04 January 2017

Spending the future (2005) #nlpoli

" [The change in the province's financial outlook] That's very dramatic...Some people are going to stand back and say 'Oh yeah, that's just because your very lucky. That's because the oil prices have gone up.' Well, no. That's part of it. But we had a tough budget, a prudent budget. We've managed the province, fiscally, very tightly."

Premier Danny Williams
Quoted in "Cash boon may fund province's infrastructure"
by Rob Antle, The Telegram, 22 October 2005, p. A3

Premier Danny Williams is absolutely correct.

The provincial government's financial state is a direct result of oil and gas revenues. High oil prices have produced a boost beyond what the Real Atlantic Accord, the offshore royalty regimes and development at Voisey's Bay would have produced anyway.

Unfortunately, the premier's positive comments may have two unwelcome results. First it may make it seem as though the province can afford to increase spending in a number of ways. Second, his comments divert attention away from the fundamental failure of the Williams administration, two years into its mandate, to produce integrated plans to address the province's financial windfalls in a way that will yield the greatest long term benefit.

Let us deal first with the overall financial situation.

The Premier stated that the "consolidated deficit [this year] could be down in the range $100 [million], $200 [million] range" from the $492 million accrual deficit forecast in March. The Premier proposed to spend at least some of this money on infrastructure, especially in rural Newfoundland and Labrador.

Let us be clear: the $492 million shortfall forecast in March 2005, indeed all the accrual deficits forecast by the provincial government, include significant components that are made up of several unfunded liabilities.

The Premier's comments come from adding into his calculations the huge amount of money coming from the offshore. This year it is reputedly in the range of $400 million beyond what was projected. The provincial government's own figures, used by economist Wade Locke, showed that the province's offshore revenues would be $600 million this year. This was based on oil at about US$15 per barrel lower than current market prices.

His comments about the improved financial situation are also based on growth in the province's economy (gross domestic product or GDP), as well as changes to the structure of the debt that themselves reflect long term efforts by successive administrations since 1989.

On the face of it, the debt to gross-domestic-product [GDP] ratio seems greatly improved. In 1991, for example, the province's total debt was 65% of the provincial GDP. Its accrual debt was approaching 100% of GDP.

In Fiscal Year 2004, by contrast, the total debt was 44% and its accrual debt was about 50% of GDP. This change was entirely due to growth in the provincial economy. Little if any debt was retired in the intervening 13 years; in fact the provincial government and its agencies owed more money in 2004 than in 1991.

One substantive positive change, however was the reduction of debt held in foreign currencies. In 1991, almost half the province's direct debt was held in expensive foreign currencies and much of the debt was held at high interest rates. This greatly increased the amount needed to service the debt, that is, to make the interest payments. By FY 2004, less than 22% of the debt was in foreign currencies and government continued to roll over its high interest debt in lower-rate loans. Such is the improvement that in 2004, the province was paying slightly less to service its debt than it was a decade earlier yet the total debt (not accrual) was actually $2.0 billion more and debt servicing accounted for 13% of total government expenditures compared to 15% in 1994. Looked at another way, in constant dollars, the provincial government is actually spending less on servicing its debt than it was in the early 1990s despite owing almost 40% more.

An increased debt load with what are admittedly transient increases in both the economy and provincial revenues do not make for a windfall. Nor does it support dramatic increases in program spending or capital works.

Consider as well that in his remarks to the Telegram editorial board, Premier Williams spoke of spending the supposed windfall on public infrastructure around the province, especially in rural Newfoundland and Labrador. In 2004, infrastructure cash was supposed to come from a new transfer payment from the Government of Canada designed to offset Equalization losses.

That deal, when it was finally signed, actually did not effectively double offshore revenues, as the Premier had originally sought. Instead, it added a single lump sum payment of $2.0 billion. That money sits collecting interest at a rate of about $5.0 million per month, with no publicly announced plans on what the government plans to do with either the $2.0 billion or any of the $60 million in interest coming from it.

Against this backdrop, one must look at the Premier's comments with some degree of concern. The provincial government still has no coherent plan for tackling the long-term financial issues identified by PriceWaterhouseCoopers. There is no commitment to paying off debt.

The "revitalization" of rural Newfoundland and Labrador, embodied in the Williams administration's Rural Secretariat is merely a slightly revamped version of the ruralist approach of the previous Grimes and Tobin governments. This was simply a collection of short-sighted efforts to avoid dealing with the substantive changes coming to much of Newfoundland Labrador as a result of changes in demographics and in the economy.

One of the last acts of the Wells administration, in December 1995, was to approve release of a discussion paper on a Strategic Social Plan [SSP] for Newfoundland and Labrador. While the incoming Tobin administration scrapped the planned release and ordered copies destroyed, some have survived. The introductory essay describes the looming changes in simple and compelling detail.

Beyond the outmigration resulting from the collapse of the cod fishery and the then-anticipated economic growth from oil and Voisey's Bay (see the conclusions of the 2002 provincial report linked above), rural Newfoundland and Labrador would change dramatically from what it had been. A chronically low birth rate would produce an internal migration from small coastal communities to larger centres. Changes in the fishery would reduce the number of workers there and, if allowed to take its natural course, the fishing industry would dramatically lower the number of people employed while increasing the earnings of those involved. Overall, the workforce would be smaller than the non-working population - the so-called dependent population - for the first time in many decades.

Newfoundland and Labrador is not alone in this respect. Quebec is in much the same situation, as the recent Quebec Lucide manifesto reveals.

At home, we have a curious mixture of action from the provincial government. On the one hand, the provincial government's raw materials sharing plan for the crab industry reflected yet another attempt to forestall changes that demographics and economics would otherwise produce in Newfoundland and Labrador. This echoed the actions of both Brian Tobin and Roger Grimes.

At the same time, Premier Williams comments to the Telegram echo the Strategic Economic Plan and the real Strategic Social Plan of the Wells administration. His description of regional hubs and a focus on local strengths as a means of diversifying local economies around the province are lifted almost word for word from the SEP and comments by Clyde Wells.

What appears to be missing from the Williams administration is a clear-eyed vision of the province's challenges and of its solutions. Both the Wells SEP and SSP had such a vision, derived not from the Premier's Office or Clyde Wells' own predilections but from intensive discussion among the province's own people. That the development vision survives today as core economic development policies from the Williams' administration is testament to its fundamental strength.

Before the Premier starts spending any of the windfalls he has coming this year and over the next five years or so, he might want to actually produce an integrated economic and social plan. The many promises of plans contained in the last Throne Speech, indeed all the promises of plan that have been made since October 2003, do not add up to very much of anything at all.

The clock is indeed ticking and before we spend the future of the province and its people, the Premier and his administration might be well advised to climb up and tree, see what the future may bring and set the province on the course.

A little straight talk often times goes a long further than singing one's praises to earn both proper recognition for the good job done already and continued support for the journey ahead.