Analysis: The new political reality

Now it’s all about the money

James McLeod jmcleod@thetelegram.com
Published on January 1, 2016
Dwight Ball.
Telegram file photo

At some point in the last month, there was a shift.

It’s hard to put your finger on when it happened, exactly. Maybe it was Dec. 1, the day after the election. Maybe it was a few weeks later than that.

This isn’t about the Liberals unseating the Progressive Conservatives to form the government following the 2015 general election. This is bigger than that.

For the past year, at least, all of Newfoundland and Labrador politics hinged around one question: how does this affect the election?

The Tories managed to rag the puck for a while, but ever since Paul Davis became premier in September 2014, it was only a matter of time before he’d have to face the voters.

Nothing the Davis government did — the province’s fight with Ottawa over CETA, the plan to cut eight seats from the legislature, the budget, privatizing long-term care — could be considered on its own merits. Every move could only be parsed through the crass rubric of political pandering, and electoral strategy.

Was deputy premier Steve Kent aggressively pursuing access to information reform because it was the right thing to do? Was he doing it to mend a political wound the Tories suffered from Bill 29? Was he doing it because a strong access to information law would be useful to the Tories once they were relegated to the opposition side of the House?

Who can say?

In some ways, all of this was a disservice to the Tories. They doubtless had some good ideas. At least a couple of times, they were almost certainly doing what they thought was in the best interests of the province, not just what would, hopefully, salvage their re-election efforts.

Anyway, that was the old reality. The Liberals are in, Dwight Ball is premier now and the safe bet is that voters won’t go to the polls again until 2019.

All that changed in December, when Ball and Finance Minister Cathy Bennett sat reporters down and delivered the hard news about the government’s fiscal situation.

The $1.9-billion deficit is huge. It’s 24 per cent of the budget. To put that in perspective, if the federal government was running a deficit the same size, Ottawa would be about $70 billion in the red.

As we step into 2016, there’s a new question lurking in the background at every news conference, every government meeting, every time a politician opens their mouth: how does this affect the budget?

In many ways, it’s the only question that matters right now. Whether it’s justice or fisheries or health care, tourism or mining, for every move the government makes, we will ask if it’s something we can afford.

Can the economy afford tax hikes? Can the government afford to operate without taxes going up?

When Ball sat down with The Telegram for a year-end interview, it was the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and the premier’s office was quiet.

He said the finance minister was in the building, though.

“I think there’s two cars in this parking lot today. It’s mine and hers,” Ball said.

There are 11 other people in cabinet, but realistically, they’re all subordinate to Ball and Bennett.

If Eddie Joyce or Andrew Parsons or Perry Trimper wants to do anything new, they’ll have to go through Bennett and answer that all-important question: how does this affect the budget?

This is the political reality in 2016.

But at least they don’t have to worry about another election for a few years.

jmcleod@thetelegram.com

Twitter: TelegramJames