It’s a matter of optics — and sometimes, that’s the biggest part of politics. Fresh from months of talking about the need to tighten belts and cut costs, the provincial government announced that it and the federal government will spend a combined total $85 million paving and widening the Trans-Labrador Highway from Labrador City to Red Bay.
Here’s Transportation and Works Minister Paul Davis, from a Monday news release: “This is one of the largest infrastructure projects ever undertaken in the province and a key component of our government’s unwavering commitment to the people of Labrador.”
This, on the heels of the government’s sanctioning of Muskrat Falls, a multi-billion-dollar project larger than anything undertaken by former provincial governments in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the sanctioning of the Hebron project, which, in its construction phase, will suck up hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars.
Everything big, big, big, bigger — everything richer and richer, too.
The government may well be cash-poor, but it sure isn’t behaving like it is.
This isn’t to say that the highway shouldn’t be widened and paved — it also isn’t to say that the project shouldn’t proceed while the federal government is at the table with its cash, too. (Neither the federal nor the provincial news releases explain what the federal/provincial split is on the construction costs.)
But it’s hard to expect a population to believe cutbacks are necessary when the government is still stuck in the mould of trumpeting huge spending announcements.
What it suggests is less that the government is short of money, and more that it is draining the pool that funds public services to finance its big-project dreams.
Perhaps that’s why NAPE’s current TV advertising campaign is so persuasive. The union, deadlocked in talks with the provincial government, has been running ads asking just why it is that the government can both claim the province to be running a “white-hot” economy, while also pointing to a single year’s debt of three-quarters of a billion dollars and impending cutbacks. (Cutbacks, by the way, are something that almost no one left on the Tory side of the House of Assembly has the least bit of experience in delivering.)
Here’s the thing: people have a hard time believing that you’re broke when you keep buying the biggest car and the biggest house on the block. And when Monday brings $85 million in new government spending and “one of the largest infrastructure projects ever undertaken in the province,” it’s hard to accept that Thursday — or next Thursday, or a Thursday in April — will bring a whole range of belt-tightening.
Perhaps the government could shift its message, because right now the message doesn’t look like “we don’t have enough money.”
It looks like “we don’t have enough money left for the things you think are important.”