05 May 2016

The other side of the hill - choices and values 2 #nlpoli

Wednesday's post - Choices and values - came from the perspective of someone outside the echo chamber of politics in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Ordinary voters - who mostly do not work for the government -  don't feel like the pain from this budget is shared fairly by all.  They just don't believe any assurances that everyone else will feel comparable pain in the future.

But on the other side of the hill, the politicians have a perspective that we shouldn't ignore either.
Finance minister Cathy Bennett said something on Monday night that likely slipped past a lot of people She  said something to the effect that government had to be mindful of the labour force mix in the province.  What she was referring to is what regular readers of SRBP have known for years. The provincial economy is increasingly dependent on government spending, including all those staffers hired over the past decade.

Put that together with a number included in the budget briefings on the number of job losses coming from the three megaprojects forecast to wind up in the next couple of years.  Now you know why the government doesn't want to lay off the thousands of public servants they need to dump in order to tackle the government's financial mess.

The policy that the government has been following since 2006 has been to substitute government spending for sustainable economic development.  As economic conditions exposed the weaknesses in the approach,  the government did the least  they could do in order to keep things going while satisfying their creditors and the bond raters.

Muskrat Falls is chiefly a make-work project of stupendous proportions in a place that has thrived on spending government money just so people could have a job.  That's the main reason Muskrateers offer to justify the project.  They play up all the jobs it provides right now.  The thing will end eventually, but in the meantime, as mining slows and as Hebron and Long Harbour wind down, Muskrat Falls at least extends that bunch of workers for a couple of years.  They are also among the best paid workers anywhere in the province, too.

All that counts when the boom would otherwise fizzle. The Conservatives ramped up spending on capital works at the time of the last recession and they never stopped.  Muskrat Falls came among in 2010 both as an excuse for Danny Williams to leave politics and as the next big project to keep alive the entirely artificial boom time.

In that same sense, the money for the Stunnel project isn't an accident. The project has a champion in Ottawa in the form of Yvonne Jones.  She likely doesn't have much real clout but she would be a vocal proponent. No one would be surprised if Dwight Ball raised it during his recent meeting with federal members of parliament.  A project like this would also get a few excited supporters within the bureaucracy.  There's long been a cult within the provincial government mandarins that love these giant economic development projects.  They carry on a tradition dating back to the 1960s, at least.

That's another factor we shouldn't dismiss so easily, either.  The provincial public service has a perspective of its own.  In 2004, for example, they pulled together an old chestnut and got the politicians to restructure health and education into districts controlled from St. John's that mirrored the way the department was organized. When the next financial crunch came, they came forward with the next pitch:  cut the four boards to one. They got it in education, but didn't in health.

We might assume that the politicians make all the decisions but, as fans of the old BBC series Yes Minister know,  the bureaucrats can advance their own interests when the need arises.  That's why we shouldn't assume that government position on a fast food or junk food tax is directly connected to the fact the minister of finance owns fast food restaurants.

The public servants may well have had a brief already prepared that painted the tax in a way that discouraged anyone from pursuing it. They merely had to dust it off, bring it up to date and hand it to the minister.  You see there isn't an idea that came up in the vaunted consultations that the officials haven't heard a thousand times before.  They can easily argue for or against any idea as they wish.

If it wasn't the junk food tax,  another of the ideas might have been a pet project waiting for the right moment.  Ditching the small libraries might have been just such a thing.  In other instances, the officials are just very effective at defending efforts at making cuts.  The Women's Policy Office, for example, saw its budget reduced by a mere $400, according to budget figures.  The Office of Public Engagement had to cough up a mere $1,600 from its operational budget.

What's most amazing about the government perspective is that neither the Premier nor the finance minister talk about what is actually driving their decisions.  If Dwight and Cathy told people the unvarnished truth about why they made their decisions,  it might go a long way to rebuilding the trust everyone needs.  Had they been talking about their decisions all along - like say in response to the junk food tax - people wouldn't fill in the gaps with speculation.

As much as your humble e-scribbler can offer up some possible explanations for government decisions, why they keep screwing up their political management is just baffling.