Saturday, February 17, 2018

On Inequality: Government Spending

Most days I walk 10,000 steps along my paved rural road. Sometimes it's for my heart, sometimes it's to turn off my brain, and sometimes it's just to fill time. In spring it's to listen to the birds, and in fall it can be to watch the leaves turn. But the walk always reminds me, in a small way, of the basic inequality that defines government in Nova Scotia. My road, despite being a busy thoroughfare, is so badly maintained that cars have to drive on the shoulder to avoid the potholes in the centre, and elsewhere squeeze to the centre to avoid the rough edges where the pavement has been peeled away by the snowplows. My road is in Cumberland South, formerly represented by PC MLA Jamie Baillie. And everyone on my road understands the basic reality in 2018: no good thing happens in an opposition-held riding, and no bad thing happens in a government-held riding. Our curse is even worse, because Cumberland South has been held by the Tories in every session of the legislature that I can remember, except for a brief period in the 1980's when Cumberland Centre was divided between the other two ridings and their incumbent, Liberal Guy Brown held the seat until he retired.

The sad reality of our unswerving political loyalty is that the Liberals and the NDP, in government, will never spend money in Cumberland South because there are no votes for them here. And the Tories, in government, will not spend money here because they don't have to - they will get our votes anyway.  Were we in Britain in the 1830's we would have been called a pocket borough. If you missed that in Civics class back when they taught Civics, you can find an entertaining essay on Wikipedia.

Lake Road April 2017

Here's an excellent example of the effects of this inequality. Near my home is a culvert installed about 60 years ago when my road was re-aligned to take out the worst of the bad curves. The culvert walls are stacked wooden planks and the top is also made of planks. These top planks rotted out, the culvert collapsed and a serious sinkhole opened up: 3 feet across and 8 feet deep. It is exactly in the wheel track of the westbound lane, and a car or truck whose wheel fell into that sinkhole would probably have toppled into the brook. The Department of Transportation crews were right on it, but they had no money to replace a rotted wooden culvert in Cumberland South so they shored it up with more wood, filled the hole with rocks and hoped that the rest of the culvert would not collapse any time soon.

This inequality of government services has two effects: it makes voters cynical and mistrustful, and it requires that, when governments change, the payoff in swing ridings must be much larger, fueling ever greater inequality.

And there are, in my view, two reasons why parties and voters tolerate this inequality: when out of power a party has no largess to disburse and everyone knows it; and when the party is in power the party faithful are so darn grateful for the patronage. But this system is no longer tenable and it will make ever more voters ever more distrustful of politicians.

There was a time in the 1960's and 1970's when the economy was expanding, there were lots of transfer payments from the Feds, and for a time later on there were royalties from offshore gas. This meant that there was money for projects in every riding, and still there was more money left for the favoured ridings. We all got something - just some got more. Those glory days are gone: the world, national and provincial economies are stagnating. The only growth in GDP accounts worldwide comes from the financialisation of the economy, where big banks again create credit default swaps, and collateralised debt obligations, and other scams the likes of which gave us the Great Recession of 2008. We need 2% GDP growth just to accommodate population growth and to provide jobs to facilitate the formation of new households. There will never be more real money coming in as tax dollars, so all of the monies spent, for example, on a new kindergarten-for-4-year-olds program has to come from somewhere else in the budget. The roof of the Springhill Junction Elementary School leaks whenever it rains, but there are no Liberal votes there so the money is spent on new kindergarten daycare spaces in ridings that might swing Liberal.  It's a zero-sum game.

Metro Halifax is the voter-rich centre of the provincial universe so one can  never go wrong spending money there. Can you image a provincial government spending multi-millions on a convention centre in New Glasgow? Yarmouth voters guessed correctly and elected a Liberal four years ago so they got themselves a ferry service. At the moment it's a US Navy vessel manned by American nationals and chartered in US dollars for a seasonal service that cannot even carry truckloads of our lobsters bound for New England. This year we will end up paying US$ 2 million for improvements to the Bar Harbour ferry terminal to accommodate their US customs officers. You couldn't make this stuff up! All to reward the folks who voted for Zach Churchill, MLA.

There will never be more money in the provincial budget - there will always be less going forward. Real money, that is. It is high time that our provincial leaders started recognising that fact and start governing accordingly. In the last election Mr MacNeil promised more for everyone (except for provincial civil servants, who are already doing pretty darn good, it must be said). Mr Burrill promised many millions in social spending with no real plan for cutting elsewhere or finding new money - it would have to have been borrowed. Mr Baillie said that he would re-open the teachers' contract - let them that have, have more. (Mr Baillie did not say much about privatising the NSLC in this round -- privatising the NSLC is code for: I have some friends who think they can make some money here.)

The inequalities of government spending make voters cynical. The NS school boards ask for capital spending for new schools, but the provincial government makes the actual spending decisions. This is why new schools were built in the ridings of the Premier and the Minister of Education: according to the NS Auditor General those schools were numbers 28 and 26 on the priority list, suddenly bumped up to numbers 1 and 2. Here in northern Nova Scotia we are watching the construction of one of these brand new schools in Tatamagouche, which will be less than half-full when opened. Neighbouring schools in Wentworth and River John were closed because there was no  money. Of course, Wentworth and River John are in opposition-held ridings.

My friends across the line in Cumberland North are finding out in real time what it means to be out of sync with government politics. During the NDP government they were represented by the NDP, and during the first Liberal government they were onside, but in the last election Cumberland North elected a PC MLA. Had a few provincial seats swung the other way they would be onside with a PC government, but now they are beggars in the wilderness, just like us in Cumberland South.

As was reported last week in the Amherst Daily News: [MLA Elizabeth] Smith-McCrossin said one of her biggest goals in 2018 is to make sure Cumberland North gets its fair share of government investment – something she feels has been lacking for too long.

“I want Cumberland North to get its piece of the pie,” she said. “Right now I don’t believe that’s happening. The money is there, we’re just not getting our share.”

Good luck with that.

And now, we in Cumberland South have an opportunity to join the government side.  There will be a by-election in a few months, and we know that the Liberals will be in power for the next three years. The Tories would like to hold the seat but they have nothing to promise us. The Liberals would like to take the riding to shore up their majority and to show that they can win! The NDP don't count here.  How will we vote? Will anything change?

So as I walk down my road I ponder on the facts that my road is a mess, my elementary school is closed so my grandchildren had to move, I have no family doctor and will likely never again have one, emergency rooms in the hospitals all around me close regularly due to staff shortages, and the Premier is fighting with the doctors. The best that I can hope for is warmer weather and the return of birdsong. The lovely rising tinkle of the hermit thrush is a true balm. Unfortunately, the hermit thrush nests in mature forests, and there's not much of that left on my road, so I will enjoy the birdsong while I can.

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