“…We must not repeat the mistakes of the past by making arbitrary or across-the-board cutbacks, whether in programs, services or staffing, that might save money in the short term, but do great damage in the long run by creating a less effective government.”
— From “Making Smart Cuts: Lessons From the 1990s Budget Front,” a report released in 2011
by the U.S. Partnership for Public Service
The provincial government lessened the blow to the justice system on Thursday, restoring some of the many jobs that were lost in Budget 2013. But in doing so it may have caused greater injury to itself.
Despite Premier Kathy Dunderdale’s assertion on VOCM’s “Open Line” that the government’s willingness to reconsider cuts is a sign of strength, the fact is that in the political realm, a government that has to acknowledge it made imprudent decisions comes across as weak.
Governments have a responsibility — and the luxury of time — to do sound research before making decisions, and this one clearly did not do its homework before the budget axe fell.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m glad the government has reversed some of the cuts, and I hope there’s more of that to come, but a strong government is proactive, not reactive. It consults before, not after.
It ponders outcomes, thinks long-term. It does not wield its axe recklessly and then jump back out of the way, hoping to avoid being splattered with gore.
And yet that’s exactly what happened here. I don’t doubt the government had difficult decisions to make, but that’s what its members were elected to do: govern. The word “govern,” by the way, comes to us by way of the Latin “gubernare,” which means “to steer, rule.”
Well, this train got steered clear off the tracks and now it’s trying to right itself.
In describing how the government decided on how to save money, Dunderdale said they reviewed what was working and what could be done more efficiently. “We need to see if these programs are effective,” she said.
So, who decided that decimating the justice system would be effective?
And yet Justice Minister Darin King seemed genuinely taken aback by the vociferous reaction.
Did he think no one would object?
“We listened to the concerns and acted quickly to address the important issues that were raised,” he said Thursday, after reversing some of his handiwork.
That’s a nice try at positive spin, but the government didn’t act quickly, it reacted quickly, simply because the outcry was so long and so loud.
In fact, King even admitted that they did not necessarily act on the input provided to them in prebudget consultations.
The premier blames the province’s sharp reversal of fortune on the uncertainty of oil prices, and she commented on radio that she was “a little surprised why Newfoundlanders and Labradorians find it so difficult to understand oil pricing and the volatility associated with it.”
Well it sure seems like the provincial government doesn’t have a great grasp of it, either.
Dunderdale also posed a rhetorical question to the populace: do you want the public service to offer “a job for life, regardless of what the circumstances are … or do you want the most effective use of your money?”
That’s insulting. No one is clamouring for cushy jobs for life — we’re talking about justice, here.
And slashing the system to the point where even the government had to acknowledge it had gone too far hardly seems like making good use of our money.
People want and deserve timely and affordable access to justice. The day we decide we can’t afford to offer that will be a pretty sad day indeed.
In her Jan. 28 column for The Toronto Star, Gillian Steward was describing Alberta, but it might as well have been this province.
“To live in Alberta these days is to run the risk of getting severe whiplash,” she wrote. “This is because our provincial government often tells us how fortunate we are to live in such a prosperous province; how Alberta is blessed with such an abundance of resources. But the next day our government tells us it doesn’t have enough money to cover its spending, there will have to be cuts to services; and we are all suddenly jerked into a different reality.”
Laying off so many people that you effectively gum up the wheels of justice was not a wise decision made by a strong government.
It was a shortsighted, irresponsible decision; an unsound plan from a government with an insecure future.
King says he decided to reverse the cuts in part based on compelling arguments made after the fact, saying the stakeholder committee struck this week “was invaluable in helping us develop pragmatic solutions that can be implemented quickly.”
Shouldn’t the pragmatism have come into play first thing?
Pam Frampton is a columnist and
The Telegram’s associate managing editor. She can be reached by email at