One of the most important revelations in the Ball Government’s policy document The Way Forward — and there are very few — is that it recognizes they have a spending problem. Yet it constitutes neither road map nor resolution for the province’s fiscal woes. Recognition of the problem, alone, is not enough.
Says the document:
“This fiscal problem was not caused by a drop in oil prices, but was instead exposed by the decline in oil prices. The past decade has been marked by an incredible increase in Government revenue… Even in 2016-17, Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest per capita revenue, and the highest per capita program costs among provinces. We cannot treat our current situation as only a revenue problem. Our province has a spending problem.” (p.3)
Still, it is peculiar phrasing — it seems no one discovered they were out of water until the well went dry!
Given the size of the fiscal nightmare, one might reasonably expect The Way Forward to point to a definitive and sizeable set of initiatives to achieve spending cuts. It does nothing of the kind.
Consider the part that deals with fiscal targets. It says only that the government is “committed to… exceeding the target for the 2016-17 deficit and maintaining our commitment to return to surplus in 2022-23.” (p.5)
Return to surplus should imply an average reduction in spending of around $300 million in each of the next five fiscal years. Including for this year, additional borrowing of around $5 billion will be needed — just for the operating account. Not a pretty picture.
Then, too, this year’s deficit was reduced from $1.83 billion to $1.58 billion — not by decision-making, but chiefly because oil production and the price were higher than previously forecast. Six years to a balanced budget is a very long period — especially when you consider that the government offers no benchmarks of achievement, except to report following each of the plan’s nebulous “three phases”.
Of course, the drafters do not take care to say that mid-way through the plan a general election will be held, that funding for capital accounts and for the Muskrat Falls project will continue. Essentially, government has given itself the luxury of delaying fiscal redress for an indefinite period— as if that is an option.
One might be prepared to cut the government some slack if its retrenchment proposals contained some specific amounts of targeted savings. Other than the proposed reduction in leased office space and a cut in boards and agencies by 20% — chump change in the larger context — we are left with a litany of generalizations: “Adopt a Flatter, Leaner Management Structure”, “Reduce Silos in Government Operations”, “Utilize Zero Based Budgeting”… none of which inspire thoughts of a government preoccupied with crisis.
The Way Forward is not a document constructed in the Department of Finance - it is not even available as a financial document on the department's web site. This is the creation of a handful of PR types with access to Tourism’s glossy photographs. It demonstrates no knowledge of what the solutions to a spending crisis should look like. Many of the financial, economic, and administrative references are matters that constitute merely the ongoing minutiae of a large organization.
Normally I’m not looking for humour in documents like this one. We have Mark Critch, Mary Walsh, and others to provide entertainment in that department. Still it is impossible not to guffaw at this line:
“For years, our province had a strategy of strategies with purpose-built programs and special offices… the model has resulted in an expensive, complex and crowded suite of programs and services. Public sector efficiency has not been top of mind.”
Imagine defining unbridled waste and mismanagement as a “strategy of strategies”. This is surely a tip-off that the government plans to replace all the people in the Department of Finance with the Office of Public Engagement!
The Tories applied neither a “model” nor a “strategy” to spending. The money tap facilitated a feeding frenzy — between senior bureaucrats and politicians. They spent it all and borrowed even more, with not a thought to consequence.
70% of government spending is claimed by health, social services, and education. Still, the document notes:
“High levels of investments in recent years did not budge many of our most important outcomes in health and education. Despite increasing health care spending by $1 billion and K-12 and post-secondary education spending by $400 million, an increase of 58 per cent and 44 per cent respectively over the past ten years, many of our indicators remain well below the national average.” (p.2)
So who has been minding the store in those departments — and are they still there?
Against this backdrop, imagine how nebulous any claim to better “outcomes” is, or to the idea of “more from less”. The Way Forward commits “to address gaps in our system, strengthen existing programs and services” and to “improving health outcomes”. This is essentially rhetoric — not a prescription for surgery on excessive spending.
Equally, a “Task Force”, “Collaboration”, and the commitment to “Modernize” in the case of the College of the North Atlantic — all likely necessary — offer no evidence of a government beset with a bond market breathing down its fiscal neck.
The glossy brochure did not even acknowledge the financial or economic implications of a doubling in the cost of electricity — as if that event won’t have devastating effects on purchasing power and on the quality of life for thousands of people.
Rather than a “GPS” for a province in trouble, The Way Forward is another dust catcher. It will thrill only the faint of heart.