By Robert DeVet
Seldom has a provincial austerity budget been as decisively rejected as happened this spring in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Angry citizens took to the street in record numbers, filled townhalls across the province, wrote letters, called in to radio shows, and in true Newfoundland fashion made fun of a hapless Premier Dwight Ball. The anti-budget coalition was broad and diverse, and the protesters were very determined.
But that all happened in the spring. Did the protests run out of steam over the summer, or did people simply take a breather?
This is not going away
Jerry Earle, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE), is certain protesters will be back this fall.
“This is not going away,” Earle says. “Normally you anticipate that when bad decisions are made by government you may get a protest or two and then things quiet down. But the protests are being sustained over a long time, which speaks to the high levels of frustration among the population.”
“What was surprising was that even into July there were still protest on healthcare changes. You anticipate that when there are rallies in the summer not a whole lot of people will show up, but I traveled to (the town of) Botwood expecting 20 to 30 people at best, and in excess of 200 people actually came out,” Earle says.
Protests were spontaneous and organized by many different groups and individuals. Yet the Common Front NL, a coalition of unions, faith groups, social justice activists and students, helped maintain momentum and focus.
The opposition to austerity has been remarkably effective. Of course, the draconian nature of the government cuts helped a lot.
Facing huge drops in oil revenues, the provincial Liberals cut public services, closed public libraries and courthouses, and raised taxes and fees. Even books are being taxed now, making Newfoundland and Labrador the first province to do so.
Newfoundlanders and Labradorians didn’t like it a bit. In the early summer the governing Liberals sat at 30 percent support in the polls, about half of the popular vote they received in the election a mere nine months earlier.
As a result of the protests and the wide disapproval there have been government retreats on some of the more drastic austerity measures. The library closures are now being revisited,and the provincial Liberals abandoned a widely despised universal and regressive tax levy.
How the protests will play out will largely depend on the government’s next moves. Many feel that the Liberals’ determination is wavering in the face of widespread opposition.
A fall “mini budget” or “supplemental budget”, part of the government’s tough talk during the spring, now is referred to as a mere fiscal update, “not something that opens up the large discussions that typically accompany a true budget,” according to Premier Dwight Ball. Ball also suggested that “big cuts are not in the offing.”
“We need to wait and see, but it looks like the pressure is getting to the government, and that’s a good thing,” says Mary Shortall, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour.
“It is very clear that the work of the coalition has been very effective. But it is not just our work, grassroots organizations outside our coalition, and also individual citizens made tremendous contributions. This is the longest pushback campaign that we have ever seen in our recent history, and it continues. People still are talking about it, there are still protests, it’s still a topic on social media. It’s working,” says Shortall.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. As the government appears to back paddle a bit, organizations such as the Newfoundland and Labrador Employers’ Council and the various Boards of Trade are loudly demanding that so-called courageous cuts continue. How do you push back on pressures such as these?
You talk to people, and you listen, says Shortall. And then you talk some more.
“What we have to do in this next stage is to engage the public in a conversation about how this government lacks any vision on what to do beyond eliminating the deficit. What we need to explain is that we need that vision,” says Shortall.
“We need to keep working with the municipalities and the rural communities and towns, and with sympathetic organizations, and we need to empower people to engage with their friends and neighbours and expose all that talk of austerity for it what it is,” Shortall says.
“Within the coalition working groups are focusing on outreach, education, and a communication strategy. There is also a policy group that has begun to articulate a vision that is inclusive and doesn’t involve cuts for the sake of cutting,” says Shortall.
“We need to look not at deficit reduction but at creating jobs and diversification, sustaining our communities, rather than eliminating a deficit on the backs of the poor and the most vulnerable, she says.
“Over the summer the policy group met to articulate a vision which will help us talk to people when we move into the fall,” says Shortall. “This discussion also has to be about the values that drive the economy, it has to be about employment, about keeping our youth, diversification, a budget’s impact on women, fairness and equality, sustaining the environment.”
The Common Front NL will keep up the pressure, at least until this fall’s budget update, says Shortall. “Depending on what that budget looks like we will either celebrate that we have made a difference, or continue to push back,” she says.
Earle agrees, and he is looking forward to attending the town halls that have begun again now that Labour Day is behind us.
“Do we need to look at efficiencies? Yes, but cuts are not the way,” says Earle. “You don’t dig yourself out of a hole using a hatchet.”