Dollars for debt, but none for you

Brian Jones
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Thousands of Newfoundlanders (and Labradorians) were probably tempted to look under their mattress this week, just in case an extra million dollars they had forgotten about was kicking around.

Anyone who thinks it's easy being rich should ponder the pitiful plight of Tom Marshall, the finance minister who can't count. Marshall looked under his mattress Wednesday and found almost $700 million he didn't know he had.

The province's budget surplus, he announced, will not be the originally projected $59 million, but rather $755 million - a number that, with its extra digit, seems downright Albertaesque.

The surprise $696 million, Marshall said at a news conference called to explain the mattress discovery, was due to rising oil production and rising oil prices.

And everyone knows rising oil production and rising oil prices almost never happen.

But we shouldn't be too hard on Marshall for his shortcomings in arithmetic.

After all, millions of Canadians are mishandling their household budgets, as they sink deeper and deeper into debt.

Perhaps they, too, should look under their mattress.

Misplaced priorities

The province's budgetary miscalculation is one thing, but even more troublesome is the government's decision of what to do with the mattress hoard. Predictably for this PC government, every dollar of the 696 million will be put toward the province's debt.

You can understand the temptation. Finding a million bucks under your futon, you'd immediately think, goodbye credit card bills, goodbye mortgage, goodbye debt.

Lottery winners usually show more imagination than do finance ministers. Coming into an unexpected few million, prizewinners almost always declare debts to be gone - and then add they'll take a trip, buy a new car and share the bounty with family.

Share it. Now there's a concept that should have, but obviously didn't, cross Marshall's mind.

A lot of politicians have developed the habit of trying to deflect criticism by declaring their actions are for the benefit of "future generations," or, more generally, the future.

Typically, Marshall said the government was putting the whole bundle of $696 million toward the debt because in the future such surprise surpluses won't be forthcoming.

Someday, the government will lift the mattress and find nothing there.

Some options

Even so, it couldn't have offended Marshall's sense of fiscal responsibility if he'd tossed a few dozen million at the education system.

"Here you are," he could have said in a generous tone, "fix some of those cracked foundations and repaint those peeling walls, and while you're at it, hire someone to mow the grass on the school field. It looks like a savannah."

Likewise, he could have afforded to toss a few hundred million into the health-care system.

"Here you go," he could have said, "tell the doctors to cancel their one-way flights to Ontario."

He could have done all this, and still put almost half a billion dollars toward the provincial debt.

No need to put more millions into roads and infrastructure, though - that can wait four years, until the next election.

Anyone who is still wondering whether the Occupy This, Occupy That movement has any point or any relevancy need look no further than the government's decision on how to spend its extra $696 million. The current and immediate needs of the people of the province didn't even warrant a fraction of the bonus funds.

Predictably, the St. John's Board of Trade got out the pompoms and led the cheers.

Perhaps the best achievement of the Occupy movement is to clarify in people's minds the real and significant difference between the one per cent who hold wealth and power, and the 99 per cent who never have anything extra under the mattress.

Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached by email at


Organizations: St. John's Board of Trade, The Telegram

Geographic location: Ontario

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Recent comments

  • MBC
    November 21, 2011 - 14:41


  • Al
    November 19, 2011 - 07:30

    This unexpected surplus is a prime indicator that we have been paying way too much for gas and oil at the pumps. Having said that though, I'm in agreement with using the money to pay down the debt. Putting money into education is fine but it never gets to the people that need it. I worked with a college and there is no bigger sink-hole for money now very well spent.

  • Bob
    November 18, 2011 - 12:35

    Brian...please, no more money at the education system. There are enough incompetents running the show now, Administrative costs are staggering.

  • non-partisan
    November 18, 2011 - 07:58

    Brian, You are so wrong. It is the 99%, their children and grandchildren who will be paying off or at least paying the interest on this debt. If the government did as you suggest, all the same issues would be back again next year and there will be no surplus. As David Cochrane pointed out in his piece on Here and Now, debt repayment has freed up something like 180 million annually for all the things you talk about in your column, based on reduced debt servicing charges. If my children look back on this time in 20 years burdened by massive debt and unending deficits because the oil is gone, there are no jobs and everyone's moving away, I don't want them to say "you mean you blew some of that surplus to mow the lawn more often and fix a few cracks? And now I'm paying interest on that debt and I"m on the hook for it?" We have to realize that we are in an unprecedented time in our history, which will come to an end. The problem is that we've gotten used to being a "have" province very quickly, but it likely will not last. This is our chance to be responsible, not go on a spree. Most politicians, contrary to what you have suggested, are generally inclined to blow cash in similar situations so they can take credit for whatever it was spent on. Think Greece, Italy, the list goes on...