Just a few short months after being elected in a landslide, the popularity of the Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal government has fallen sharply. During the campaign the Liberals promised to expand many social programs and categorically ruled out public sector layoffs and an increased sales tax, but their first budget has imposed a varied range of new and increased fees, reduced services and operating grants, as well as tax hikes, many of which have been condemned as regressive.
Riding a wave of popular anger, opposition MHAs filibustered the passage of budget-related bills for 75 hours. The level of activism and public anger over the budget is unprecedented in recent provincial history. With the budget passed, the House of Assembly has now closed, perhaps giving the government some relief.
However, Paul Lane, an independent MHA who was removed from the Liberal caucus after making public his intent to vote against the budget, said that dissatisfaction remains very high.
"I believe that there's still the same amount of anger and frustration out there in the public. I think that the people have been and will continue to be constantly reminded of the impacts of the budget," Lane said in a phone interview on Tuesday, highlighting the impact of increased gas, insurance, and sales taxes, as well as park admissions and vehicle renewals.
"This is something that is definitely not going to go away. People continue to be frustrated and angry over the budget," Lane said. He expects Liberal MHAs are hopeful that their presence in their districts, perhaps along with new funding announcements for road and sewer work, will help constituents forget the budget.
"I really don't think it's going to go away, and I think they're going to continue to hear from the people of Newfoundland and Labrador," Lane said. "This budget is so severe on so many people, and it's actually impacting every single person in the province."
Dropping the Ball
The provincial budget's implementation means that a number of courts, nursing homes, schools, government offices, clinics and other programs and services are set to close or be eliminated. Home heating assistance and portions of the adult dental program will also be eliminated, while half of the province's libraries will close. A controversial "deficit reduction levy" was condemned as particularly regressive, though it has since been reformed.
A fiscal update in the fall is expected to include significant public sector job cuts.
Newfoundland and Labrador, often cited as having the lowest literacy rate of any province, will become the only province to tax books. Finance Minister Cathy Bennett was asked on a special CBC program about replacing this tax with one on junk food, and she replied that it would have cost too much to administer. Bennett owns a number of McDonald's restaurants, which have been targeted for protests and boycotts.
A number of other stories have also affected the personal popularity of Premier Dwight Ball. In April, he faced conflict-of-interest accusations over his ownership stake in a seniors' residence in Mount Pearl, given that a public nursing home in Mount Pearl will close as a result of the budget.
The circumstances of the severance package issued to the former head of the province's public energy corporation Nalcor have also generated significant public anger. Ed Martin received over $6 million, and questions about when Ball and Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady knew about the payment led to calls for their resignations and accusations of incompetence and dishonesty from opposition parties.
Premier Ball was also dragged into a salacious dispute with a tenant in a house he owns with his daughter. The tenant was charged with possession of oxycodone and Dilaudid for the purposes of trafficking, but took the premier and Jade Ball to small claims court in an unrelated case over missing possessions and a withheld security deposit, and won a settlement of almost $5,000.
The government also missed its deadline to give notice for negotiations to the provincial nurses' union, which means their contract will be extended for another year. Ball’s administration has also been criticized for paying a high-priced external law firm to handle upcoming contract negotiations.
No dissent allowed
In another odd twist to this comedy of errors, posters put up by local activists calling for Ball's resignation were removed in the middle of the night by a government-hired contractor.
Transportation minister Allan Hawkins provided a statement to Ricochet about the removal disavowing responsibility. "Myself, my executive and the Premier’s Office did not direct, nor were we made aware of, the decision to remove the posters," the statement reads. "I have discussed with our staff why the posters were removed. It was viewed by staff as an operational matter that did not require the involvement of the executive. They have advised me that because the posters were located within Pippy Park, which is government property, and were political in nature, they felt it was appropriate to have them removed."
Members of Coordinated Approach, a grassroots group that emerged after the budget's introduction, were behind the posters. Laura Moores, who helped put up the posters, told Ricochet that "if anything, the media surrounding the removal of the posters has almost provided us with free advertising. Many, many people want them for their own home now. The government can't remove them there."
Kimmy Byrne, an organizer with Coordinated Approach, said that the government's denial that the removal of the posters was politically motivated shows that the Liberals still are not listening. She also said that, although the House has closed, actions will continue over the summer.
"We are going to be around events, major events in St. John's, and hoping that people will self-organize in other areas in the province and bring out petitions in hard copy," Byrne told Ricochet in a phone interview on Tuesday. A Change.org petition calling for Ball's resignation has reached nearly 13,000 signatures, but Newfoundland's House of Assembly has no procedure for the presentation of online petitions.
The group is also asking people to consider buying T-shirts, stickers and magnets at droptheball.ca in order to finance future postering campaigns.
"We're trying to give a reminder to people to keep the pressure on their MHAs. And, for the long-term, we're going towards resignation [of the premier]," Byrne said, adding that the group has also facilitated discussion about bringing new political parties, consensus government or other democratic reforms to Newfoundland.
"We're trying to plant that seed of thought and to get more people and more talent to come forward and say, 'This is not only possible but viable and ideal."