The latest public opinion poll last week was interesting. At just about the halfway point between elections, the governing Progressive Conservatives are in third place, with the NDP out front followed closely by the Liberals.
With Kathy Dunderdale’s numbers at 27 per cent, it is the lowest support the PCs have had in over a decade.
The PCs took and held office with a fanfare of bold statements — “No more giveaways,” “Masters in our own house.” The government was marked in the early days by strong stands against all comers, from oil companies to the federal government to public sector unions.
Things did change. The province went from being the poor cousin of Confederation to “have province” status for the first time in our history.
Sure, some of you say they were just lucky, they just cashed in on the increasing oil prices. It is good to be lucky, but most lucky people I know have a strong hand in making their luck. It is hard to dispute the fact that much of the increase in oil revenues would have continued to bypass us on the way to Ottawa had it not been for the hard-fought-and-won renegotiation of the Atlantic Accord.
Likewise, the renegotiation of components of the Voisey’s Bay agreement, the White Rose agreement, the Hibernia South expansion and the negotiation of the Hebron/Ben Nevis development have given us, or will give us, billions of dollars that otherwise would have been lost to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.
With oil prices, in particular, climbing from approximately $35/barrel to approximately $145/barrel, government revenues increased substantially. And so did calls for increased spending, expansions to programs, new programs, expansion of drug and medical coverage and infrastructure upgrades.
Hand in hand with this growth in program spending — and contrary to early predictions of a 25 per cent slashing of the public service — the number of government employees has increased by about 20 per cent. The provincial budget has gone from roughly $4.1 billion in 2003/2004 to approximately $8 billion today.
But things have changed. Oil at $145 a barrel, and the predictions of increases, have given way to oil at $95/barrel. This has resulted in a huge loss of anticipated revenue for the government. The payments that were made on the government’s long-term debt are eroding due to recent deficits. The payments on the unfunded public
sector pension liabilities have entirely
disappeared due to a combination of
poorer than anticipated plan performance and increases to public sector wages (pensions are based on employees’ best five years).
This, in part, is where we find Dunderdale’s dilemma. Does she carry on as though things are the same? Hope for the best? Leave it to someone else to pick up after she leaves?
Or does she put on the brakes and attempt to rectify the situation?
The poll results last week were interesting if you look outside our province at the rest of Atlantic Canada. In New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, both governments were confronted with challenges similar to those of Newfoundland and Labrador. In both cases, a PC government in one and a NDP in the other chose to tackle the issues in a manner similar to Newfoundland and Labrador’s government. In both cases, the governing party and its leader has taken a substantial hit in public opinion, with their support running around the 20 per cent mark.
No matter how you cut it, the fiscal situation of the province has to be addressed. No matter how you do it, the wrath of public opinion is likely to land on you.
We elect governments to address hard issues, to sometimes make difficult decisions, to subject their personal reputations to the whims of public opinion and sometimes condemnation. And we ask them to do what they think is right and not govern by the polls.
Fortunately, some people are crazy enough to subject themselves to it.
Winston Churchill said, “When you are going through hell, keep going.”
Yes, Dunderdale needs to shake some things up internally, but she needs to stay the course, generally speaking. Let the short-term political chips fall where they may.
Trevor Taylor is a former cabinet minister under the Danny Williams administration. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.