April 4th, 2023
I wonder how Bill, Sally, and their three children are doing? You remember Bill and Sally, don’t you - the low income family with a household income of $16,000 who rented their home and relied on public transit? You know who I’m talking about - the poster family for the 2022 Provincial Liberal Budget?
No doubt they have been battered and bruised by inflation caused by corporate profiteering, and have watched their already meagre income eaten away by excessive food and home heating costs.
Has the Minister of Finance, the Premier or anyone from cabinet checked in on them to see how they’re doing? Did the family make out okay? Did last year’s budget help lift them out of poverty? Are they any better off as a result of this year’s budget?
Probably not. Since the family relies on public transit (assuming there is public transit in their area) and rent their home, they will not benefit from the 8 cent per litre reduction on the provincial gas tax, or the reduction in registering a vehicle, or the elimination of the retail sales tax on personal property insurance.
Even if Bill or Sally was lucky enough to work full time at the paltry new minimum wage for 52 weeks of the year, the gross household income would only be about $30,160 for 5 people, and would not include health insurance or pension benefits. They’d still be unlikely to keep up with inflation or rent increases. The $500 cost of living cheque and other one off measures would not address the long term systemic challenges they face.
What good is $10 a day childcare to Bill and Sally if they both want to work but there are no spaces available for their children?
The title of this year’s Budget is “Your Health. Our Priority.” Really? The subtitle reads “Our Largest Ever Investment in Health Care.”
First of all, Healthcare has been the highest spending department for a long time, so that’s not a surprise. The $300M difference from last year is approximately the rate of inflation, so I’m not convinced government is giving as big a boost or spending extra as they claim on what the province needs.
Secondly, it’s about time. It took government long enough to start addressing the issue.
Thirdly, it would be more appropriate to call Budget 2023 the Oops Budget. Government crows about moving to $10 a day childcare two years ahead of schedule, but forgot to ensure there were sufficient spaces available for working parents. Oops.
Build a new St. Clare’s Hospital, but no plan to staff it. Oops!
Let’s provide incentive bonuses to healthcare workers in Long Term Care, but do in such a way that insults the very workers the initiative is trying to retain. Oops!
We must all ask ourselves one question: “Is the investment in health where it needs to be, and is it part of an overall plan and vision for the wellbeing for all citizens of our province?”
Our caucus has been calling for a coherent, coordinated, and holistic plan to address the healthcare issues facing our province, and, for the most part, we have been disappointed by government’s response.
It is tempting to believe that the recent fire hose of announcements, initiatives, and spending leading up to the budget demonstrates government is on the ball and has a plan - a vision for the future of this province. I am not sure people are buying it. The people who attended the SJE-QV NDP district association’s public healthcare panel two weeks ago didn’t. Many see government’s series of one-off approach as reactionary. Certainly, healthcare workers in long term care facilities were not impressed.
Once the two year return of service agreements for the recently announced bonuses have expired, what then? What is the long term plan for retention, for healthcare professionals to do their jobs and maintain some semblance of work-life balance, for residents of the province to have stable healthcare and a healthy quality of life? Or is this initiative just a cynical ploy meant to get the Government past the next election cycle in the hopes of eking out another majority? Is that as far ahead as the plan goes?
The need for a holistic approach was loud and clear at our healthcare panel discussion, at the town hall in Labrador West, in our discussions with constituents, community leaders, not for profit organisations, family doctors, nurses, and with the many other healthcare professionals essential to keeping our healthcare system functioning.
That approach starts with a plan to address the deficit in healthcare human resources, especially in long term care and senior care. The infrastructure announcement of a new St. Clare’s Hospital is an unnecessary distraction and not a priority identified in the Health Accord.
Approximately 117 long term care beds remain closed in the St. John’s metro region because they do not have the staff to open them. As result, about a hundred people who should be in long term care are occupying acute care beds in hospitals.
A doctor I spoke to awhile ago at St. Clare’s made it quite clear that if government wanted to free up beds in hospitals, allow doctors to treat patients, and clear up waitlists, it could begin by opening up beds in long term care facilities. By the way, he and other health workers I’ve spoken to at St. Clare’s were mystified by the announcement of a new St. Clare’s. The hospital was fine and not their top priority. Human resources was paramount.
