Cochrane | No passing the buck on this budget

There are similarities between the fiscal hardship of this year and when the PCs came to power in 2003, but they only go so far, writes David Cochrane.

In early 2004, former premier Danny Williams went on province-wide television to pull the fiscal fire alarm. Armed with the findings of a PricewaterhouseCooper report, Williams warned of a looming $1-billion deficit and the need to make deep and painful cuts to the public sector.

The province, he warned, was on the brink of bankruptcy.

In early 2013, Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy began his pre-budget consultations with a similar tale of woe. Armed with the latest projections of the department of Finance, Kennedy warned of a looming $1.6-billion deficit and the need to make deep and painful cuts to the public sector.

The province’s spending, he warned, was unsustainable.

The pre-budget playbook was similar in each case. But the broader context for the two harshest Progressive Conservative budgets is completely different, and that’s what makes this budget a tough sell to a skeptical public.

The trouble for the government doesn’t lie in convincing the public that restraint measures are necessary. The trouble lies in convincing the public it isn’t the PC’s fault.

In 2004, Williams and his government had just been elected with a significant mandate for change. Fourteen years of Liberal rule had just ended and the public embraced the idea that the financial problems were very serious and very real. It was one of the reasons they voted for change.

Williams could — with some credibility — point at the newly-defeated Liberals and say the financial problems were their fault. After all, Newfoundland and Labrador was still a so-called "have-not" province. Oil was trading at about $30 a barrel.

2013 is a very different story. It has been 10 years, three elections and two premiers since the last Liberal budget. Newfoundland and Labrador is a so-called "have" province. Oil is trading in excess of $100 a barrel.

This drastic improvement in the economic and fiscal circumstances is one of the reasons voters have twice re-elected a PC government. And yet 935 civil servants are losing their jobs in this budget, while hundreds of other jobs are cut from the civil service through retirements and attrition.

You can’t blame the Liberals for any of that.

A decade into power, the PCs — especially the Twitter Caucus of backbench MHAs — still like to remind everyone of the mess they inherited from the Liberals. They always fail to mention that they also inherited Hibernia, White Rose, Terra Nova and Voisey’s Bay - four projects that have delivered to this government an unprecedented financial windfall.

The Twitter Caucus defends their constant references to past Liberal governments (which date back to the last century) by saying they are simply stating the facts.

Well, the fact is that when Jerome Kennedy calls current spending levels unsustainable he is indicting his own government’s record of fiscal management — not the Liberals.

Endorsements and pink slips

In the face of budget criticism the government says this is all part of a new 10-year Sustainability Plan. MHAs point to credit rating upgrades from bond rating agencies and praise from former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney as proof the government is on the right track.

But NAPE and CUPE point to 935 layoffs. They point to hundreds of other positions wiped out in this budget through attrition and to hundreds of earlier layoffs caused by cuts to employment assistant programs and an operational review at Eastern Health.

It is a pile of endorsements stacked up against a pile of pink slips. After years of telling the public it was rebuilding the province, the government is now tearing parts of it down.

The PCs grew the civil service to this level. The PCs are cutting it back.

2004 may have been someone else’s fault. 2013 is not.