The definition of insanity, Albert Einstein once said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Welcome to austerity.
In Europe, the harmful and devastating impact of austerity is driving up unemployment to unprecedented levels. And yet the response from many governments, especially the U.K., is more austerity. The impact on the social fabric of nations has been so great that some commentators worry the social welfare state is now in jeopardy.
In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has also taken a rather deep liking to austerity.
It is a ready-made excuse to gut government and change the positive role it should play in our lives, in building a better society, in sharing economic wealth and mitigating the inequality gap.
It is another excuse to trash government as a catalyst to build opportunities for all citizens; another excuse to turn Canada into a fend-for-yourself country, where collective action is a thing of the past.
So in this regard, austerity fits nicely with the Harper conservative ideology.
Many economists have blamed austerity at the federal level for reducing economic growth. Three austerity budgets have resulted in fewer opportunities for Canadians, especially younger Canadians. David MacDonald, who leads the Alternative Federal Budget process, advised the Harper government to “turn off the austerity auto-pilot and get the economy going.” Instead of “budgeting with eyes wide shut,” Mr. MacDonald, an economist, urges government to address the issues that most Canadians struggle with every day, instead of making things worse and leaving Canadians to fend for themselves.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, the Conservative government has jumped on the austerity bandwagon, delivering a budget on March 26th filled with deep service and job cuts; cuts that will erode the social fabric of our province and damage the economy, too.
The government’s theory is they can get away with it, at least in the economic sense. Political survival is another matter. The theory is the cuts will have minimal economic impact because the private sector is said to be at full-steam, therefore a booming private sector can pick
up the slack; that instructors, archivists, probation officers, sheriffs, lawyers, librarians will find jobs in the private sector. And what of young teachers? According to the teachers’ union, cuts through attrition will be just as harmful. The union expects there to be as many as 140 fewer teachers in the education system in September.
Job growth areas have been in construction and retail/service sector. Not much need for elementary teachers on a construction site. But there are those available low-paid service sector jobs. A cynic might point out that our labour market is so hot that thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians continue to travel huge distances for work, to Alberta and the coast of Australia.
The government ought to know that there is a problem with theories. It is a nasty thing called reality.
Job cuts (layoffs, eliminated vacant jobs and through attrition) in this budget, combined with the jobs eliminated from the Employment Assistance Services a few weeks back and at Eastern Health last fall, are mounting. Topping over 2,000 and counting.
The news since the budget is filled with just how broad and deep the cuts were.
Expect the fallout to continue as social spending cuts spread their way throughout the non-profit sector where the carnage will continue. And then brace yourselves for the next shoe: spending reviews of both health care and post-secondary education. The Conservatives are not done yet.
In addition to job and service cuts, the government is also privatizing services like the Adult Basic Education program currently offered at public colleges throughout the province. This at a time when the labour market is said to need every skilled worker it can get. We won’t get there by hacking at education programs or making them less accessible.
The cuts are beginning to form a theme. The Family Violence Intervention Court. Human Rights Commission. Adult Basic Education. Dental program for poor seniors. Arts and Culture. Libraries.
They are the sorts of public programs that speak to the kind of society we wish to have; one that
protects the vulnerable (abused women and children), that provides opportunities and second chances, that ensures our history and culture is not just for those who can afford it.
The cuts also contradict past government strategies and goals: labour market recruitment, youth retention, poverty reduction.
Then there is the incredible disappearing deficit.
The government definitely has a credibility problem when it comes to its deficit and surplus projections, leading many to question whether the $1.6 billion was merely fiction: an absolute worst-case scenario used to justify the austerity.
The revenue side of the equation was not considered, but rather swiftly dismissed by the finance minister, as if we are supposed to believe, despite the real facts, that we are getting a fair share of our resources.
Newfoundland and Labrador must have a serious look at its resource rent and royalty regime. It must consider that we have one opportunity to get a fair and decent return on these resources.
This is not about penalizing multinational corporations.
No one is saying they shouldn’t get a whopping return on their investment, but when commodity prices skyrocket (absolutely nothing to do with their investment) the citizens of this province should benefit accordingly. We deserve a piece of the windfall.
So far the provincial government has closed the door on even having the conversation.
That means it has truly given up on sharing the prosperity.
And like federally, every decision is now driven by one goal: a surplus by 2015, which conveniently happens to be an election year for both.
It’s no wonder the populace is cynical. They have good reason.
Lana Payne is president of the
Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her column returns April 20.