So, what would we do differently? We’d start with changing up the skill mix and training up healthcare workers in entry level long term care positions to take on more supervisory roles. In other words, revive the system that was in place many years ago. Encourage workers to move up. Provide incentives and flexible schedules to retrain. Most importantly, we’d make the jobs and the working conditions attractive enough so that workers will want to retrain - will want to work in long term care. A highly trained workforce of LPNs, LPN2s, and PCAs could be readied quickly to staff Long Term Care facilities.
How do we fill the positions vacated by those who retrained? I know there are many income support recipients who would welcome the opportunity to return to school, complete their ABE, upgrade their skills, complete post secondary education, transition off income support, and enter the workforce. However, this government makes it so difficult to do so, places so many obstacles in the way of those who have the temerity to break free, that many give up, wish they had never begun in the first place, or worse, never take the first step.
I know because I’ve seen it first hand. I worked on behalf of two courageous women who chose to do exactly that. In return they were penalized by government policy that robbed them off their housing benefits, exacerbated their financial distress, and, most despicable of all, took away their health plan benefits. For two people with complex health issues, the last was the most devastating. One woman had no choice but to give up and withdraw from her post-secondary program.
Krista Stephens, the other, has had to fight tooth and nail to stay in school. On more than one occasion she has stated that if she had known how difficult government was going to make it, she would never have gone back to school, and would have stayed on income support and kept her drug card. Were it not for the encouragement of our office, her school, and her family, she would have dropped out.
Yet six months ago, the Premier and the Minister of Education lost no opportunity for a photo op with Ms. Stephens to present her with the Council of the Federation Literacy Award for NL. Both the Minister and the Premier praised Krista as “an inspiration to all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians,” and offered “to support everyone in reaching their potential.” Despite several letters asking government to change the policies, when it came to doing something practical to help Krista, the answer was no.
As a former teacher, I am dismayed by how government policy can place so many unnecessary obstacles in the path of those seeking a better life.
I wonder how many people would choose to enter the healthcare workforce if government changed its policies, removed barriers, actually supported people and made it as easy as possible for them to do so?
If government invested in people rather than unnecessary infrastructure, how many long term beds could we open, how many acute care beds free up so people can access the healthcare they need?
How many couples requiring different levels of care could we keep together?
How many families could be spared the agony of having their loved ones placed in a long term care facility an hour and a half away because facilities in their community did not have enough staff to care for them?
How many more seniors or people with disabilities could live independently in their own homes if government was willing to fairly compensate home care workers and pay them benefits?
For over half a year, Central Health and the Department of Health resisted Lisa Marsh as she fought to have adequate financial supports in place for her intellectually and physically disabled sister and her caregiver. Rather than pay the caregiver a livable income, Central Health seemed prepared to choose the more expensive option of placing the sister in long term care —assuming there were beds available in the first place.
A budget is, in many ways, a reflection of a society - at least of the values of the government proposing the budget.
Budget 2023 got me thinking of Charles Dickens, one of my favourite 19th Century authors, and whether or not we have progressed as a society. In particular, I thought about one of his most well-known books, A Christmas Carol.
On one level it is a heartwarming redemption story of Ebeneezer Scrooge and is credited with “inventing Christmas.” However, it is also a critique of wealth, poverty, and government’s approach at the time to addressing poverty through the Poor Laws and such institutions as workhouses, debtors prisons, and treadmills. It attacked the new social science of economics, Social Darwinism, the belief that the survival of the fittest also applied to society, and the ideas of Thomas Malthus that the economy could only support so many people. Those who could not be supported or support themselves were the surplus population. If these surplus people would rather die than go to a workhouse, as Scrooge said, “they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”
Scrooge was a product of his time, but I have to wonder if our current government’s approach has improved in how it treats the vulnerable of our society. Or is it still about economics?
I have said on more than one occasion that the zero based budgeting and budget-based decision making practices of this government and its predecessors created the current Human Resource crisis in healthcare. It’s a crisis several decades and different administrations in the making. Covid-19 didn’t cause the crisis; it merely highlighted the gaps and forced government to deal with them. The focus on finding efficiencies created similar crises and gaps in public education, housing, income support, dental care, our social safety net, and so on.
