03 October 2016

The Way Forward #nlpoli

Last December, Dwight Ball laid out his plan to deal with the provincial government's financial problems.

Ball made the comments to CBC's David Cochrane a week or two after he'd been sworn in.  This was after he'd been briefed on the provincial government's financial situation, so he'd had a chance to get over any shock and figure out a plan to cope with an unprecedented financial mess.

Depending on whether you go with what Ball said last year or what he said at the Liberal fund-raising dinner last Thursday,  Ball was totally shocked to find out how bad things were or didn't bat an eyelid because he knew exactly how bad things were.  Take your pick.

Either way, here's what the newly minted Premier said were his three ways to handle the unprecedented financial mess:

1.  Find new sources of revenue.
2.  Make government services the most cost-effective possible.
3.  Make a better relationship with Ottawa in order to get infrastructure money.

That's it.

Over the past year, lots of people have ignored that interview and that list.  That's why they keep getting it wrong when they talk about the government's financial plan. Those three things are all of it. We are continuing the continuity.


Those three things are what Dwight Ball was talking about last Thursday night.  Ball told the 500-odd folks at a Liberal fundraiser a couple of things. Early in the speech, according to the Telegram's Barb Sweet,  Ball said the Liberals were not blindsided by the state of the province's finances they found once they got in office.

Okay. You can believe that if you want, but just follow along with the flow.  Ball was talking about the way ahead but he was really taking a trip back in time. That's what's important.  Hang in there, though, because you'll find a few chuckles along the way.

"We knew that things weren’t going well, especially with oil dropping."




Not going well.


Look at the flip-flop on sales tax.  Tories promised it. Ball reversed it despite warnings from the public.  Then Ball reversed himself yet again a couple of months later.  At the time of the second flip-flop,  Ball blamed his reversal of position on a drop in oil prices after he took office.  Last April,  CBC reported on a speech ball delivered to the Mount Pearl Chamber of Commerce.  "The premier said reneging on his HST promise 'took some teeth grinding,'" according to CBC,  "but claimed he didn't know just how bad Newfoundland and Labrador's financial state was until he took office."

There's an enormous contradiction there between what happened and what Ball said then and what he claims now. But as eye-rollingly stunned as it is to tell people something they can easily prove is bullshit,  don't get hung up on that. What you need to pick up out of this contradiction is Ball's effort to reinvent the past in such a way that, in his version, Ball didn't make any mistakes.  

I don't make mistakes

This is not a case of the multiplicity of meanings that Christopher Lockett wrote about when describing the experience of teaching poetry to first year university undergraduates. What Ball's speechwriter did in this case is a classic Dwightism.  Ball said something directly at odds with what he said before.  The purpose is crucial:  Where Lockett speaks of persuading others,  Ball's psychological purpose is largely to meet his own internal need.  Once you figure that out, however, you can start to decipher the rest of his speech.

The Liberals just did what they had to do in order to survive. "The economy was in deep trouble, and we had to react to avert further disaster."

There's a combination of ideas in that sentence. First: everything bad is in the past tense. Implicitly, it is done and gone. Second: justification and rationalisation. "We had to react"  is the planner/control freak's implicit standard explanation for mistakes. Reacting is the opposite of planning. Planning is the solution to everything whereas reacting is what you do when you are caught suddenly, unawares, without sufficient information.

Now that might seem like a contradiction with the whole idea that Ball knew all along how bad things were:  we were not surprised.  In fact, it is.  Confront Ball in an interview with those sorts of contradictions and you might have an interesting time.  But in the context of this speech that someone has cobbled together for him, you can find a series of discrete rationalisations that work within the context of the specific issue.  People don't work with a world that has one single thread all the way through.  The mind makes adjustments and allowances - rationalisation - that allows us to function.

The second bit  - "to avert further disaster"  - is a classic justification after the fact. Implicitly, that excuses any mistakes or excesses because the cause was right and just.

But all of that is in the past tense.  It is over. A key part of the Thursday speech was the promise that the Liberals would deliver their election commitments.  They weren't wrong.  They were not out of touch. They did not make promises merely to get elected.  No.  

George Michael.  No.  Billy Joel.  No. Billy Graham.  No. Got it: Jim Stockdale!  Who?
Jim Stockdale.

The Liberals are actually changing direction from the spring.  They have definitely abandoned any idea of cuts implicit in the spring budget.  The mini-budget is cancelled, although the Liberals are denying it furiously.  They have also withdrawn anything that looked like a cut especially if it got folks upset.

What Dwight's speech said on Thursday was that they will just pretend like last spring never happened. Since Dwight can never be wrong, though, he cannot say that or anything that sounds vaguely like it. So his speechwriter dug up an American Vietnam War veteran to talk about faith.  You have to have faith in the ultimate rightness of your cause.  Don't be a pollyanna, but know that if you stick to the course laid out in the beginning, then you will come out of things okay.  Not exactly the kind of spokesman to resonate with a local audience, let alone a Canadian one, but the image works.


"We retain the faith that by delivering on our five priorities we will establish a strong, diversified province, using the good fortune of its resources to develop and foster its economic, cultural, and natural strengths."   Good times aren't coming tomorrow, but the implicit message coming from the Premier is that he plans to hold things pretty stable. We might have some minor rough patches, but he is going to get back to what he promised last year.  Ball is going back to the five points. 

The key thing to remember about the Liberal election platform is that, as with the other party platforms, it continued the fundamental strategic course set by the Conservatives under Danny Williams. They would continue massive overspending. They would sustain the government's disproportionately large role in the economy. What the Conservatives had originally done through oil revenue would continue as borrowing,  precisely in the way Kathy Dunderdale and Paul Davis had done.

Muskrat Falls was an essential element in that plan since it provided enormous amounts of make-work in the near term. Dwight Ball has been an fervent support of Muskrat Falls since he had his first Nalcor briefing. He affirmed his commitment to the project last September.  Even in the face of Ed Martin's interest in quitting last April, Ball's first instinct was to try and persuade the architect of darknl and the Muskrat Falls disaster to continue in place. Such is the extent of Ball's deep, personal commitment to this project. An implicit expectation in the Conservative plan was that Gull Island would follow along in due course. There's no indication that is off the table.

Other than the modest trimming and re-organization in the five point plan, that's all Ball plans to do to cope with a chronic $2.0 billion structural deficit that wasn't created by the drop in oil prices but exposed by it. This is precisely what the Conservatives decided some time ago, with the continued help of Wade Locke. Hold the line on everything. Make a few adjustments along the way and eventually, everything will balance out.

The public sector unions have known this since last year. Ball has no intention of making any adjustments to the public sector beyond what attrition will bring. NAPE, in particular, has been running an expensive and aggressive campaign because they are assured of the government's intentions.

The difference between what the Conservatives had and what the Liberals plan to do is modest.  The Liberals have reintroduced some management techniques that should keep control of spending. And they are talking about "diversifying" the economy. Supposedly there was a plan. Paul Antle was supposed to deliver a second one, but nothing came of that.

On October 11,  Dwight Ball will confirm for us that the way forward he wants to follow is the same as the way that got us into this mess in the first place.  With a few minor adjustments here and there. Tories expected deficits of $1.0 billion annually every now and then.  The Liberals will accept $2.0 billion.  As long as they can find money somewhere,  they will keep spending it.

And just to show us all how much of a really huge change and really big deal all of this is,  the government will have a consultation.  Just the same as the ones they have had before.

But even samer.

Just remember Jim Stockdale.

Have faith.