All indicators, from Premier Danny Williams’ boastfulness on down, are that Newfoundland (and Labrador) is one big boomtown, but there is equally strong evidence the province, if not exactly sitting on a bubble, might be living an illusion.
When local captains of commerce declare that the frenetic pace of housing construction in St. John’s, and its accompanying rise in prices, is proof of a robust economy, you have to wonder whether they ever heard about the short-lived and artificial housing boom in the U.S. that was a main contributor to the worldwide recession.
Williams’ catchy and timely slogan of “no more giveaways” helped get him elected and has rocketed him to orbital popularity, but the promise seems only half kept.
There is a second part to the equation. If nothing more will be given away, it implies that it will remain here. If the province’s resource wealth is no longer to be shipped out, then Newfoundlanders (and Labradorians) could reasonably look forward to their ship coming in, finally.
There isn’t a lot of evidence of that ship’s arrival. More than a decade after offshore oil began being pumped out, the province still has the highest unemployment rate in the country and among the lowest average salaries, and Fort McMurrary remains a prime Newfoundland outpost.
Failure to spread wealth around is pretty well summed up by the situation at Voisey’s Bay, where unionized workers have been on strike for more than a year.
You’ll recall that, some years ago, Voisey’s Bay was forecast as one of the projects — along with offshore oil — that would propel the province to “have” status.
And yet we witness Vale, one of the world’s biggest and most profitable mining companies, supposedly unable — or perhaps simply unwilling — to make its employees an offer that is fair enough to prompt them to go back to work.
As if to add insult to injury, taxpayers are now supporting Vale, after the company inexplicably — to anyone who isn’t a cabinet minister or corporate executive — received a $1-billion loan guarantee from the federal government.
At the Purity factory in St. John’s, 52 workers have been locked out by their employer.
The employees are apparently primarily concerned about wages and raises, but the detail that stands out most for uninvolved observers is the workers do not have a pension plan.
They are represented by the Newfoundland Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE), and yet the establishment of a company pension plan is not one of their demands. This leads to two questionable possibilities. Is the union leadership stunned? Or, is the company intransigent?
Not having a pension plan is a throwback to an era when workplaces were crude and cruel. When, for example, there were no safety regulations, and 12-hour workdays and six-day workweeks were the norm.
Newfoundlanders, and all Canadians, could learn a lesson from the French. This week, tens of thousands of passionate Frenchman have been in the streets, again. This time, it isn’t support for striking truckers or teachers that is bringing them onto the rues of Paris. It is opposition to the government’s plan to increase the retirement age to 62 from the current 60.
In North American terms, France is a crazy country, where people get far too much vacation time and the whole place essentially shuts down every August so everyone can spend a month at the beach.
But French politicians’ arguments will sound familiar: the government says the retirement age must be increased to prevent the public pension plan from going bust.
Coincidentally, an international report this week recommends the Canadian retirement age be increased beyond the current 65, for the same reason, and because people are now living longer.
Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org