First, a correction on last week’s column about the growth of Nalcor.
The company has correctly pointed out that, in a sentence where I said it “had hauled in $439 million in profits, (primarily from electricity sales to ratepayers in this province),” I was incorrect in saying the money was primarily from ratepayers. It was actually from all electrical sales, including sales outside the province. The company also pointed out its total capital investments for the last five years should have been $1.3 billion, not $1.5 billion.
Answering a question from the NDP’s Lorraine Michael this past week, Finance Minister Tom Marshall said a few words that delighted the politicians that share his side of the House of Assembly, but that, in the long run, may come back to haunt him. (Or more accurately, his party — Marshall has already said that he doesn’t intend to run in the next provincial election.)
Those words? After Michael asked about the province’s economic numbers and budget projections, Marshall stood to list a series of strong economic numbers and then decided to add, “This is a golden age, Mr. Speaker, a golden age.”
He’s welcome to his opinion and, as a senior politician with a healthy salary, a taxpayer-funded pension to look forward to and plenty of government revenue to sprinkle around, these days may well look golden. But those are the kind of words that can end up sticking in voters’ craws.
Why? Because the economic numbers may well look great; employment is up, jobs (at least, minimum-wage and part-time jobs on the northeast Avalon) are plentiful, and we regularly hear from banks that we will be among the leaders in economic growth in provinces. (That’s its own kind of shell game: in terms of real numbers, a one per cent gross domestic product increase in Ontario would easily crush the real dollar value of 10 per cent growth here.)
But calling it a golden age is a mistake. Why? Because you can’t eat GDP. When you hear a politician say something like that, the first thing you ask yourself is, “Do I feel golden?” And if you don’t, you start looking around for where that gold actually is.
There is money being made in this province, but it’s not being made by everyone. A whole segment of the population is feeling the pinch of watching their earnings not keep up with inflation (like provincial civil servants, with the last round of settlements), while at the same time seeing more and more signs of flamboyant wealth cruise the streets of St. John’s.
Pensioners are watching their earnings erode while, especially on the northeast Avalon, increased house prices are making their tax bills become more and more untenable. Like in other parts of the country, working people here are watching their company pensions shrink or disappear, the same way good-paying middle-class jobs have been out-sourced (a country-wide
phenomenon, but it doesn’t help convince people of our golden-ness).
Parents who might want to have their kids live in this province are asking where those kids are going to go: house prices are out of reach, especially if interest rates rise, and rental properties on the northern Avalon are few and far between.
Outside the overpass, there are different problems: the only golden part there is that whole communities are watching their populations enter their golden years as young people drain away like water down the bathtub drain. Jobs in rural parts of the province are as scarce as they’ve ever been — probably scarcer in some regions.
Not only that, but the long-term picture presents some series issues — not in the least because, if this is a golden age, the gold is made of non-renewable resources like iron ore, nickel and oil.
Even with all this supposed goodness, the province’s total debt — all of its liabilities counted in without the shell game of subtracting “assets” that can never honestly be sold — is larger than it was when the Tories took office, and while the government has reaped surpluses on offshore and mining revenues, we still owe plenty that our kids will have to pay, perhaps without the resource money we’ve hogged so much of.
Essentially, we’ve taken a really big piggy bank that could have helped our kids out from under the debts we’ve built — and perhaps could have helped us reduce costs in our retirements — and spent it instead over a mere decade.
And that, apparently, is what a golden age looks like.
Here’s Marshall again, from the same day.
“People have money in their pockets to pay their bills, to save for their retirements, to pay for their children’s educations.”
Yes — and no. The people who are doing well in the current boom know it well enough already.
For everyone else, it’s an unfeeling kick in the ass.
It is a golden age that may end up, for the Tories, looking like lead.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.