Liberal austerity measures

'We were just scraping by. Now we're fucked'

Opposition to Newfoundland and Labrador's austerity budget growing rapidly
Photo: Kenny Louie

Activism against the provincial budget in Newfoundland and Labrador has continued to gain momentum in recent days. The Liberal government's first budget, introduced two weeks ago today, has provoked widespread condemnation from across the province. It contains a large variety of tax and fee increases, as well as job cuts and reduced operating grants. A new “deficit reduction levy” has been singled out as particularly regressive.

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The government continues to defend the budget, emphasizing the impact of low oil prices and overspending by previous Progressive Conservative governments, while the contentious Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project has also weighed heavily on the province's finances.

As a result of the budget, Memorial University, provincial health authorities, school and library boards and arts organizations will have significantly reduced funding. A number of courts, schools, government offices, clinics, nursing homes, as well as programs for cancer care, dental care, mental health and home heating assistance and other facilities and services are all set to close or be eliminated. On Wednesday it was revealed that a majority of the province's libraries will close.

“Dwight Ball's vision of a stronger tomorrow turned out to be an austerity package that steals from the poor and gives to the rich."

The budget's implementation would mean that Newfoundland and Labrador would become the only province in Canada to tax books. Its literacy rates have been cited as the lowest of any province.

George Murray, the poet laureate of St. John's, expressed his disapproval of the book tax. "Books are to the brain what milk is to the bones. Neither should be taxed, unless we're fine raising a generation of brittle, stupid children," he said in a statement provided to Ricochet.

Petitions demanding a free vote on the budget, the elimination of the deficit reduction levy, the immediate resignation of Premier Dwight Ball and Finance Minister Cathy Bennett and the intervention of the lieutenant governor, as well as the separation of Labrador from Newfoundland, have all gained traction online.

Budget backlash

Hundreds of people are expected to rally at the Confederation Building on Friday. It will follow a number of events organized in the wake of the budget backlash, such as a march in downtown St. John's planned by the Social Justice Cooperative of Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as a week of protests organized by the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees, the province's largest union.

Adam Pitcher, an organizer who has helped plan anti-budget rallies, including with Coordinated Approach NL, criticized the Liberal government and shared his owns fears for the future.

Budget backlash
Hundreds rally against the Liberal budget in St. John's
Matt Barter

"The federal Liberal values don't exist here. What little of a shoddy platform they ran on ended up being reneged on anyway," he told Ricochet. "Dwight Ball's vision of a stronger tomorrow turned out to be an austerity package that steals from the poor and gives to the rich."

"I've got a pressure campaign going against three Liberal MHAs between [Whitbourne, Placentia] and Marystown. They are not impressed with me. It's a shame Premier Ball put them in this position. You can hear it in their voices and see it in their faces. They are torn," Pitcher said, going on to criticize the financial burden of Muskrat Falls.

"We'll be separating so I can get a student loan and we'll also save about $2,500 in income tax. I'm two years into a five-year mortgage and the housing market is shit, so we can't leave. We're trapped here," said Pitcher, who is an unemployed welder.

"A lot of people have been talking about [separating]—a lot of people will have no choice because of this budget. At least we don't have kids. We were trying, and now we're not because of the budget. ...We were just scraping by. Now we're fucked. I'll be harvesting duck from [the park] soon. Not joking. Poaching will be a necessity for many people now. We'll have no choice."

Nursing home to close

Efforts by independent organizers and NAPE to save Masonic Park Nursing Home in Mount Pearl have also gained particular attention.

Randy Simms, the mayor of Mount Pearl, has argued that the provincial government should take a second look at closing the facility.

"We're obviously disappointed with the decision that the Masonic Park Nursing Home is slated for closure," Simms told Ricochet in a phone interview on April 22, adding that he will be seeking a meeting with the Minister of Health.

“At least we don't have kids. We were trying, and now we're not because of the budget. We were just scraping by. Now we're fucked.”

"This seems to be a very valuable facility that is providing excellent services from all reports. It keeps a lot of people in the community close to their families—there's value to that as well, it's not just dollars and cents," Simms said, emphasizing that he hopes the government can find another way to realize savings.

A number of other events, such as a meeting of the province's literary community meant to oppose a planned tax on books, and a boycott of McDonald's restaurants, have also taken place or are currently being organized.

The McDonald's boycott, planned by Tom Beckett, was formed because Minister Bennett owns McDonald's franchises in the St. John's area. Beckett plans to block entrances to McDonald's restaurants and to "continue a dialogue with 'His Honour, the Lieutenant Governor as to dismissing the current House of Assembly and setting a date for a new election'," the Telegram reported on Tuesday.

An exodus?

The budget has sparked renewed discussion of outmigration, an enduring policy problem in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Erin Matthews, an expectant mother from Dildo, told Ricochet that the existing economic situation in Newfoundland and Labrador had already caused her family to contemplate moving away.

"[But] once the budget came down the line, we pretty much came to the conclusion that with the lack of the baby bonus, and the levy tax on top of other things like insurance going up it would be near impossible for us to survive here," Matthews said, referring to the now-axed Progressive Family Growth Benefit and the new deficit reduction levy.

"There's a real possibility of us becoming house poor and having to move in with my parents out around the bay if the economy doesn't pick up, which it doesn't look like it will," said Matthews, whose husband is American.

"Even if the States is a no-go, I suspect we'll move to Nova Scotia or Ontario since basically anywhere is better than here right now when it comes to the job market. But I think this budget, if it goes through, will devastate lower-income families and even middle-class ones, forcing these groups to make some very drastic lifestyle changes if they choose to stay—and I think many won't."

Demonstrators plan to meet at 10 a.m. tomorrow at the Avalon Mall shopping centre and march peacefully to the Confederation Building. Information can be found on the associated Facebook page here.

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