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Hello. This is not going to be cheerful.
I’m going to tell about what isn’t going to happen.
The election is over, and we get four years with the winner. That was always a given — the only question was what colour the covers of government documents would be.
But don’t expect change.
Don’t expect promises to be delivered on.
Don’t expect improvement in services or support, at least, not without a corresponding cut in services somewhere else.
And no, this is not because I don’t trust politicians. I think most politicians get into the campaign business for the right reasons. Because they think they have something to offer — because they’re willing to offer it.
But, no matter how many times it was pointed out during the campaign, one fundamental truth about the ability of governments to actually govern just wasn’t recognized during the campaign.
And that’s the fact that, while parties like to make promises, this province’s government is essentially hobbled. No matter how much the provincial government would like to change and improve the lot for people who live here, they don’t have the tools anymore. They don’t have the wiggle room to deliver on the things that were promised before the election and they don’t have the wiggle room now.
Before the election, everyone had their pitch on rate mitigation for the impact of Muskrat Falls. Keeping power rates where they are is a $725-million-a-year problem.
The Tories could have done the old election switcheroo we know so well: “Oh no, things are much worse than we knew, so all bets are off…”
Here’s a question: if finding $725 million was some kind of child’s play, why wasn’t it done last year or the year before? If the money was just lying around, waiting to be used, why, we could have used it to pay down the debt. But it isn’t lying around — the only way you find the money to pay for electrical power is to take it away from somewhere else.
Just as a matter of scale, by the way, that’s $725 million a year every year. You can think about that number this way: if you combine the salaries of every civil servant directly employed by the province — so, not health-care workers or teachers, but pretty much everyone else — the payroll’s only $652 million this year. (Add in benefits, and it’s more like $844 million.)
So, solving the Muskrat power cost problem means essentially finding a whole source of revenue almost as large as the provincial payroll. No, that’s not as simple as writing up a plan and saying “Nalcor will hand over $200 million a year and the federal government will help with $200 million a year…” It takes a lot more.
Right now, 18 cents out of every dollar that comes in to the provincial government leaves the province to pay just the interest on the money we’ve already borrowed. And that hole is only going to get deeper; we can’t afford to live in manner to which we have become accustomed, let alone adding more debt to the pile.
But we pile up more debt in every year. While the budget before the election claimed a dizzying $1.9-billion surplus, that’s because the province took 36 years or so of future federal Atlantic Accord payments and put them on the books as if we got them all this year. We’re actually going $855 million more in the hole this year — and that’s with things just as they are, with no election promises added into the mix.
The Liberals are in far worse shape on this than the Tories would have been if they had won — because the Liberals already knew how bad the situation is, despite their sparkly sham budget. The Tories could have done the old election switcheroo we know so well: “Oh no, things are much worse than we knew, so all bets are off…”
But the Liberals knew, made their promises anyway, and are caught — caught even worse because they are, right now, a minority government.
We are at the point where the provincial government can’t do anything new; any new venture requires robbing Peter to pay Paul.
And in this case, Peter is the biggest hot button issue of all: health care. Health care takes the most money, and any promise that takes cash will have to get that cash somehow from the health-care system.
Get ready to be disappointed, no matter how much of a leash you’ve held on your expectations.
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Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.