Monday, 22 October 2012

The Premier’s Speech: From Triumphalism to Despair

James McLeod, Telegram Reporter, diligently recorded and transcribed the Premier’s Remarks to the delegates at the P.C. Convention in Gander on the morning of October 13, 2012.  It was an important speech, dealing with, among other issues, the fiscal situation of the Province.    

The Premier was obviously troubled by the Province’s diminished financial position, a realization brought on by oil prices that are more inclined to the $100 mark than to the $124.12 per barrel ‘Budget plug’ her Finance Minister’s used last March.  With one third of Provincial revenues dependent on the higher number, the Minister’s forecast deficit, this year, of $258.4 million is likely to grow, by the Premier’s own reckoning, to $600-700 million and $1 billion next year.
Maintenance, interrupting production on the Terra Nova and White Rose platforms, was known at the time the Budget was delivered. The date for the end of offset payments under the Atlantic Accord, a reduction in annual revenue of $536.1 million in 2012-13 and beyond, has been known since the deal was struck in the 1980s. 

What did the Premier say in her Speech?  This is one excerpt:
“Let me tell you, we’re spending too much money…. We are. And we’ve got to get a handle on it. …Do you know that in Newfoundland and Labrador, we spend almost $5,000 per person more than any other province in Canada in providing services to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.  Four thousand seven hundred dollars more”.    

James McLeod, Telegram Reporter commented on the Premier’s next volley.  Remarked, McLeod: “She also said that oil revenue has led to citizens being cavalier about government spending, because the funding isn’t coming out of their own pockets”.  Said the Premier:
“We want to keep taxes low. We want people to drive money back into the economy, but I’m going to tell you a startling fact now, because there’s a downside to that. When people don’t pay a whole lot of income tax and so on, then sometimes you can get a little benign about your advice to government. Yes, give ‘em a higher raise. Yes, build that. Yes do that. Yes, yes, yes, yes. And you’re easily able to say yes because there’s no direct consequence to you. If your taxes had to come out of the pocket to pay for it, then maybe we would have a little more sober reflection about some of the things we’re doing”.

These are sober thoughts.  Problem is, I don’t get the impression she is blaming herself.  Nor is the Premier ready with a course of action.  Let me add some context here:

1.      The Government of Danny Williams ratcheted up both capital and operating expenditures in a significant way in 2003 and it has gone on unabated since then, even under Dunderdale.

2.      The debt of the Province, is $10.8 billion (including the pension deficit); the third highest per capita provincial debt in Canada, after Quebec and Ontario.

3.      The provincial public service is bloated; in the absence of any meaningful population growth, positions have grown by an average 3.8% annually for most of the period since 2003.

4.      With budgeted expenditures always at the margin of affordability, any hiccup in oil production or prices, results in greater deficit financing (borrowing).

5.      Sanctioning of Muskrat Falls will require that the Government raise roughly $3 billion for its equity share of project financing.

6.      Any cost overruns will add to the provincial debt.  MF cost overruns could be significant, if other mega projects serve as meaningful benchmarks, as I believe they do.

It is one thing to craft Budgets that require government to operate at the margin, as Williams/Dunderdale have done, but ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it too’.
If Dunderdale is determined to proceed with MF, simple prudence should dictate an approach to spending that creates ‘fiscal room’, allowing Government to play defense in the event the project does not go entirely as planned. 

Choices should have been made both on the capital side and on the operating side of the Budget. Of course, the Finance Minister would not have been permitted to use his favourite dart to forecast oil prices, nor would the Premier be able to say “yes, yes, yes, yes” (as she allowed in her remarks) every time some group or some community demanded that their infrastructure deficit be sated. And, yes, the last general election might have been slightly less of a cake walk, as a result.

Now, the Government is in a tight spot.  If it is to dodge the fiscal bullet that awaits them, not just at Muskrat Falls but right now, as a result of unbridled government spending, the time for action is short.
Indeed, timely decisions were required at least three or four years ago. Yes, the Province had an ‘infrastructural’ deficit, roads and bridges were in a poor state of repair; but, with offshore oil revenues, it had the ability to correct that problem without causing a ‘structural’ deficit, without bloating the bureaucracy.  It had choices.  It simply lacked the political will to control expectations or to make sensible decisions.   

Now the Premier, in mortal fear of backtracking on MF, refuses to be mindful of the cliff edge to which she is heading; she is determined to proceed with sanction and to play along the margins.  Trouble is, play there too long without a parachute, she may just fall off, taking the Province with her.  And, fiscal discipline is a good parachute.
When oil is the only potion, it is tough to rely on magic. Like Ron Weasley in Harry Potter, the Premier’s well used wand no longer elicits the desired result, no matter how good her intentions.

The next part of the Premier’s Speech runs the gamut, from triumphalism (things are great and they can only get better) to despair (could all this fun possibly be be over).   Added the Premier (underlining is mine):
“We had an interesting time in government during the last two years, and I’m really proud of our record. We continue our tremendous investment in infrastructure in this place, almost a billion dollars a year, year-over-year-over-year, we’ve invested almost $9 billion in infrastructure since 2003, in roads, in schools, in hospitals, in aquaculture, in the economy. It has been absolutely tremendous and you can see that investment. We went through a recession and we hardly felt the bump in Newfoundland and Labrador. The world remains so unstable economically; everybody is waiting for the other shoe to drop. We need to pay attention to that. There’s only half a million of us in this place but we earn over 30 per cent of our revenue from commodities….”

As I continued to read the Remarks, which James McLeod had patiently transcribed, I had hoped that the Premier might take some responsibility for the state of affairs in which she had a hand, that she might set out a prescription for getting the Province’s finances back on track; that she might propose, silly me, that Muskrat Falls be placed on hiatus subject to further public review, lest it, and her high spending ways, send us to the poor house.
Alas, the Premier was harbouring no such thoughts.        
In such circumstances, a famous quote from the 19th century, French politician, Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin might be invoked: “There goes my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”