Baffled and bewildered by the budget

Published on May 24, 2016

Earl McCurdy

©Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Dear editor: A Nova Scotia-based public opinion pollster recently attacked the delivery of services to rural areas in Newfoundland and Labrador, and proposed that services be moved to larger towns.

It appears from the recent budget that the Liberal government essentially agrees with these views.

The budget was tough on practically all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, but it hit rural people and communities especially hard.

The unfair Liberal levy was a disaster for rural and urban people alike.  It hit lower- and middle-income people much harder, as a percentage of their income, than it did higher-income citizens. This goes against the basic principles of progressive taxation.

The premier’s only defense of the levy has been to say over and over that it is “temporary.”  If true, that doesn’t change the fundamental unfairness. That’s why the NDP started a petition to eliminate the Liberal levy and start a fair tax review.

Other controversial measures seemed to take dead aim at rural people.

One such decision that has received less public attention than it deserves is the doubling of the provincial gas tax, from 16.5 cents a litre to 33 cents. That’s about $10 extra on a fill-up of a small car and $20 or more for a pickup.

This hits rural people especially hard, at the same time that services in smaller towns are being reduced and government offices closed.

People in smaller communities already had to drive further to get to work and to get access to doctors’ offices, hospitals, grocery stores and other necessary services. The closure of many public buildings in smaller communities announced in the budget forces people to drive further for services, at the same time the price of gas is being substantially increased.

Then there is the increase in the cost of food and other goods that will surely follow right on the heels of the increased gas tax and insurance fees.

It is unbelievable that government would close 54 rural libraries. These are important resources for preschoolers, school students, adults and seniors alike, and libraries are valuable public gathering places in small communities.

The savings from closing the libraries are minor in the context of a multi-billion dollar budget, but the result will be a real loss and a significant decline in the quality of life.

The minister of Education defended this harsh decision by saying government will improve regional libraries, and claiming that 85 per cent of the population will still be within a 30-minute drive of a library.

What about the other 15 per cent – are they chopped liver? It’s absolutely ridiculous to suggest that people who live on islands, such as Fogo Island or Bell Island, can reasonably travel to libraries that are an unreliable ferry ride away. Imagine – in the 21st century the Liberal government has taken away library access and Internet access (among other services) to thousands of our citizens.

Is that what Dwight Ball and Dale Kirby call progress?

There were plenty of other budget measures that undermined the quality of life in rural areas, including a series of cuts that the Nunatsiavut Government rightly objected to, that added significant costs and removed valuable services from Labradorians.

Ferry fees were jacked up, many rural government offices were closed and valuable health services in communities like Bonavista and Harbour Breton were eliminated. The list goes on.

There was no evidence of any meaningful investment in our rural areas. Infrastructure spending was actually reduced by $138 million from the 2015 budget.

The people and communities of rural Newfoundland and Labrador are a priceless asset. They contribute a great deal to the provincial economy. Tourists don’t visit our province to visit dying communities. Unfortunately, the provincial budget fails to reflect any understanding by government that good jobs, vibrant small communities and healthy lifestyles go hand in hand.

Another major sore point with people throughout the province was that the budget flew in the face of clear-cut campaign promises made by the Liberals. People feel bamboozled. Some have said their vote was stolen from them.

Above all, the Liberal budget offered no hope to our people. On the same day as the Liberal budget was announced, the Alberta NDP released its budget, which invested in people, jobs and public services, despite the financial crunch in that province resulting from huge job losses and the collapse of oil royalties resulting from the slump in oil prices.

The Alberta budget was entitled, “The Alberta Jobs Plan.” The Newfoundland and Labrador budget could well have been called “Honey, I shrunk the kids.”

Earle McCurdy, Leader

NDP, Newfoundland and Labrador