Brace! Brace! Brace!

The Compass - - OPINION -

“As­sume the brace po­si­tion!” It’s the last thing you want to hear if you’re a pas­sen­ger in an air­plane. It means a crash is im­mi­nent, and bad things are about to hap­pen.

Though they may be phras­ing it a lit­tle more del­i­cately, the mes­sage from Pre­mier Kathy Dun­derdale and Fi­nance Min­is­ter Jerome Kennedy in re­cent days is the po­lit­i­cal equiv­alant of a ma­jor crash alarm.

The province’s fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion is dire, they say, and some sig­nif­i­cant slashes to pub­lic spend­ing is on the way. The mas­sive splurg­ing of the past decade — the province’s an­nual bud­get has all but dou­bled over this pe­riod, and the pub­lic ser­vice has swelled to one of the largest, per capita, in the na­tion — is about to dis­ap­pear in a mush­room cloud of cuts.

Just how dire is the sit­u­a­tion? The province is pro­ject­ing a $725 mil­lion deficit for the 2011-12 fis­cal year, and jaw-drop­ping $1.6 bil­lion deficits for each of 2013 and 2014.

That’s a po­ten­tial $4 bil­lion short­fall within three years, and would wipe away nearly all of the gains made to­wards the province’s mas­sive long-term debt in re­cent years if left unchecked.

Such is the re­al­ity of a pub­lic trea­sury that is so closely linked to the highs and lows of a re­source-based econ­omy, and am­mu­ni­tion for those who reg­u­larly preached that government spend­ing was un­sus­tain­able.

Kennedy is in the midst of a se­ries of pre-bud­get con­sul­ta­tion meet­ings through­out the province that be­gan in Car­bon­ear last week. He can ex­pect a steady stream of pre­sen­ters to ar­gue why cer­tain pro­grams and ser­vices should be funded. He’ll lis­ten po­litely, take a few notes, and, as he did in Car­bon­ear, dash all hopes with a som­bre dose of re­al­ity.

We’re not say­ing th­ese meet­ings are a waste of time, but no one can ac­cuse Kennedy of giv­ing false hope. The big spend­ing days are over, and the tone of his bud­get speech will be much less up­beat than any in re­cent times.

As ex­pected, the mes­sage is not be­ing wel­comed by those who work in the sec­tor, and col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing will be as tense as any we’ve seen.

The year 2013 is still very young, but it’s quickly shap­ing up to be one to re­mem­ber, and not for all the right rea­sons.

Terry Roberts

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