“Now, as never before, we are certain of a future with the promise of opportunity for all.”
— Premier Kathy Dunderdale,
Dec. 17, 2012, in a speech
sanctioning Muskrat Falls
Premier Kathy Dunderdale and Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy have been honing their good cop/bad cop routine when it comes to the state of the province’s economy.
Kennedy is in charge of gloom and doom: the province is facing $1.6-billion deficits in 2013 and 2014. We could be talking about a potential shortfall of $4 billion in three years.
Dunderdale offers a slight ray of hope: yes, times are tough. Yes, we have to buckle down for the next couple of years. But the deficit for 2013 won’t reach $1.6 billion on her watch, she says.
Both are on the same track, though, when it comes to one thing: the province’s economy in general is “white hot” and that should help pick up some of the slack as the government trims spending, puts a freeze on hiring, hacks away at programs and cuts jobs.
It’s always the way. When private industry downsizes, it trusts that the public sector will step in with financial assistance, training and “transition” programs for displaced workers.
When governments need to shrink the public service, they hope the private sector will absorb the people who were once on their payroll.
It’s a nice idea, but likely doesn’t offer much reassurance to the people suddenly finding themselves holding pink slips.
Nor will recent comments from the premier, made last Friday when the province’s largest public sector union said it was hearing news of layoffs in several government departments.
Dunderdale called on the public not to panic.
“We’re only partway through the process, and I’m going to say the same thing that I said last year: you’ve got to let us get through the process and see what the end result is going to be,” she said in a media scrum on March 1.
“It was the speculation last year on what it might be that created all the furor and anxiety.”
Deciding which jobs to eliminate may be part of a process for the government, but it hits a hell of a lot closer to home for the people on the government payroll who are wondering whether they’ll still be around to collect their next paycheque.
Speculation? Furor and anxiety? Aren’t those feelings and reactions to be expected from people living under the sword of Damocles?
Surely the premier is being unrealistic in expecting people not to worry when she and her finance minister have both said they have a plan to save money but they’re not willing to show their hand just yet.
“We have targets that we’re trying to meet in terms of developing our plan to return to a balanced budget …” Kennedy said March 5. “It’s a fairly aggressive plan, and to meet those figures we then have to ensure that there’s a significant reduction this year, but we’ll know more as we move through this. But it will all be announced, and on budget day, what we’re hoping to do is to announce the impact on the public service in terms of layoffs and other budget reduction initiatives.”
Not exactly reassuring. We’re supposed to trust in a government that promises its multi-decade, multibillion-dollar investment — our investment — in Muskrat Falls is rock solid, and yet they didn’t see this financial crisis coming?
It’s particularly disturbing when a key part of their plan so far has been to eliminate funding for a province-wide program that offered employment assistance services (EAS) to people looking for work — thus throwing the people who administered the program out of work themselves. That’s not a strategy for saving money that is easily understood.
As Tony Ducey of Frenchman’s Cove noted astutely in a letter to the editor in The Telegram on Thursday:
“With all due respect to the employees at Advanced Education and Skills, I don’t know how the government expects them to handle the increased workload that will come as a result of this move. Especially with a hiring freeze on within the provincial government. The work that could be done easily in the past with an EAS office is now expected to be done by someone at Advanced Education and Skills. Don’t know how that’ll work.”
He’s not alone there.
Another thing that’s been tough to reconcile is the government’s willingness to ignore glaring areas where money could be saved while cutting jobs and capping obviously needed initiatives like the dental program in a manner that seems somewhat ad hoc.
Health Minister Susan Sullivan acknowledged on Tuesday that she’s known since the summer of 2011 that the lavish salaries offered by the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Health Information are out of whack with the rest of the civil service, yet she did nothing to rein them in. Why?
Also on Tuesday, at the same time the government was eliminating jobs from the public service, it announced a $4-million contract for Deloitte to help it find $15 million in savings in the way it makes purchases.
I can’t imagine all those outside contracts and consultants and the patronage appointments made in the past year have done much to instil a sense of security among members of the public service.
Who knows where the axe will fall next?
But that’s OK, folks. There’s no reason for panic — the premier said so.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate managing editor.
She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.