Monday, 15 January 2018


Pick any public service — education, health care, or the general services — and statistics show that this province employs a far higher number of employees per capita than the Canadian average. Yet, notwithstanding the province’s desperate financial position, it entered into a four-year “no layoff” agreement with NAPE, handcuffing itself from remedy except by attrition — a highly unsuitable and inefficient management tool. 

The Ball Government went one step further. It agreed to pay out of an empty till, this fiscal year, severance which had been negotiated in previous collective agreements — estimated to cost $250 million.  It seems that the Minister of Finance did his very best to support an assertion made in The Finance Minister’s Lucky Rabbit’s Foot that “an election looms and the government has a sale on collective agreements”.

NAPE President Jerry Earle
Undoubtedly, the NAPE leadership thinks the deal is a coup when, with the expense of less energy, they likely could have won a coup d’etat. Had they been wiser, they might have demanded that the Government repudiate at least some of the Muskrat Falls debt and place sensible brakes on irresponsible spending habits for the balance of their mandate. Admittedly, the idea is rather fanciful. 
However, in failing to encourage “rightsizing” of the public service, NAPE has chosen to cross a metaphorical Rubicon. It has decided that the fiscal crisis should not be solved on their backs. Yet, attrition won’t allow savings in sufficient measure to ever achieve budget balance. On the contrary it risks causing a “lumpy” public service in consequence of a misalignment of human resources. Neither does the Agreement afford the cancellation of entire programs, a measure essential if a $2.5 billion reduction in expenditures is ever to get underway.
Mary Shortall's La La Land   ___________________________________________________
Undoubtedly, NAPE takes the position that it is the responsibility of the Government to represent the public interest and that of the Unions to represent the interests of their membership.  (As expected, other public sector unions and associations will likely join them by completing similar agreements.)
In “normal” times, who would disagree? But — and I keep saying it — these are not “normal” times. Those on the public payroll comprise a large percentage of the total working population. Their disproportionate engagement in any fiscal “solution” is inescapable. 
Obviously, the Unions don’t see it that way. They are not concerned about their vulnerability or if the “lucky rabbit’s foot” of this (or another) Finance Minister comes up short.
It might be well to remember that this issue isn’t just about the jobs of public servants. For years, public sector unions (and the government) failed to give priority to their pension plans. In this context, what is the government’s $2.685 billion IOU worth — payments on which, together with a commitment to match employee contributions of $42 million annually, is supposed to run for 30 years? 
In 2015 — when the scheme was hatched — unfunded pension and employee benefits accounted for 74% of the province’s “net” debt. The plan works only if the government obtains sufficient revenues — requiring access to the debt markets year after year, which is doubtful.
For this reason, I see the NAPE deal as a dereliction of duty — for both parties. 
The solvency of the government is inextricably tied to the pension arrangements of all public servants. Any endangerment of those post-retirement benefits should be regarded as intolerable to our society, as well as to them — unless, like many Sears workers, they are content to face the prospect of becoming Walmart greeters. I somehow doubt that is the aspiration of those who have punched in a career spanning 25–30 years. 
NAPE gives no thought even to the near future. Evidently they think that there will be no struggle with the bondholders for priority over the province’s assets. Else they think Justin will favour a place with just seven Parliamentary Seats over every other national constituency or priority.
Perhaps there’s something here I’m not getting.
On a different level, I think that the collective agreement represents a pivotal moment in the political and economic life of the province. Why? Quite possibly it was the very last — even if insufficient — turning point that might have caused a reversal of our descent into fiscal insolvency. 
As the saga of the last decade unfolded, NL experienced the high point of its economic fortune. Some think that it hit the low point too. Persistent deficits at the level of CRAZY have cemented the prospect of going broke.
Of course, there were earlier turning points. One occurred with the crash of oil revenues — which didn’t even make the Tories blink. Another followed the election of the Ball Liberal Government and the disclosure that Nalcor — possibly with Tory knowledge — hid the truth about the size of the cost overruns, the price of Muskrat having doubled.  
Ball could have cancelled Muskrat. He could have put a stop to the deficit practices of the Tories. But he didn’t do either. NAPE and the others applauded.
History will likely record that, to the very end, every significant turning point became a missed opportunity. Together they constitute an entire series of bad judgements by the government, gutless Opposition Parties, and weak leadership throughout our society. To state the point a different way: we have not reached this stage of insolvency by accident. NL is not going bankrupt because our desperate fiscal position is not well-understood or because we had no chance, along the way, to consider the prospect of remedy. 
It seems NL society — including its unions — have decided that they would rather take a chance and let the ‘ship of state’ wash onto the rocks in the hope of easy rescue rather than lose their cherished positions. What surely seems a simple metric — the idea that pain for a minority is preferable to pain for everyone — isn’t so simple at all. 
It is in the nature of democracies to employ uncertain metrics, including what constitutes winning. A commentator recently made this observation: "for more one hundred years Newfoundlanders having been trying to master the art of standing on a slippery slope." Perhaps we also forgot what it means to fall.

We have a small amount of time left, including for rhetoric. We might use it to herald a single achievement.
We have passed our last turning point. Now we have reached the point of no return.