Budgets are a tough game. I mean, sure, when times are high and you’re rolling in petrodollars, it’s easy to slap together a real crowd-pleaser. You can just make it rain: everyone gets tax breaks and you can just invent a bunch of civil service jobs. But when the oil price party’s over and you’re stuck with cleaning things up, it’s a lot less less fun, and this is the lesson we’ve been learning this month after the Dunderdale government dropped a budget that just about everyone loves to hate.
Coming down off the Williams-era high, this one is a whopper. Jobs (and salaries) took a direct hit — there were 935 layoffs (485 from the core bureaucracy, 450 from non-core services like health and school boards, College of the North Atlantic, etc.), and 250 vacant positions were eliminated. To help in the cash grab, service fees are going up and smokes are getting more expensive (which is totally salt in the wounds of anyone who just lost their job). They’re also condensing Cabinet by merging Aboriginal Affairs into Labrador Affairs and giving the Premier extra duty as the Minister Responsible for Intergovernmental Affairs, which is a great idea because we definitely need to centralize more power in the Premier’s Office. Budget 2013 is also the opening salvo of a 10-year debt reduction plan. This year they came for civil servants; next year they’re coming for Memorial University, CNA (again), the regional Health Boards, and a financial nightmare known as Unfunded Pension Liabilities. Hold on to your butts b’ys, it’s gonna be a fun decade.
Out of everything impacted by the cutbacks, Justice and Education seem to have been the most contentious. The backlash to the proposed Justice cuts was so bad, in fact, that not only were union leaders ragging on the government about them but also the Canadian Bar Association and even the province’s own Crown attorneys were stressing that cutting a department already running a bare-bones operation would effectively cripple the entire criminal justice system. The proposed reduction of crown prosecutors, sheriff’s officers, probation officers and legal aid would lead to more wrongful convictions, more dropped cases, you name it — exactly the sort of things you don’t want happening in a province where drug and violent crime is surging. To Justice Minister Darin King’s credit, he took t he outcry seriously and is working to rescind some of the proposed cutbacks, although that then begs the question of how much thought, research, or consultation actually went into this budget in the first place.
The blowback against the Education cuts has been a little less successful (so far). In particular, the overhaul of CNA — privatizing Adult Basic Education, slashing 27 programs across the province, and other funding cuts and layoffs — have been especially unpopular with students and faculty, resulting in protests springing up across the province in the wake of the budget announcement. The upset isn’t especially surprising considering that in just over a year, the Premier went from telling the Canadian Federation of Students at their National Day of Action that “education is a right, not a privilege” to slashing community college programs that provided access to that right for the most vulnerable students in the province. Teachers and school administrators have also stressed that the government’s plan to consolidate all the regional English school boards into a single bureaucratic megalith will adversely impact rural students in particular and the quality of schooling generally as teaching staff and service provisions are scaled back. Thankfully the government has also increased the amount of money allotted for the resettlement of rural communities, so any serious decline in the quality of rural life should be able to sort itself out.
However you personally feel about the budget, we can all agree that these are all fairly important issues we need to be having a serious collective conversation about. This goes doubly for our esteemed elected officials in the House of Assembly, who actually hold all the power over what the government actually does. Instead, any serious political discussion about all of the budgetary fallout I just described was shelved for a solid week so that our politicians could argue about Facebook and Twitter on the public dime in what is easily the most embarrassing story to come out of the House in a long time. This is actually pretty impressive considering we just spent two years having a collective public meltdown about Muskrat Falls.
What follows is a cautionary fable about the importance of thinking things through. When a social media monitor in Confederation Building noticed that some mouthbreathing internet troll decided to make a death threat against the Premier in a Facebook group called ‘Kathy Dunderdale Must GO!!!’, they rightfully brought it forward to their superiors as something potentially serious. Somewhere else along the line, someone noticed that NDP MHA Gerry Rogers was also a member of this group. Handled sensibly, the issue of online death threats might have been raised in the legislature in a way that underscored their seriousness without resorting to hyperbole, garnered some human sympathy for an unpopular Premier, seen Rogers tastefully admonished for ill-considered online consorts, and given us a timely and civil reflection by MHAs and partisans of all stripes about how they’re mucking around online.
But naturally, since this is the House of Assembly we’re talking about, it was handled in the poorest way imaginable. Darin King suggests in the House that because Rogers is a member of this group, she automatically endorses every single line of commentary that appears therein, from overwrought Grumpy Cat memes to death threats scrawled by barely literate urchins. He also declared Rogers’ clear support of internet regicide was comparable to the Boston Marathon bombings that happened literally the day before. The question of whether or not Rogers endorses murdering the Premier went to Speaker Ross Wiseman, who in his infinite wisdom ruled that even though it could not be determined she actually did anything wrong, she had to apologize anyway or be found in contempt of the House. Rogers refused, and was promptly evicted from the legislature for refusing to apologize for something she didn’t do. Wiseman’s ruling was in all honesty baffling, and indicated he either didn’t understand Facebook or didn’t understand his job. While he did retract his ruling a week later, you know what they say about first impressions. This is, after all, the same guy who, as Health Minister, failed to read his own briefing notes in the middle of a cancer testing crisis.
Whichever genius in the communications office thought it was a good idea to use death threats against the Premier as a way to smear another MHA (who very obviously had nothing to do with them) clearly did not actually bother thinking it through all the way. In response to this flagrant abuse of common sense and decency, some intrepid CBC journalists applied this same tenuous ‘guilt by association’ rationale to the Tories and managed to hoist just about every last one of them by their own petards. According to their party’s very own lopsided logic, Charlene Johnson is a bloodsport enthusiast, Sandy Collins is hawking shady payday loans, Ray Hunter is circulating online petitions against his own government, and Paul Lane is a card-carrying Liberal. As the pièce de résistance, they even discovered that the Premier herself was following porn bots on Twitter. But instead of taking the hint from this exposé that their latest approach to social media was an absolute farce, Dunderdale doubled down by deleting her Twitter account wholesale and stressing in a press release that Gerry Rogers remains a cyberbully. Not that it’s only the Tories with dirt on their hands — a good few yahoos and partisans on Twitter took the opportunity to write erotic fanfiction about the Premier in the hashtag ‘Dunderporn’, effectively ensuring that we will never have nice things.
The moral of this story? Stop and think about what you’re doing. Instead of addressing the very serious issue of death threats in a sensible manner, the Tories proved themselves woefully out of touch on not only how social media actually works, but on what it means to have a serious conversation about violence and bullying in our communities, both on and offline. They wasted a solid week trying to smear an opposition MHA with baseless accusations instead of debating the very real consequences of the budget. Anyone who has ever expressed distaste for the utter foolishness and futility of what passes for politics in Newfoundland and Labrador need only reference The Great Facebook Feud of 2013 to be totally justified in their despondency. It is an embarassment, and it made national headlines. If the government really is spending upwards of $50,000 on social media management, their biggest mistake in the budget was not cutting that loose first.