Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Notes from the Throne: Analysis of Day 1 in the House of Assembly

Notes from the Throne: Analysis of Day 1 in the House of Assembly

By: Ryan Young

Amid all of the pompous charm and largesse on display at Confederation building yesterday, a large number of Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans turned out to hear the maiden speech from the throne from our new premier, Dwight Ball. I am sure some of the more hyper-partisan left the house with equally strong feelings of jubilance and despair, but for the few of us in the gallery with an open mind about what we might learn about the direction our province will be taking in the immediate future, we were left with feelings of confusion and lingering uncertainty. I am no stranger to the jedi-like ability of politicians to talk at length without actually saying anything of substance, and Premier Ball’s first real address to the province confirms that he ranks very high up on the list of premiers with that ability.

Flanked by the justices of the Supreme Court, Lieutenant Governor Frank Fagan began the speech prepared by Premier Ball by marking 2016 as the 100th anniversary of the battle of Beaumont Hamel and acknowledging March 8 as International Women’s Day. The niceties didn’t last long, however, and he quickly got down to business with the promise of a “new approach” promising better management, long-term planning, and an open government. None of this was exactly new information, as Fagan reiterated the common themes we have heard from Mr. Ball, including:

  • Restore Openness, Transparency and Accountability;
  • Build a Stronger, Smarter Economy;
  • Improve Health and Healthcare;
  • Support Safe and Sustainable Communities; and
  • Invest in Our Future Through Education.
As the first testament to the new open and transparent approach, the government will introduce legislation to establish an Independent Appointments Commission and to require a merit-based process for various appointments. The purpose of the act will be to remove politics from government appointments and promises a non-partisan approach to screening and approving appointments.

The Lieutenant Governor soon moved on to address the dire fiscal situation of the province, quoting the premier’s insistence that “addressing the serious fiscal reality is my government’s top priority.” Citing the drop in oil prices and a ballooning debt, the speech outlined the major initiatives the government will implement including:

  • Identify a combination of measures to increase revenues and reduce expenditures;
  • Eliminate waste and identify opportunities to do things better and more efficiently;
  • Modernize the role of government in the provision of public services; and
  • Establish multi-year fiscal targets.

 Perhaps the most ominous moment of the speech came next with the statement. “The choices ahead of us will not be easy; everyone will have to accept some level of sacrifice in the months and years ahead if we are to provide critical services, while restoring accountability and stability to government finances.” What exactly that means is anybody’s guess. Premier Ball and his team are certainly holding those cards close to their collective chests, despite all of the talk about openness and transparency.
There was mention of infrastructure improvements and innovation development, including investing in our tourism industry and the fishery:Government will support harvesting, processing, marketing, and aquaculture initiatives in order to diversify and increase the overall viability and competitiveness of the Newfoundland and Labrador seafood industry. We will work closely with the seafood industry to market local seafood internationally, providing market research and intelligence, and contributing to eco-certification initiatives. We have reconvened the All-Party Committee on Northern Shrimp Allocations to present a united provincial voice on this important matter. My Government understands that the continued application of the federal “Last In, First Out” policy, in the face of a declining shrimp resource, will have major negative impacts on people and communities throughout our province. My Government is planning for the return of the cod fishery. We will form a Fisheries Advisory Council that will create a strategic action plan on cod revitalization. In collaboration with communities, industry and the Federal Government, this plan will focus on environmental sustainability, harvesting, processing innovation and marketing.”
It all sounds very good, but again, there is no clear plan to how the premier expects to achieve these goals. In fact it was only a short time ago that premier Ball announced that his government was considering cutting provincial funding for fisheries research after a meeting with federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Hunter Tootoo. It makes us regular joe public types wonder just what vision this government really has for the fishery. Talks about advisory councils are all well and good but what our fishery needs right now is swift and decisive action, not more pandering and empty words.
Fagan continued on with promises of a Serious Incident Response Team in reaction to calls for a civilian-led organization to investigate serious investigations involving police, as well as a full review of the operational and organizational requirements of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. He also read plans for education and early childhood development reviews and more support for LGBTQ community.
A few other social issues such as poverty, mental health and addictions, and housing received basic lip service in the speech, but there were no real commitments given to facilitate change on any of these important issues. As has been so often the case for Premier Ball, the speech language was heavy on words but light on substance.
Mr. Fagan finished the inaugural Throne Speech from Premier Ball by saying; “The choices ahead will not be easy, but we will always make them based on evidence, with a fundamental belief in openness and transparency. All Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans will be a part of the solutions, as we build that stronger tomorrow. The unprecedented fiscal situation we find ourselves in requires an unprecedented response. And Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans will rise to the challenge. Together, we will overcome our immediate challenges, and build a solid foundation for a sustainable future.”
With the speech out of the way, the Supreme Court justices were ushered out of the house and new speaker Tom Osbourne brought to order the first sitting of the House of Assembly under the new Liberal government. Opposition leader Paul Davis wasted no time attacking the new premier, citing Dwight Ball’s lack of a plan as the “biggest issue facing the people of the province.” NDP House Leader Lorraine Michael also gave a fiery and impassioned speech, saying that the “ordinary residents of Newfoundland and Labrador didn’t create the mess we’re in, and they should not be forced to pay for the cleanup.” Both opposition speeches were very good and on-point, but you can bet that it won’t be long before we see them resorting to the familiar he said-she said shouting across the floor of the house.
So what can we lowly peasants take away from the 2016 Throne Speech? The term much ado about nothing comes to mind as we didn’t actually find out any new indications of the methods that Premier Ball and his team will be implementing to steer us back down the right path to future prosperity. The premier promised that a budget will be delivered in a month beginning with the letter “A” or the letter “M”, which I am sure, was his best attempt at a joke. I guess we will have to wait until then to see if this new open and transparent government will finally let us in on the plan or if we will have to wait another anxious year.

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