford.

Again, this is stuff regular readers have heard before. The difference is that they heard it from Wade Locke,  last week.  Wiseman was just repeating Locke’s talking points.  But that’s no surprise since Locke’s been the current administration’s go-to guy for financial advice.

Keep spending until the oil gets here.

It sounds so familiar.

Those old enough will remember the dark days of the 1980s.  The oil companies found four fields.  Oil provinces shot through the roof.  Lots of people expected fantastic things to happen.

And then the price of oil fell through the floor.

Meanwhile the provincial government kept going with its program of funding work projects in areas of the province so people could qualify for unemployment insurance.  10 weeks of work would get another 42 weeks of UI benefits.  The scheme was known popularly as Lotto 10/42.

A national news magazine program did a profile of things in Newfoundland at the time.  They reported on Lotto 10/42.  They even interviewed a guy named Glenn Tobin who was minister of social services.  Lotto 10/42 didn’t exist, Tobin told the reporter in so many words.  But if it did, such a scheme wouldn’t matter, because in a few years the oil would be here and everything would be fine.

The difference between Glenn and Ross is that Glenn could look forward to oil money.  Ross and his mates have actually had upwards of $20 billion.  That’s the kind of money that would have made Glenn and his mates break down in tears with joy.  Ross and his fellows just spent all the cash and never put a cent aside for anything.

Well, except the Muskrat Falls insanity,  as New Democrat Lana Payne reminded us on the political panel after the Wiseman interview was done.  She didn’t call it insanity, of course.  You see, Payne was a huge supporter of Muskrat Falls.  She loved it because it was important for her political allies in Nova Scotia.  And she really loved it up because it was important for her political friends in Newfoundland and Labrador , the Conservatives.

These days Lana doesn’t say much about Muskrat Falls, but she did bring it up as a sort of reminder of Conservative thinking.  Lana seemed to be doing a bit more than that though.  She almost seemed to be giving us a  defence of the Conservative project.  “We are an island economy” she offered.

We are an island and this will end our isolation.  It’s a vintage Danny-ism and it is, to be absolutely clear the sort of utter foolishness that comprises the myriad rationalisations Muskrat supporters have offered up for the mess.

We are not an island, of course, not if “we” includes the people of Labrador and the huge part of the province they inhabit.  What Payne has done is give us a very good example of the world view of some people in Newfoundland and Labrador. They were very strong supporters of the Conservatives back when Danny Williams was leading them.

These people often talk about going across the province when they mean they go across the island. The island is the dominant bit and Labrador of not just secondary but tertiary importance. Labrador is a resource warehouse to be exploited. They’ll all take great offense when you point out that their world-view is out of step with current thinking, but the fact is, that’s what they are.

That’s also a defining characteristic of the Conservatives, by the way.  From 2003 onward, they spent most of their time working on problems from the 1970s. That would be building the Lower Churchill,  fighting with Quebec, or the original plan to renegotiate the 1985 Atlantic Accord. What wasn’t a rerun of That 70s Show was about much older ideas like Muskrat Falls, as justified by the Bay d’Espoir project.  using 1970s or 1960s era thinking to attack modern problems. 

The Conservatives used to talk a lot about how they were spending their time learning things.  They used words like “we”, as if the rest of us needed to learn the same basic things the Conservatives and their legion of supporters like Payne didn’t seem to understand was that time had passed. The rest of us had learned from the mistakes of the past. If only the Conservatives and their allies had paid attention, perhaps they wouldn’t be in the political mess they are in and, without doubt, the rest of us wouldn’t be in the financial mess a decade of persistent Conservative mismanagement has brought.