Nfld. & Labrador

MUN prof criticizes 'broken' and 'secretive' process aimed at fixing N.L. financial predicament

A Memorial University professor is criticizing what he calls a broken and secretive process designed to address Newfoundland and Labrador's troubling financial situation.

Taxpayers federation weighs in with call for a reduction in size of public service

Russell Williams, a political science professor at Memorial University, is critical of the provincial government's economic recovery task force, saying it should be more open and transparent, and that Premier Andrew Furey is using the task force to dodge some of the tough decisions that have to be made. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

A Memorial University professor is criticizing what he calls a flawed and secretive approach to addressing Newfoundland and Labrador's troubling financial situation.

"I think that the process is broken," said Russell Williams, a professor in MUN's political science department, Wednesday.

"It's become a bit of a waste of time … and the premier may need to rethink the approach to making these decisions."

But Premier Andrew Furey defended the process, saying, "There's no bogeyman hidden here."

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation is also weighing in with a series of painful recommendations it says would protect the province from bankruptcy.

Renaud Brossard, interim Atlantic director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, says the government should end its newly implemented $25-a-day daycare program, and put an end to deficit budgets. (Renaud Brossard)

On the top of its list? Slash jobs from a public service it says is much too large in comparison with other provinces.

"If you are in the hole with a $1.8-billion deficit and 66 per cent of your revenue goes toward paying your staff, there's no way to bring the budget back to balance and make it financially solvent again without affecting this employee compensation expenditure," said Renaud Brossard, interim Atlantic director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

It's the latest chapter in what's already been a rough week for the premier's economic recovery team, chaired by Moya Greene.

A member of the team quit on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, Opposition politicians called on the premier to delay any plans to call a provincial election until after what is being called the Greene Report is released publicly.

Greene hand-picked to lead task force

Greene, originally from St. John's, previously oversaw both Canada Post and the U.K.'s Royal Mail, and was hand-picked by Furey to lead a task force to review government spending and services.

The team is scheduled to deliver an interim report in late February, and a final report this spring, and many predict some jaw-dropping recommendations as the province attempts to deal with a string of crushing deficits and a net debt approaching $17 billion.

Moya Greene is leading an economic recovery team that is scrutinizing government spending and services. The team is scheduled to deliver a final report to the provincial government in April. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

Amid all this, there's growing speculation that Furey, who leads a minority government, will soon call an election in an attempt to strengthen his bench and secure a strong mandate from voters.

Williams said that would be a mistake.

"It would be a very cynical ploy by the premier to have an election and seek a mandate before hearing the recommendations of his recovery task force," said Williams.

'Lack of transparency'

The economic recovery team is composed of "our brightest," according to the government, though there's now an empty seat at the table following the resignation Tuesday of Mary Shortall, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour.

Shortall blamed a "lack of transparency, top-down approach, rushed timeline, lack of real collaboration and an overall feeling that not all perspectives were being considered, or appreciated," for her decision.

Shortall represents some 70,000 unionized workers in the province, and with the likelihood that her members will be targeted in any government belt-tightening, she made her way to the door.

"If there are concerns that will impact workers going forward, I need to be in a position to adequately respond to that," she said.

Mary Shortall, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, quit the premier's economic recovery team on Tuesday. (Stephanie Tobin/CBC)

Williams describes Shortall's comments as "alarming," and made a few biting comments of his own, accusing the premier of using the task force as a way to dodge responsibility for some of the tough decisions that have to be made.

Learning lessons from Muskrat Falls?

He suggested the requirement to have task force members and those who speak with the task force sign non-disclosure agreements is problematic, especially in the wake of the findings of the Muskrat Falls inquiry.

The report by Justice Richard LeBlanc revealed that public officials failed to disclose information that could have undercut the case for sanctioning the controversial project.

"Here we are again, with a very weird process, an unusual process for running a task force, largely being run out of the premier's office in a very secretive way," said Williams.

Williams said the process should be completely open and transparent, with any evidence presented to the task force scrutinized by subject-area experts to ensure it's accurate and reliable, and be available through access-to-information protocols.

Williams is not convinced Moya Greene is the person for the job.

"I think it's strange to snatch someone who hasn't lived in the province for quite some time, who has a reputation for having certain ideas about public service reform which focus narrowly on privatization; to bring them in and in a very rapid process come up some very radical suggestions … about how to remake the very nature of government in the province," he said.

Secrecy a protection for task force members

The premier's office defended the secrecy, in a statement released Wednesday.

"The premier's economic recovery team has been tasked with identifying solutions and bringing forward recommendations. They have full access to confidential information and are expected to have full and frank discussions of all options. 

"The non-disclosure agreements protect the members of the task force to speak freely and have access to confidential information, particularly as they are not employees of the provincial government. It's not uncommon for individuals with access to such sensitive information to be required to maintain a level of confidence with same."

The report containing the recommendations will be made public and "there is a commitment to openness and transparency on that front," reads the statement.

Threat of bankruptcy

Meanwhile, the taxpayers federation says residents have every right to be concerned about the state of province's finances.

"No one wants to see a government in Canada go under," said Brossard.

So in addition to job cuts, the federation is also calling for the abandonment of the $25-per-day daycare program that was launched this month.

"Introducing a new costly [program] like this is simply not the right measure to take," said Brossard.

The federation is also demanding the province release a plan to end the string of deficits as soon as possible.

Brossard said the government is now paying more in interest charges than citizens are paying in income tax.

However, according to government officials, that is not the case. Debt expenses for 2020-21 are projected at $1.1 billion, while revenue from personal income tax is forecasted to reach $1.6 billion.

As for the economic recovery task force, the taxpayers federation said it's a good step, but Brossard said its role is not to protect government jobs.

"It is rather to protect Newfoundland and Labrador's financial future, and we think that's a much loftier goal than protecting bureaucratic jobs," he said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.

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