Thursday, 26 April 2012

THE BUDGET A GREAT SHELL GAME SAYS UNCLE GNARLEY

“I like taking my daily constitutional.  In fact, Nav, I walked the other day, along my favourite coast line, Cape Spear, when I spied two mates paddling along in those ‘tippy’ boats; kayaks, I believe, you call them. 

“I might not have noticed but for the commotion that was evident, both on sea and in the air; there were, in fact, no fewer than two offshore vessels engaged in manoeuvres with fast rescue craft within easy reach and a helicopter airborne; my first thought was that you, Nav, were out for a little sport and took the entire Newfoundland navy for protection”!

Somehow, I knew no compliment would be forthcoming!


“Were you one of those kayakers?”  Uncle Gnarly pursued the matter, giving special emphasis to the ‘yak’ in kayak, rather than to the beauty and artistry of that perfect craft. I nodded in the affirmative. 

Instant was the speed of response: “I thought as much”, Nav.  “Rougher weather and you would need the entire Canadian fleet to get you back home.  For most of us, man, a two dollar compass would get us back to Quidi Vidi”, he chuckled derisively. 

Not giving me a chance to inform him that this was a frequent exercise conducted by vessels from the offshore oil industry, Uncle Gnarly scratched a wrinkled face which formed a bizarre smile only a suitably curled lip and a sharp tongue could construct.  For the moment, the man seemed pained, yet, still energized.

I had anticipated that the assault might continue but, as usual, the enigmatic and often inscrutable old bugger was just using me as a foil for bigger quarry.

Said, he: “at least, Nav, you had more sense than the Minister of Finance.  With all those electronics, dry suits and special gear you kayakers seem to drag with you, you could teach him something about wearing protection”! 

Continued Gnarley: “I don’t think I would have had the nerve to go into the House of Assembly with a Budget like that one, without fearing half the Chamber was in possession of a quantity of size large eggs. Why wouldn’t they, he cried; that Minister designs the best of ‘shell’ games, Gnarley laughed at own humour. He should get some of his own medicine”.

Soon the man’s demeanour turned grim. “But the ‘people’s house’”, he barked, “is not a suitable place for confidence games, is it, Nav?  We have listened, for the past three months, to the Minister and the Premier talk about the need for an austerity budget in the face of the loss of certain revenues.  What does the Minister do?  He announces $664 million for Nalcor; much of it for a hydro project that, ostensibly, has not even been sanctioned. The debt is increased from $7.7 billion to $8.45 billion, a difference of $750 million, but the Minister only refers to the deficit of $258 million.  Oil revenues, which comprise a large part of the Budget, are based upon nearly $124/barrel, a forecast at the high end of the range; lower prices will result in a higher deficit, especially if the European debt problems slow their economies down further and cheap natural gas continues to penetrate industrial and utility markets”. 

“But that is not all, Nav. The Minister is wrong in telling the public that our debt will be $7.7 billion at the end of the year.  The simple fact is our “net” debt will be $10.8 billion, once the unfunded pension liability is factored in. This is a serious piece of business”, Nav.  “This pension liability increases again this year by $520 million. All governments have been ignoring the problem for years”, he railed, “hoping it will go away.  It’s a great shell game, Nav, and it isn’t at all funny! I have more to say on this issue, Nav, but I need a day when my stomach is stronger than it is right now; this is not easy conversation for me”.

“As you can see, Nav, this budget business is all about kicking the can down the road. The idea is, let some other government make the tough decisions”.

Old Gnarley looked as he clearly felt. The Minister, he said, had ‘copped out’; missed an opportunity for leadership, let slip one more chance to secure the financial ship of state. An $8.6 billion debt, a huge unfunded pension liability and now they want to assuage big egos with a $6.2 billion power project.  In disbelief, Gnarley expelled, as if talking to himself would make the thought disappear: “the people seem happy. For now”!

Dejection tore at Gnarley; disappointment comes all too often from ‘the hill’.  

Finally, he was heard to say: “If only, I didn’t love this place”!     


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