Thank you for allowing Debora Coyne and myself, to contribute to your ongoing discussions about the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador. I want to emphasize up front that I am by nature an optimist not a pessimist. I am not here just to lament poor metrics, I am also here to celebrate our potential and look to better times ahead. But it is surely past due for a rigorous reality check, and to call out those who believe our economic situation is not all that bad, we have been here before etc. Well wake up…… we really are in tough financial shape!
We are living in difficult economic times globally, and our people must have the courage to face up to what is. Strictly academic meanderings and debating the finer points of economic policy will not be enough to handle the seminal societal changes brought on by this new digital and big data age. We need to do a hard and perhaps even a harsh reality check on ourselves! It is not just because of slumping oil prices and increasing debt. It is not because Newfoundland and Labrador now has the lowest Moody’s rating of any province, or that per capita spending on government programs is at unsustainable highs: $14,000 per capita versus the national average of $8000. People are equally worried about persistent slow economic growth and the lack of job and income security. In a world in which everything that can will be ‘roboticized’, the future seems particularly bleak. The people of Newfoundland and Labrador know all too well the costs and stress of precarious employment at home. We have been here before, and we are resilient. But its now time we faced facts.
The issues and challenges we confront today require serious attention. Blaming outward is neither helpful nor productive. This is not the time for self-pity or conspiracy theories. In our own expectations of governments and deeply engrained sense of entitlement of what we think we deserve, we are at least partially responsible for where we are today. I refuse to demonize the federal government, and neither will I demonize our various leaders from Joey through to Danny and now to Dwight Ball. I have no doubt that they loved Newfoundland, and that they all worked in what they thought to be our best interests even though in retrospect we can see they made serious mistakes.
It’s our government; we elected all of them. But I write from the Toronto diaspora, and that means many things, including that I have been away for too long and not as well-informed as I think. Am I an ignoramus, as my father would say, not close enough to understand much at all? Or on the other hand, could I be I someone distant enough to be able to identify the forest from the trees? So if all my numbers are not totally on mark as of today, give me a bye.
My recommendation is simple: it is time, as a Newfoundland and Labrador community, that we sat around our common kitchen table and took a hard look at where we are today financially, and what we must do to put our house in order. We are addicted to all sorts of mythology[ies] about ourselves, and like any severely addicted person, it is past time that those who love us triggered an “intervention”? If they do not, others less friendly soon may, and should that happen, few of any of us have any real understanding of the austerity that will be imposed. Think Paul Martin and the IMF in the early 1990’s and multiple it by one hundred times.
It is now past time to face the impact on all of us of our collective debt. We cannot to behave like a medical doctor I know who refuses to open the envelope and look at his Visa bill every January. Neither must we succumb to the fantasies of Davis blaming Ball, or Ball blaming Danny, or everyone blaming the Feds. Let’s agree to own our collective past. Are we ready to face that from everyone’s else perspective, we have a bloated public service who enjoy an even more bloated benefits package? The public service grew faster than we could afford, and while we must be sensitive and not draconian, we must find a thoughtful solution in dialogue with the public service unions, who also must not be allowed to bury their heads in the sand. I am pro collective bargaining, but our public service unions leadership needs to open their collective minds to an independent perspective on the current financial crisis. The recent cuts are but a beginning, but we start by recognizing we must put our house in order. Neither can the Health Care silo or the Education silo remain untouchable.
Do we have the nerve to address the issue of public service pensions? Are we doing what we must do on that front? How do we stand in comparison to the other provinces? My suggested answer……. not good. And how, without frightening hard working public servants to death, can we find a long-term economically sustainable solution, for this century and beyond? Has anyone at home ever reached out to our Canadian think tanks, like C. D. Howe, and dialogued about options? [Disclosure I am biased I serve on the National Council of CDH
Are we prepared to take action on health care? Why is it that we have the highest cost medical care in Canada, yet the worst results? Yes, we have a small population scattered across a relatively large space. But the provision of health care is not and cannot be a make-work project across communities. To provide health care of the highest quality, efficiently and effectively, we have to concentrate on the larger population centres and focus on alternative delivery systems. Further, we must do this through respectful dialogue with open minded medical professionals whose valuable input is indispensable, as well as the general public. Have we yet looked at what The Australians in Tasmania are doing facing comparable problems? Are our leaders brave enough to be transparent with us? And do we have the wisdom and the courage not to shout them down and bury our collective heads in the sand? No one gets all they want in life, and in our case that includes multiple community hospitals and professional salary costs we cannot afford. All of this presumes that we are prepared to work out solutions which will involve some pain for all of us. The alternative is that we refuse to face what is, we blame outwards, we identify the terrible other who is responsible for all our woes, and we simply postpone the inevitable, whether it takes six months or six years.
I am confident that if we take the initiative on these and other issues ourselves, we will send a strong message not just to the financial markets who invest in us, but also to our fellow Canadians with whom we share the challenge of this extraordinarily difficult economic transition. In part two of this article, I address the great potential and challenge that is Muskrat Falls.