19 April 2016

Responsibility #nlpoli

In the middle of all the screaming as the government unveiled its budget on Thursday,  the editor of a regional business magazine asked,  apparently in all seriousness,  "Biggest question of #Budget2016, How did NO ONE know that prev gov't spending was so out of line with revenues?"

Writing from her sabbatical in far-off England,  a CBC reporter with more than 20 years experience offered that the budget had "the reek of the wickedest hangover after a long, massive binge to end all binges."

"In 23 years in the biz,"  said the one to the other,  "what I'm seeing from afar looks like no other budget I've ever seen."  

"Same,"  said the other to the one.  "I've been following budgets around Atlantic Canada for 18 years and can't remember anything quite like this."

The simple observation on the second point is that we have seen budgets precisely like this one before, at least in the extent that it raised taxes and fees on all sorts of things.  We went through it routinely in the 1970s and in the 1980s and even into the early 1990s.  Budgets just like this one are well within the experience of both those observers' lifespans in this province and certainly within their professional lifespans.

So in observing the observers,  your humble e-scribbler found their shock a wee bit curious.  The only thing that was even more bizarre was the question about how no one had seen any of this coming.

The truth is, plenty of us saw the government financial problem. We didn't just see it. We wrote about it in public. A lot.  Government finances have been a staple of this corner since the blog started in 2005.  The first warning against government's spending trend was in 2006.  You can see the same warnings in 2007 when one of the two shocked journalists was busy writing about watching the peasants on the campaign trail all clamouring for a chance to "touch the hem of Williams' garment."

Williams, of course, was Danny Williams. Hisself,  Old Twitchy Shoulder, the  I-godda-tell-ya-at-the-end-of-the-day guy, the Saviour-du-jour.  The multi-millionaire guy who in 2003 drove himself around the island in a Winnebago, like regular folks, talking about how he was all about job, jobs, jobs. He's currently doing business as a the groom-to-be and head of a private sector hockey team subsidized by taxpayers, incidentally.

But in 2007, he was flitting around the province in a leased business jet plying the reporters lucky enough to have the privilege of trailing after him with the finest of finery. Even the reporters who jumping on and off the Leader's tour were not immune against enchantment, though as the garment-hem line shows. His message, dutifully reported by all the folks trailing after him, was that letting the Other Crowd back into power would lead us back to financial ruin. This Rock Star,  more rock starish than the rock star from the other team previously covered, was bigger. Better.  And in variably right in everything he did.

After all, look how popular he was?

Popular because he was right and right because he was popular.

Watching that Twitter exchange last week was a bit like reading bits of the Telegram lately where the editorial lists off all the times the paper generally or one of the editors in particular has warned about the idiocy of Muskrat Falls. Just for good measure, there's another one in the Saturday paper and yet another on Monday.  The only problem with those lists is that they really don't start in earnest until after November 2010 even though the idiocy of Muskrat Falls was patently obvious well before that.

Back then, before November 2010,  in the time now long forgotten by some, the folks working in the conventional media would not come handy to a story that called into question anything to do with the Saviour's administration as he built Jerusalem two point oh.  Too many people had too much riding on the bender for anyone to suggest that friends don't let friends drive public spending drunk on power.

If you want a good year to get a perspective on the past decade,  look at 2009.  In that year,  Paul Oram ran from cabinet in the midst of an episode that gave us an insight into the bizarre management practices of the crowd running the place at the time. All sorts of stories ran out of government about how they made up the budget.  None of it made any sense to anyone familiar with those sorts of things and none of it made it into the papers or onto the air.

As Oram jumped overboard, he screamed that government spending was unsustainable.  The local media reported Oram's comments.  Tom Marshall  - Danny's right hand - admitted it during a call to a local open line show.  By early the next year even  Danny Williams was in on the act. But they had good reason,  Danny said, and the media never took any of it up as a possible story line anyway. Danny said it was all for good reason and that was good enough for the newsroom.