I would like to think that the current administration has learned from this and for the need to focus on people. A cursory reading of the budget documents, however, and you easily see that its focus is very much on economics and the province’s fiscal health and wellbeing.
The Minister of Finance emphasized that expenses were being “controlled across all departments,” that, “This is a budget that is very positive in that it shows fiscal responsibility at the same time as making strategic investments.” The news release speaks of “prudent fiscal governance,” “strong fiscal management,” “responsible debt management,” of Budget 2023’s focus being “on our financial well-being,” of a “strategic plan to return to balanced budgets” aided by Balanced Budget Legislation.
I’m all about financial responsibility, but when I hear government promoting Balanced Budget Legislation, I have to wonder who pays the price. What health care, education, or social programs will be cut? What community organisations will have their funding frozen or reduced? How will this legislation be used to justify those cuts? After all, the economy can only support so many people. Right?
Contrast NL’s approach with that of New Zealand’s, where its government has brought in several wellbeing budgets to date to ensure that their investment decisions are driven by New Zealanders’ overall wellbeing and what government can do to enhance that further. A wellbeing budget means giving people the capabilities to live lives of purpose, balance, and meaning to them.
While short term, one-off stunts are PR worthy, they ignore the big picture and can end up costing the province more in the long run. For example, by my calculation, a person filling up a 100 litre gas tank once a week will save around $416 a year as a result of the 8¢ per litre reduction on the price of gasoline and diesel, assuming, of course the person owns a vehicle. But, I’ve got to wonder what programmes could the $63.4M annual cost of the initiative have been put towards to enhance the overall wellbeing of our citizens like —I don’t know —eliminating the 1.6 km school bussing rule my colleagues in the official opposition so ardently call for, improving the province’s ambulance system, addressing the shortage of childcare spaces, providing long term incentives and educational opportunities to people who wish to work in long term care.
If this government and previous governments had actually put the overall wellbeing of its citizens at the centre of the provincial budget process, if budgets were about giving people the capabilities to live lives of purpose, balance, and meaning, if the economy served people and not the other way around then:
• Carter Churchill would not have been discriminated against and would not have been denied the right to ASL instruction, or blocked from full participation in his classroom, or prevented from reaching his full potential. Todd and Kimberly Churchill would not have had to launch an expensive and exhausting human rights case on behalf of their deaf son.
• Seniors seeking dental care would not be subjected to humiliating provincial government gatekeeping measures. Dental care for seniors would have been a priority for this government, rather than waiting on an NDP forced Federal initiative
• Community centres and other community organisations who serve the people of our province and who depend on government funding would have that funding indexed to inflation
• It would not have taken two NDP Private Member Resolutions and some public shaming to get government to strike the All-Party Committee on Guaranteed Basic Income
If the economy served people and not the other way around, then:
Government would implement measures to enhance learning and help school communities keep staff and students safe, rather than building an expensive new high school for political reasons in Portugal Cove-St. Philips and undermine the programming in two schools.
They would increase the tuition offset grant to reduce student debt and encourage students to study at Memorial University.
They would move towards a Livable Minimum Wage.
They would’ve had an affordable housing strategy in place and almost three hundred people would not have been forced into emergency shelters or bus shelters during one of the coldest weekends of this past winter.
They’d implement Just Transition Legislation that would protect the environment, our workers, communities and the futures of our children and children’s children rather than further subsidizing multibillion dollar companies.
A wellbeing budget would make sure income recipients with diabetes have sufficient income to afford healthy food rather than providing them with dietary supplements such as Ensure.
It would make sure MTAP actually works for people instead of placing costly bureaucratic obstacles in the path of those who depend on it
I could go on, but I hope you get my point.
My colleagues and I in the NDP caucus want to see a “strategic plan” to enhance the well-being of the people of the province. We want to see strategic investments in the healthcare system and to address the social determinants of health. We demand that the residents of our province be granted the capabilities to live lives of purpose, balance, and meaning to them. Focus on that, and the balanced budgets, savings, and economic prosperity will follow.