By Jaymie White
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
PORT AUX BASQUES — On Mar. 23, Budget 2023 Newfoundland and Labrador unveiled its budget, which boasted the highest financial contributions to healthcare and highways ever. MHA Andrew Parsons (Burgeo – LaPoile), who also serves as Minister of Industry, Energy and Technology (IET), likes what the province has planned.
“I’m obviously pleased. I think it’s a really good balance and, when you look at some of the highlights, I think it services everybody. It’s some of the biggest investments that have ever been made in healthcare and highways, and those are two of the biggest perpetual concerns, especially now. It’s extremely present right now, so I don’t think the timing could’ve been better,” said Parsons.
“When you look at no tax or fee increases, vehicle registration is staying at half price, home heating supplements are in there, money toward early childhood education, fire and emergency services having their budgets doubled, a lot of money going into housing, which is a big thing, obviously, back home, the gas tax reduction of eight cents is staying, so I think people should be pleased. I think this hits a lot of the things that I hear about on a day-to-day basis in the district, so I’m extremely proud what we managed to put together.”
Even though it’s impossible to cover everything, Parsons thinks that the budget has made significant strides in the right direction.
“There is no budget, even in the best of times, that does everything for everybody. There is always going to be somebody who feels that they never had their concern addressed, but given the situation fiscally, I’m really pleased with how we managed to reduce the deficit. We are continuing to move towards a surplus, and we made investments in a lot of critical areas for the people that we serve.”
MHA Tony Wakeham (Stephenville – Port au Port) was somewhat less enthusiastic.
“I’ve called it a reaction budget. It’s a budget that the Liberal government has reacted to a lot of issues that have been ongoing for a significant period of time, and I think the unfortunate thing is, at this stage, they have to try to do things because they hadn’t done them for so long. That was my problem with a lot of it. A lot of the things you are seeing in the budget right now should have been done, could have been done several years ago when they first had the inkling of issues,” said Wakeham.
He noted that some of the issues had been brought to the attention of the government as early as 2015.
“We saw in the budget where there is a reaction to do something with the ambulance system in the province of Newfoundland, and that report was on their desks when the Minister first went into office in 2015 to deal with restructuring of ambulance services, and it’s only now that it’s being acted upon. The nurses union, NAPE, and the medical association had been asking for reviews of staffing models and staffing levels and concerns about abilities to retain and keep staff, asking for that since 2015 or 2016, perhaps before, and again, it wasn’t acted upon, and now we have a reaction.”
Wakeham’s concern now is how to make up for that lost time.
“We are finding ourselves having to react to things in our province where the healthcare system is the worst it’s ever been. While there’s a lot put in and a lot of announcements regarding healthcare in the budget, which is good, the challenge will be where are you going to get the staff,” said Wakeham.
“All of these ‘teams’ that have been announced in the budget, they’re all great family teams and are going to be located throughout the province, but if you use the analogy of the hockey team, before you have a team you’re going to need players, and right now we don’t have enough players in the healthcare system. We don’t have enough people employed in our healthcare system. So a lot of these teams that they’re proposing, where are the staff going to come from? Are they going to be taken from somewhere else? Is that the type of thing we are going to see in the short-term especially?”
Wakeham believes the province would be in better shape than it is currently if these matters had been addressed sooner.
“If we had been more pro-active instead of re-active, I think we could’ve been in a much better position. The same can be said, I would argue, about the continuation of programs, like the extension of the eight cents off a litre for gas and the reduction of motor registration and the increase of benefits for income support and seniors’ benefits. These are all good things, but it doesn’t speak to the overall arching issue of, there doesn’t appear to be an income plan or program like we used to have years ago in our province, so that’s missing. A poverty reduction strategy is not seen here in this budget,” said Wakeham.
“We had a poverty reduction strategy that was said to be one of the best in the country, and when the Liberals came, they decided to go in a different direction. I think it’s not about continuing to spend the money, but how you are spending the money. So I think it’s time for the review to be done so we can make sure we’re really getting help to the people who really need our help.”
One way in which Wakeham saw more potential was the $500 cost of living cheques.
“Just about everybody in the province benefited from getting a $500 cheque, but the bigger question is, did everybody in the province need that $500 cheque? I think there were people that could have used more than $500 and people who, perhaps, got $500 and really didn’t need it when you look at their financial position at the time.”
The sugar tax still being implemented, and there is an upcoming carbon tax increase.
“When they first started promoting the sugar tax they talked about modifying behaviour, but if you look at the budget itself, the very fact that they budgeted more money from sugar tax than their previous estimate – they previously talked about a $9 million number last year – now they’ve actually budgeted for $12 million taken in from sugar tax, which tells me whatever the objectives were, to modify behaviour, it’s been a complete failure,” said Wakeham.
“They also say in their budget that there’s no new tax or increases, but what they fail to tell people is that, as of July 1, you are going to get hit with a significant increase of carbon tax. That’s going to have a significant impact on Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. Show me the evidence where carbon emissions have been reduced by a carbon tax in Newfoundland and Labrador. Have they gone down? I don’t think so.”