Graham Steele: Politics of budget cuts shine through in tourism cuts
Two visitor information centres will be closed, Nova Scotia government announced last week
Last Friday, the provincial government announced the permanent closure of the seasonal visitor information centres in Pictou and Digby.
The announcement was the first cut linked to the powerful but secretive program review committee, chaired by Premier Stephen McNeil.
As I watched the announcement and the reaction, I saw a textbook case of the politics of budget cuts.
It's no secret that the provincial government spends more than it takes in. Faced with a deficit, a provincial government has only three choices: cut spending, increase revenue or go further into debt.
Every government takes a run at cutting spending. The McNeil government set up a special committee, called the program review committee, chaired by the premier and including his most senior and powerful ministers, plus several Liberal backbenchers.
That committee has spent long, long hours being briefed on government spending, line by line. It's a mammoth undertaking. But as usual, the citizens — on whose behalf this is all being done — don't know how the committee went about its work. It all happened behind closed doors, in a windowless room in downtown Halifax.
The justification for the visitor centre closures has two parts.
First, says the government, overall visitor counts at the centres are down 40 per cent over the past decade. People are travelling differently than they used to and they have many more options for getting visitor information. The implication is that the centres, with fixed-cost buildings and people, are old school.
The second argument is specifically about Pictou and Digby. There are eight visitor information centres in the province: Amherst, Digby, Yarmouth, Peggys Cove, Halifax airport, Halifax waterfront, Pictou and Port Hastings.
The government said that Pictou and Digby represent six per cent of all visitors, but 17 per cent of the costs.
That's not a very persuasive argument, in my view, because smaller and rural government offices will always be less efficient than in a big centre.
If the same logic were applied to other programs, many more rural offices and services would close.
Governments can't win
The reaction to the closure announcement followed well-worn paths. Unpopular cuts are always met with the objection: "We agree that we need to limit spending, but this is the wrong place."
In a $10-billion budget, there are literally 10,000 places to look for $1 million. There are always alternatives and always an opposition politician who will promise to reverse the cut if elected.
Another instant objection is that the government is wasting money elsewhere, so it should just cut that other waste first.
Looking at you, Bluenose II.
A third objection is that there wasn't enough consultation. The mayors of Digby and Pictou said they were "blindsided" by the closures. Some of the Digby employees said they expected fewer hours or a shorter season, but not total closure.
Karla MacFarlane, the MLA for Pictou West, said any reductions should be spread across all visitor information centres, instead of being focused on two.
Here's the thing — there is always a grain of truth to these objections. In a $10-billion operation, alternatives are always possible; examples of waste can always be found and more consultation and more creativity is always possible.
That's why governments can never win the politics of budget cuts.
Managing the backlash
The politics of budget cuts, for the government, comes down to managing the backlash.
Ideally, the people affected by a budget cut would see it coming. But that would require the government to lay the groundwork by giving people advance information, talking them through it and being creative about alternatives. That's hard work and can take years. That's why it's rare.
And so the announcement of the visitor information centre closures came out of the blue.
A civil servant — not a politician — was put out front to explain the decision. The opposition said it was the wrong cut, and should have been handled differently.
A budget cut can sometimes be reversed, but it takes strong, sustained pressure, or a change of government.
It's all part of the politics of budget cuts, and this was a textbook case.