October 24, 1999
The Halifax Daily News
Nova Scotia Faces Troubling Times
Woe betide the world of tribulation soon to face John Hamm’s government. Sometime next spring, angry demonstrations will break out across the province, violence will erupt, people will be arrested, others will be sent to hospital. Ugly incidents will be broadcast on national news night after night.
The Tories have to cut over $600 million of spending to reach the promised balanced budget. So far, they’ve cut about $2 million, and to programs not even in place. Yet, these feeble moves created nasty headlines across Nova Scotia and extreme vilification.
The cuts-to charity contributions and a wheelchair-accessibility program-were razor nicks. Imagine the chaos when Dr. Hamm begins open-heart surgery on the budget of this province, with the patient fully conscious and capable of the most heart-wrenching screams of agony.
Few realize the operation will be more painful for the surgeon and his assistants than for the patient. Dr. Hamm, his cabinet and his MLAs will be viciously and personally attacked.
They are unprepared for what is to come. Nova Scotian politicians are seldom policy-driven. They get into politics as a career move, and to make sunny announcements while rewarding friends and supporters.
The political culture is oriented towards spending. Government is expected to create jobs and solve problems, which in most other parts of the democratic world are left to individuals themselves.
Both Liberal and Tory spending created the fiscal crisis. Most everything cut will be something the Tories would rather keep. On top of a job they don’t like, they’ll be vilified in every city, town and hamlet in the province.
The civil service will likely be in open revolt. Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union, says she’ll fight virtually any move to reduce provincial expenditures.
To get an idea of what this could mean, look at what’s happening in Sydney. The municipality faces a $12.6 million shortfall. Yet, it offered outside workers a 7 per cent raise over three years. That’s more than almost anyone reading this column will receive. But, it’s not enough. On Wednesday, the union gave strike notice. It demands more money, and a halt to almost all cost-saving strategies, such as contracting out and employment reduction even by attrition.
Jessome is right about one thing, though: balancing the budget will be tough on civil servants. Only a few years back, they suffered through former Premier John Savage’s effort to bring the province’s finances under control. That involved staffing cuts and wage rollbacks.
The effort was squandered by Savage’s successor, Russell MacLellan, who shows every sign of being as irresponsible in opposition as he was in government.
The Tories claim they haven’t had time since the election to write a new budget, so they just kept the old Liberal budget. And, how did MacLellan describe what, in effect, was his own budget? “I’ve never seen anything so haphazard in all my life,” he shouted in the Legislature. “There is no excuse why this government can’t get on with cost-cutting.”
Life will be miserable for Dr. Hamm and his colleagues. Even supporters of fiscal responsibility will hate some of the cuts. I oppose the cut to wheelchair accessibility. The politically weak are too often victims.
The task ahead is greater than most realize. The province’s $500 million deficit understates the problem. As Parker Barss Donham pointed out in these pages last week, the deficit would be much larger, about $660 million, without two windfalls-a one-time federal “top-up” for health and social services and the last of Ottawa’s BST contributions.
These windfalls won’t re-occur. Moreover, this year’s deficit will add about $40 million to next year’s debt servicing costs. By the time the Tories get around to presenting a balanced budget in two and a half years, debt-servicing costs will probably have risen by almost $100 million. That will have to be cut out of other spending.
We can’t afford to continue this path, but remember, if the folks doing the cutting say, “This hurts me more than it does you,” they’re probably telling the truth. Most of them got into politics to hand out goodies, not cut them.