Nfld. & Labrador

Opposition words come back to haunt new Liberal government

The new Liberal government is learning a daily lesson that positions once easily taken while in opposition are often impossible to keep when in government.
Dale Kirby, now the minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, was a sharp critic of cutbacks when he was in opposition. (CBC)

The new Liberal government is learning a daily lesson that positions once easily taken while in opposition are often impossible to keep when in government.

The sharp axe that fell on the Newfoundland and Labrador library system is just the latest example of this. A million-dollar budget cut has forced the libraries board to close 54 of its 95 libraries in a province that has been waging a battle against high illiteracy rates for decades.

"The decisions that had to be made during Budget 2016 were difficult, but focus on the long-term goal of fiscal sustainability for our province," Education Minister Dale Kirby said in a statement announcing the closures.

Kirby acknowledged these were tough choices, forced on the government by the province's fiscal crisis. He said this would be a period of transition and transformation for the library system to create a "more efficient one for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador."

Kirby was singing a very different tune just three years ago when he was the New Democrat's education critic and the PC government of the day cut $1.2-million from the libraries budget.

"Public libraries are vital to literacy and life-long learning in our communities, yet government has decided to slash funding for public libraries," Kirby, then an NDP critic, said in a very different statement. "This PC government has slashed that funding to the bone."

Kirby the minister talks of transition and transformation.

Kirby the critic talked about public sector amputation.

Writing cheques that now can't be cashed

Of course, the education minister isn't alone in this. In December of 2014, Business and Tourism Minister Christopher Mitchelmore used his Twitter feed to decry Tory library closures as "#shameful actions."

In 2013, Now Child Youth and Family Services minister Sherry Gambin-Walsh tweeted "wow — losing out libraries. The source of imagination for all. Sad day in NL history."

Their tweets were writing cheques that their government can't cash.

This is just more fallout from Budget 2016 which saw the Liberals hammer the province with taxes and renege on a series of election promises that dismissed concerns about programs cuts and job losses.

In his defence, Premier Dwight Ball says his party didn't know the full extent of the province's financial problems when he made those promises.

But that is a tough premise to accept. Oil was trending down during the months leading up to and during the election campaign and the futures markets were warning of a very low bottom.

And while the PCs deserve the blame for unsustainable program expansion and tax cuts, the Tories have a point when they say it's hard to find a single dollar of new program spending the Liberals criticized as wasteful or didn't want to turn into two dollars.

Political debate ignores underlying realities

It all shows the difficulty in having a proper political debate about fixing the long-term structural challenges of Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Christopher Mitchelmore, now a key minister of the Liberal government, opposed library cutbacks made by the PCs. (CBC)

There are just over 500,000 people in this province, living in more than 600 communities. They are spread out across the 16th largest island in the world and the vastness of Labrador.

The government is challenged to provide 21st century services across a pre-industrial settlement pattern based on a type of fishery that no longer exists. Government has to do this while drawing funding from a shrinking and aging workforce and riding the rogue waves of global commodity prices.

The political debate tends to ignore those underlying realities to focus on short-term headline chasing and the eternal hunt for a bump in the polls.

So now the opposition PCs howl with outrage as the Liberals wield the cost-cutting knife of government. The Tories refuse to grant the same level of understanding to the Liberals they so often demanded when they held power.

Of course, that's all part of the game of politics. It's an endless cycle, but one that makes the line-in-the-sand declarations of the opposition look ridiculous.

Each of those statements should come with an automatic follow up. "And Mr. Speaker, I can't imagine how these words will ever come back to haunt me."

Because the truth is, they almost always do. This has all happened before and will all happen again.

About the Author

David Cochrane is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary bureau. He previously wrote for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.

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