It seems that many in the media barely glanced at last week’s Nova Scotia budget. The rationale was that because it would not be put to a vote, it was more akin to the Liberal election platform than to an actual budget. But if that’s the case – if the budget is indeed the platform – the media and all Nova Scotians should be giving it more than a quick look.

The story so far in the run up to the May 30 election is that after three-plus years of telling everyone there is no money the Liberals have suddenly found enough cash to make millions worth of election promises, with more to come. The media have rightly pointed out that those promises are being paid for through public sector wage restraint. However, all of the attention given to the never-ending list of Liberal promises obscures the fact that election spending notwithstanding, this Liberal budget/platform is a continuation of the past three-plus years of austerity – at least for most of us.

With considerable help from the first phase of the federal infrastructure program, the Liberal budget/platform proposes an overall increase of 3.7%. But some vital areas are not even going to get enough to keep up with inflation – expected to be 2 per cent this year and next. In effect, any area not getting an increase of 2% or more is being cut.

  • Department of Health and Wellness gets a 1.8% increase, a small cut in real terms; but
  • The Health Authority, which funds hospitals gets only 1.1%, a larger cut;
  • Ditto nursing homes;
  • Archives, Museums and Libraries get a microscopic increase of 0.3%.

The unkindest cut of all would be to income assistance, down $471,000 from last year’s estimate – or 2.2% when cost of living is taken into account..

Help for business

As for the increased spending, one-time cost-shared infrastructure – for water, sewer, transit and universities – accounts for a lot of it. But the big winner is the Department of Business, getting a 39% raise, amounting to an extra $54 million. Ironically, a large chunk of the increase is going to the film industry, bringing funding back almost to where it was before the tax credit debacle. Another wad of Business Department cash is going to rural high-speed Internet – a work in progress for the last decade – and the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship (COVE), a potential boondoggle in the making on the Dartmouth waterfront.

Most of the new cash is being funnelled through crown agencies like Nova Scotia Business Inc. and the Waterfront Development Corp., and according to budget documents is designed “to promote the achievement of private sector growth in Nova Scotia.” That there is more irony,  from a government that came to power denouncing corporate handouts and vowing to stand aside to let the private sector lead economic growth. The growth hasn’t happened and now the Liberals propose to starve health, income assistance, libraries and the wages of public sector workers to raise a few bucks to  coax the private sector into growing.

The continuation of austerity in the aforementioned areas is not just for this year. Save for the election year spending blip, restraint is the Liberal plan right up until 2020, according to budget documents. After the 3.7% increase this year, balancing the budget would require limiting spending to a 0.7% increase in the 2018 budget and 1.3% in the 2019 budget. If Libs are actually running on the budget brought in this week they must be counting on no one bothering to read it, preferring instead that all people hear are the good news announcements and the magic words “balanced budget.”

Bully mandate

Now, about those announcements – the media have helpfully pointed out that they are made possible by wage restraint. That may infuriate opponents of the government, but it’s something of a double-edged sword. The Liberals may spend the next 30 days telling voters that the balanced budget and the array of promises in it are only possible if they are re-elected to keep the public sector unions down.

That may work for the them, depending on how many Nova Scotians share the Liberals’ unwillingness to see public sector workers for the important work they do every day – teaching kids, taking care of the sick and elderly, driving ambulances, working with adults with intellectual disabilities. The Liberals see these Nova Scotians not as public servants but as unionized workers. This anti-union McNeil government can’t see past that. They want to convince enough Nova Scotians of that distorted view to get themselves re-elected.

But there is a flaw in the Liberal approach. When they talk about imposing austerity so they can invest in services like education, home care, health care or child care they fail to connect that those services are delivered by people, not robots (yet).

They don’t seem to get it that the people who deliver those services need to be treated with fairness and respect. And when they are not so treated, we all pay the price. You do not get the best out of people by bullying them.

Nevertheless, the Libs are doubling down on the strategy. Their budget/platform is a not very subtle promise to keep playing the role of bully. They are saying to Nova Scotians – we’ll give you better roads, a tax cut and some other stuff, but to get that, we must continue to keep the public sector workers down.