That was also the year  we found out that in their desperate rush to get something built on the Lower Churchill River,  the provincial government had buggered around with the 1961 lease that underpinned the Churchill Falls development.  Confronted by Hydro-Quebec,  the government called an emergency session of the legislature to unshag what they'd been shagging with.

Nothing to see here, Williams said trying to scurry reporters away and, every one of them happily ignored the fairly obvious fact that emergency sessions of legislatures tend not to happen other than in wartime.  In Newfoundland, the last emergency session might well have been the one that sent the boys to war in 1914. These things don't happen every day.

To help scurry them on their way, Williams started a tirade about the friggers in Quebec, said tirade lasting into the early part of the next year.  The tirade was dutifully reported by the local media.  Constantly trying to shag us at every turn,  Williams spat and the pencils scribbled and the keyboards clacked gathering up every droplet of his bile for later regurgitation.

Won't let us put a bit of power across their transmission lines to market, Williams said.  Never mind that in April 2009,  Williams had proudly announced a deal that included shunting power across Hydro-Quebec's transmission lines into the states. No longer stranded, Danny said,  and the local media dutifully and enthusiastically reported what had been pinned to them by someone's Blackberry.

By the fall we were right back at the old fairy tale about how Labrador power was stranded.  The reporters repeated Danny's harrumphing and harrumphed along with it, as if they had not also covered the April story that proved Williams September claims were nonsense.  By the fall of 2010,  we had evidence from the Quebec electricity regulator that Williams' claims about "Quebec" perfidy were not true but local newsrooms covered the government's official misrepresentation that included the bit about stranded power.   Then in November,  stranded power was one of the reasons government offered for Muskrat Falls and the line to Nova Scotia.  The local newsrooms reported all of it as if it were real.

Broken election promises on the HST?

Here's a better one.

2002-2003.  In the racket over Roger Grimes' aborted deal on the Lower Churchill,  Provincial Conservative swear up and down they would never, ever sign a deal on the Lower Churchill that did not include compensation for the 1969 power contract.  Widely reported.

Williams said it again in 2005.  No redress, no deal.

September 2009.

Natural resources minister Kathy Dunderdale turns up on a province-wide radio show and admits that she,  Danny Williams, and Nalcor boss Ed Martin had spent five years trying desperately get Hydro-Quebec to take ownership of a chunk of the Lower Churchill project without any reference at all to compensation for 1969.  In fact, Kathy said, they wanted Hydro-Quebec to get fair profit.  In the five and a half years since then not a single local newsroom has reported the fact that Kathy said anything to Randy Simms at all, that day in September, let alone what she said, and they damn-well haven't spoken about that broken promise and all its implications.

Lots of folks saw lots of things,  including government overspending. They chose to ignore it all. Kathy Dunderdale said in 2011 and again after that the government was spending more than we could.  The Auditor General warned in 2008 we were overly dependent on oil prices, which we all knew could go up and down suddenly and unpredictably.  That, at least, was in all the papers even though readership of newspapers among the local movers and shakers is apparently in much greater decline than anyone realised. People missed the news about this whole spending too much money thing.

All the fruits of that incredibly poisonous tree of responsibility have now ripened and their rancid taste is clearly turning the stomachs of a host of people. A lot of those folks  - some of whom made a good dollar off it all - are retching up their guts on Twitter about last week's budget.  They are blaming the current crowd running the place as if they and their friends in the former crowd bore no responsibility for what is going on these days.  They relish their own childish antics online just like they did when they hauled down big government salaries goosing polls at VOCM.

The thing is that real men and women who put their trust in the politicians back then and the folks who enabled them are the ones bearing the very hard cost of a decade of excess,  excess they all grew very fat on. Not surprisingly, these days none of them can recall planting the tree or fertilising it or basking under its leaves for years or worshipping the gardener Hisself as the greatest gardener in the history of  gardeners, anywhere, ever.

But they did.

And if they don't like the taste of the fruit from their orchard,  they had better get over it.  There is a lot of fruit left to come.