The fundamental strategic political problem Dwight Ball and his senior advisors have been busily building since last year exploded on Wednesday with the leak of a treasury board directive to departments, agencies, boards, and Crown corporations.
Ball has been promising that he would deal with the provincial government’s mess without layoffs. As recently as last week Ball said that attrition – job vacancies due to retirements – were the only way he’d consider job reductions in the public service.
Yet, the ministers of the treasury board have recently sent a note to departments, agencies, boards and Crown corporations asking them to come up with options to reduce spending by 30% over the next three years. There is no commitment that government will cut that much. This is an exercise in generating options for the cabinet to consider.
Make no mistake: the treasury board has asked for something that is perfectly sensible in every way given the size of the mess left by the Conservatives and the forecasts for government income over the next decade. A cut of 30% of current spending would amount to $2.0 billion. That is also roughly $4,000 per person.
Both of those figures are roughly the size of the current deficit and how far beyond the national per capita government income the province is spending. Newfoundland and Labrador brings in enough money every year to deliver all its services to public at costs comparable to those anywhere in Canada and have bags of cash left over for a rainy day. It is a jam at the moment because the Conservative administration knowingly spent every year more than it could afford for most of the past 10 years.
The only responsible decision the current administration could make is to cut spending to bring it in line with government’s income. Anything beyond that can go into a rainy day fund or be used to reduce public debt. In the meantime, there are plenty of things government can do in order to deliver services more efficiently and effectively than it does now.
Finance minister Cathy Bennett laid it all out succinctly for reporters on Wednesday afternoon: "When you do the math, we're short 28 per cent of the money we need to pay the bills." [Quote via CBC] If anything, Bennett is underestimating the current situation. Borrowing will actually make up something on the order of 36% of government spending on a cash basis.
What Bennett said this is week is what she should have been saying last week People need to get a concrete sense of both how serious the problem is and also where the government is thinking of going. They also need one person making the point clearly.
The 15 month “consultation” Ball, Bennett, and Siobhan Coady announced last week was a silly idea –a painfully, obviously Steve-Kent-ridiculous idea – before they said it. Government will have to issue a budget this spring, not 15 months from now. Not surprisingly, people have been engaged for the past week in making a raft of silly things to go with the silly conversation: free viagra, banning “Pipsi”, a communist revolution, a fascist revolution, cancelling inquiries into serious problems, eliminating enforcement of wildlife offences, and on and on.
All of that is trivial now as Ball’s political opponents can exploit the nakedly obvious difference between what Ball has insisted on relentlessly and what Cathy Bennett has now said. Ball will likely try to insist that “everything is on the table” is what he said and that’s what Bennett has said.
But the two things are not the same.
They are not the same because of all the times Ball said something different. His political opponents will trot out the clips if the news media does not. It’s easy enough and everyone will see it.
They are not the same because of all the times Ball listed off all the things he wouldn’t consider – layoffs included – right after saying “everything is on the table.”
Ball has been saying “no lay-offs” so loudly, so clearly, and for so long, there is no chance he did not mean it. No lay-offs is like his rejection of a sales tax hike. The problem for Ball is that, as he displays his fetish for consistency, people will come to one of three conclusions.
- They will figure that Ball was bullshitting them last spring and last fall, or,
- Ball did not understand the government’s financial problem either in the spring or fall of 2015, or,
- Ball didn’t understand what was going and went for the consistent bullshit anyway.
Yes, all three parties did precisely the same thing but the public will take out its wrath on the leader of the party that won the election and kept up the bullshit. Politics is a bitch like that.
What will make coping with his budget problem all that much harder for Ball is that he was supposed to come into office with a plan. He set Paul Antle loose on the province with the goal of coming up with some sort of magical economic development plan. Where is it? One smart reporter asked that simple question already. Ball had no answer. Where was the plan Ball supposedly had before that one? No one has asked that yet. Be assured, though, that Ball’s political opponents will play leap frog reminding him of all those captains of industry who evidently came up with nothing.
The pollsters will be back in the field soon. When Ball was leader of the opposition, he could get away with dumb political moves. Now that Ball is Premier, people notice everything he does. If Ball and the Liberals take a hit in the polls in February, his problems will get far worse than they are now. Recall the number of times SRBP noted the strategic imperative for the Liberals to give voters a reason to vote for them. Well, they didn't really. Liberal support last fall was big in the polls but soft at the door.
The gap between what Dwight Ball and Cathy Bennett have been saying about government policy became unmistakeable on Wednesday.
The question we have in front of us is what Dwight will do. Consistency is not really an option.