“Much of the improvement to our bottom line since mid-year … is thanks to deliberate actions our government has taken to rein in spending without compromising services that are priorities for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.”
— Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy in the House of Assembly, March 26
Never in my career as a journalist have I seen a budget like the one delivered by the province this year.
What’s so different about it? Well, the fact that we still don’t know exactly which positions were cut in which departments — something we, as taxpayers, surely have a right to know.
And I’m not talking about waiting until the dust settles from all the union bumping to see who lands where; I’m talking about which jobs were cut in the first place.
And it doesn’t always work to simply ask. The protocol as to what kind of information gets released to the media seems to vary from department to department.
The Office of Public Engagement, for example, was quite helpful. In response to a request I made on April 8, they emailed this the very same day:
“In terms of staff reductions within the Office of Public Engagement, there were a total of 4 positions, which included 2 director level positions, one policy analyst and one administrative staff. The duties associated with the positions that were eliminated will be re-assigned to ensure that the continuity of work continues and minimizes impacts on service delivery.”
The Department of Justice, on the other hand, was far less forthcoming.
On April 3, more than a week after the budget was delivered, I wrote to ask how many positions have been or will be eliminated from the department, province-wide. I also asked specifically about cuts to the province’s Adult Probation Service, given that a report on the service done a few years ago had expressed concerns about the link between understaffing and probation officers’ safety being compromised.
The response: “I will get back to you on this.”
A few days later, Justice Minister Darin King — in response to questions from reporters at Confederation Building — said information about where the cuts had been made was readily available.
Ever the optimist, I wrote to the Justice Department again on April 8 to ask about the cuts:
“Minister King said last week in a scrum that this information was readily available. May I please get the complete list? I realize a committee is meeting today to review cuts to justice, but that does not change my desire for the information.”
The response: “The information on positions impacted will be provided after the stakeholder committee has finished its work.”
One week later, I sent another query: “I trust the information will be forthcoming, now that the committee has done its work?”
The response: “We are updating the information in light of last week’s announcement. Once that is done, we will invite you in for a briefing.”
I’m still waiting for the invite.
To wait more than a month for information the minister himself said was readily available is utterly ridiculous — not just for me as a journalist, but as a taxpayer.
This government delivered an austere budget in March, and we have a right to know exactly what was lost.
As best as I can tell, the people who will suffer the most are those who need help the most — people suffering with dental pain, for example, because they can’t afford to pay for care.
When the budget came down, Health Minister Susan Sullivan defended the diminishment of the dental program, saying it was still robust compared to the rest of Canada, where nothing like it exists. The program covers $150 in emergency care and $750 for dentures a year.
In fact, some provinces offer more.
While Newfoundland and Labrador provides adult social services recipients with “emergency examination as a result of pain, infection or trauma and extractions only,” New Brunswick offers “a maximum of $1,000 per year, excluding emergency and prosthetic services.”
Alberta has a Dental Assistance for Seniors program that pays for preventative measures, such as cleaning and scaling, which surely saves that province money for health care in the long run. Other provinces, like Ontario and British Columbia, have reduced-fee dental clinics.
Those who need timely access to justice here have been punished with the elimination of circuit courts in parts of rural Newfoundland, thereby putting the onus on citizens to travel and miss time off work in order to have their day in court.
The budget hurts people who need health care by reducing the number of nurses working night shifts in long-term care, and by cutting 150 managers from the system.
As nurses’ union president Debbie Forward noted this week, “Those people are doing valuable work today. Who’s going to do that valuable work when they’re gone?”
It throws into limbo the lives of people trying to get ahead by completing the adult basic education program by uprooting those attending College of the North Atlantic — at a savings that the premier and her own advanced education minister can’t even agree on.
And it thwarts the efforts of people trying to defend their basic human rights, with the Human Rights Commission so badly decimated that the commissioner says it will no longer be able to fulfil even its core mandate.
Justice Minister Darin King has said of the budget, “The decisions we made took careful examination and were not taken lightly.”
Nonetheless, there don’t seem to be any measures in this year’s budget that infringe upon the rich.
For the poor and downtrodden, on the other hand, apparently it’s open season.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate managing editor.
She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.