28 April 2016

Not fit for it, indeed #nlpoli

Once upon a time not so long ago, you would think politics in this province was a mash up of  Nineteen eighty-four and Animal Farm.

These days,  the Orwellian times in which Danny Williams thrived seem a kindergarten compared to the Franz Kafka novel which we now inhabit.

"Before any election the [Auditor General] should make public the financial state of the province,"  some fellow said on Twitter Wednesday morning. 

"This should be done yearly by a non-partisan person. hold the gov accountable, TO US VOTERS,"  said another fellow in reply.

"It's already done,"  said one of the Known Critics.  "It's called the Public Accounts [issued by the Auditor General every year]."

"REALLY???"  replied the US VOTERS guy.  "Liberals say this, PC'S say that.. which is it? who do ya believe?"

In another part of the unreality called Twitter, some people particularly frigged off by the budget hit on the idea of pressing their members in the House to vote against the budget. They started a petition. It was a spectacularly democratic idea, even if an impractical one seeing as they do not live in a democracy worthy of the name.  A couple of reporters and a university academic put them right, arguing such a scheme would not work.  Another wag said that people should be able to get a break on their levy if they attended an approved course on how government and democracy worked.

Like so much of Newfoundland politics, their arguments were both right and wrong at the same time. Right in theory, but spectacularly wrong in practise. The Premier in power wants to stay in power. He and his colleagues will hold things together by treat or threat as long as others will go along with it. The budget is a fundamental test of a Premier's support in the House.  Lose a budget vote and you lose the job. No Premier in his or her right mind would let there be a free vote on a budget.

In the 1920s, when parties were even more fluid things in Newfoundland than they are these days, politicians would change parties whenever they thought they could cut a better deal for themselves with another coalition. The House of Assembly in the 1920s in Newfoundland was like an Italian parliament without the sense of unity and cohesion. One finance minister introduced a budget, then crossed the floor and voted he had no confidence in the government he had been part of and the budget he produced.

There's not much chance that will happen now but the Liberals are in a pickle and need to do something to get out of it.  The biggest irritant is the levy.  People think it is unfair and they still bristle at the way millionaire business owner Premier Dwight Ball dismissed talk of changing it with the claim that rich people in the province already pay enough taxes. That sort of thing just rubbed salt in the very big wound Ball's budget opened.

For her part, finance minister Cathy Bennett is not for turning. The budget she read is the budget that will go to a vote.  If the lady is not for turning,  her boss would be if he could. In two days,  Ball and Bennett said different things when faced with the question of budget changes. This is par for the course and part of the Liberal's deeply rooted political management problems but expect them to hold it together.

Ball's five minutes on VOCM with Fred Hutton did not go well on Wednesday morning, largely on that issue of changing the budget.  For good measure, Ball will go on VO's morning talk radio show and face Paddy Daly for an hour on Thursday. Get your popcorn, folks.  Thursday morning should be a hoot and a half, well, if you like watching Christians being torn apart by lions.

The part of the Christians will be played by Ball, he of the recent flag waving fiasco. The part of the lions will be played by the folks stuck with the tax increases.  Many of the lions were pussy cats a few years ago in the face of another Premier, the one who caused the current financial mess. They were silent  - even as they watched him make a mess - because he never bothered them.  He spent lavishly, hired them and their relatives at top dollar,  spared no expense, and gave them money either as a tax break or if they got knocked up. Can't be a dying race, you know,  so take one for the team and a thousand bucks, plus a hundred a month in pin money for the first year after. The Cash for Kids scheme is a casualty of the budget. The Conservatives paid people in the province to screw but, as it turned out, we will have to pay far more for the screwing the Conservatives gave us.

Some people may find the language to describe those days to be crude but then again those days were crude.  Newfoundlanders have long had an attachment to politics but only to the extent they could get something out of it personally. Usually, cynics will say it is only the politicians, but the truth is most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians look on politics as a game of goodies.  They judge success or failure based on the goodies they win. The politician who could bring the goodies back to the district got the vote. It's why casting a vote for the losing candidate is often called losing your vote.  An election was a lottery and the folks on the winning side would get jobs and all sorts of favours.  The losers got nothing.

After Confederation,  people looked at budgets each year the same way but also to see how much they'd have to pay for smokes and booze.  A lot of them checked for make-work projects or other chances to get a bit of government work so they could qualify for federal pogey.  The oil boom a decade ago changed all that.  People didn't bother with the trifflings when they could plunk down 60 large in cash for a brand new truck from the six figures they made flying in and flying out of a project in Saskatchewan or Alberta. They voted to keep the gravy flowing but as it started to look like there was no need to vote anymore in order to keep the pork piling up, they stopped voting.

That changed a couple of weeks ago as folks got a small part of the bill for the decade-long party. Now they pay attention again. People are angry. Shit got real, as the kids say these days. Now some of them are talking about "democracy."

