The Dunderdale government’s election promises are on increasingly shaky ground in light of the province’s ongoing fiscal issues. In fact, Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy told The Telegram Tuesday that they weren’t really election promises at all.
When The Telegram reported on the PC Party’s campaign platform during the 2011 election, the headline was “PC promises would cost $135M a year” but nearly two years later, Kennedy said that sort of language isn’t accurate.
“You use the word ‘promise.’ I’m not sure the Blue Book can be described as a promise,” he said. “It’s a blueprint or a platform as opposed to an absolute promise.”
Speaking to The Telegram, he said that he couldn’t talk about specific campaign promises, but he confirmed all of the election committents were made with the caveat that they’d only be implemented if the province’s fiscal situation allowed for it.
At the beginning of the year, Kennedy warned the government was forecasting budget deficits of $1.6 billion for each of the next two years. Deep spending cuts, public service layoffs and a boost in oil production managed to reduce the budget deficit to $563 million this year, but the government is planning to make further budget cuts to health authorities and post-secondary education next year with the aim of getting back to a surplus by 2015.
That doesn’t leave a lot of room for big-ticket Blue Book pledges such as rural broadband, paid family caregivers and richer grants for post-secondary students.
“I’m not aware of all of the commitments that were in the Blue Book,” Kennedy said. “In terms of individual items, I would simply have to refer you to the ministers who are responsible and would know where these items are in terms of their departments.
“Back in 2011, I could tell you what the Blue Book contained in relation to health, but I can’t tell you what it contained in relation to education,” Kennedy said.
One very specific promise, that the PC Party made under the heading “Fiscal Responsibility” in the Blue Book, was to control the rate of government spending by capping it.
“Each year, in choosing Budget initiatives, we will establish a ceiling for new spending growth and make our choices accordingly,” the 2011 election platform said.
In the two years since the election, the government has not publicly announced a ceiling for new spending growth ahead of the budget.
Kennedy said that’s because it’s easier said than done.
“It’s difficult to do that because we don’t get our oil projections from the CNLOPB until January. By January, we’re a couple months into the budget process, so it depends on the amount of money that we have available,” he said. “We have a notional figure in our heads; we work our way through the budget process, but I can tell you that there’s no way at the beginning of this budget year, we are going to say, one per cent (for a new spending ceiling.)”
Kennedy wasn’t the finance minister in 2011, and he said he didn’t know where that promise came from.
“I’m not aware who wrote this, who put this in the Blue Book, what exactly they meant,” he said.
Regardless, NDP Leader Lorraine Michael said it looks like a broken promise. She said it doesn’t look like much long-term planning goes into the government’s budgets.
“What I see is that they’re making knee-jerk decisions, and I don’t have a sense that the decision-making that they’ve been carrying on is really coming out of any well thought out plan,” Michael said. “I just see knee-jerk reactions from government.”
Liberal Leader Dwight Ball said as far as he’s concerned, even if the government was living up to the commitment to put an annual ceiling on new spending growth, that still wouldn’t be any good.
Ball said year-by-year financial targets make for a pretty bumpy ride.
“In order to do this properly, you can’t be adjusting on an annual basis. You have to keep that line as consistent as possible,” he said. “Doing this on an annual basis would really fly in the face of good proper management.”