Many of the angry are ordinary folks.  More than a few are ardent Conservatives. Those are the ones who get a bit snippy on Twitter if you say stuff like the Liberal Levy will pay for the Danny Debt. They are the same sort who used to tell your humble e-scribbler he was wrong when he said the Conservatives were overspending and that Muskrat was nutso.  These PCs would say that more people would pay attention to SRBP "if you just said something nice about Danny once in a while."

Sure b'y.  Like Old Twitchy Shoulder needed more people licking his boots.

Newfoundland and Labrador is a place unlike any other. Entrepreneurs here are iffy about free enterprise. Businessman Paul Antle public opposed any talk of privatising government owned liquor stores on the basis of misinformation fed him to by the province's largest public sector union.  Fewer stores, less selection, Antle claimed.  The example in Alberta  - for one - is precisely the opposite.

But Antle is like the St. John's Board of Trade who backed Muskrat Falls - essentially a make-work project for businesses  - that included an end to any chance of cheaper electricity due to competition. In 2012, the government passed a law that gave the government-owned energy corporation a monopoly on electricity generation. It guarantees that everyone in the province will pay more than they should for electricity.  Local companies will be at a competitive disadvantage. Business leaders supported the project based not on return on investment but on the need for pride.

Newfoundland and Labrador is a place where the first government to spend like a caricatured New Democratic government was one run by the Conservative party.  The Conservatives expanded the public service to an ever greater extent, increasing its role in the provincial economy.  The business leaders cheered.

On the political left,  academics call this neo-liberalism, even though neo-liberalism is supposed to involve dismantling the state in favour of greater and greater corporate freedom.  But that is like the other infatuation of the pseudo-intellectual elite in Newfoundland and Labrador.  They foam and froth about "austerity" in the budget last year and again this year.  Both budgets increased spending by 12% each year.  Nothing is cut but the left and its political mouthpiece the New Democrats decry the massive cuts to government spending.

This is insane.

No one notices.

They scream about the pain inflicted on the poor.  Their student wing is afraid that a long-standing freeze on university tuition will disappear, to the detriment of the poor.  The students saying this are - like most university students - from middle class and well-to-do families.  They pose as defenders of the poor as they argue for their own self-interest.  The tuition freeze is a wealth transfer from the public coffers to the people who do not need the money to go to university. In Newfoundland and Labrador, this wealth transfer includes families in Nova Scotia.

Newfoundland is a place like no other.  The most popular book of Newfoundland nationalist history is a fiction written by a comedian.  The nationalist newspaper of record is the Toronto Globe and Mail.  This is not a nation in any real sense of the word.  This is a place where public debate at a time of public emergency is not on a high plain, full of talk of social responsibility.


This is the time when and a place where an incompetent university administrator writes a pile of trash on a blog and people at the CBC next door call it a "scathing" attack on the government's "austerity" budget.  This is not news.  The CBC used to get news from real people who will be hard hit by the budget. That was when they worked down town and tripped over them on their way to Hava Java and, latterly, Starbucks. These days the Americanised Here and Now gets its "stories" from the better parts of town.  Now the stories are nothing more than the marriage of lazy reporting with the convenience of someone with a penchant for offering bullshit instead of leadership.

The three political parties in Newfoundland and Labrador are no better.  They are superficially different but, in truth, they are all alike. They say they know how bad the province's finances are.  Last fall they all promised precisely the same thing as the Liberals. The only difference among them is that the Liberals got elected.  Now the Conservatives and New Democrats claim the Liberals lied.  They all said what they needed to say to get elected. The ones that got elected now have to face the reality of the mess and,  no matter how much we might all hate it, they are at least trying to do something.

It is telling that at such a time of public need, the out-parties in the province are looking out for themselves.  The public interest is second.  The two out-parties will not say what they would do in the Liberals' place. They just say what they need to say now to win public support. Scrape away the pretence. They want to continue on the path we were on, just as the Liberals would, really, deep down, if they could.  The only difference is that the ones in power have been forced by the province's creditors to straighten up their act.

All the folks screaming about this budget are the same.  A decade ago, they all went along with what was popular, because it was popular.  The only difference these days is that one crowd no longer has the luxury of turning a blind eye to the overspending and waste.  If you want a measure of the magnitude of the current hypocrisy,  ask former NDP boss Lorraine Michael why in 2010 she thought it was fine to let the poor and people on fixed incomes in this province pay for free electricity for a a privately owned Nova Scotia company.  See if you can get an answer, let alone an honest one.

If you asked all the crowd worried about democracy these days if they would accept a Commission government, you'd probably get a majority ready to give it up if they thought they could win the government spending lottery.  Don't kid yourself. Not a lot has changed.  In the 1930s,  their grandfathers were quick to agree to just such a scheme in the hopes that the commission would just keep the trough filled over their snouts and up to their ears.