Friday, August 28, 2009

Throne Speech foreshadows cuts to come

Maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones and barely feel a blip when the provincial government reveals its retooled budget next week.
But in the capital city, in a region dependent on government jobs and provincial funding on all kinds of fronts, there can’t be many of those kind of people out there. My sense is that a lot more are awaiting Tuesday’s budget announcement with trepidation and fear, and this week’s throne speech certainly brought no comfort.
Throne speeches are typically pretty vague with the details. They give the flavour of the budget to come, and set the tone. But they don’t actually say what’s going to happen, leaving those who desperately want to know more to read between the lines.
The gist of the Aug. 25 throne speech is roughly this: “B.C. is in the grips of something so awful that we couldn’t have imagined it, and we’ve really had to make some tough decisions around spending. But you can trust us to look after what’s important.”
The throne speech that Lt.-Gov. Steven Point delivered opens with heartfelt sympathies to the families of various prominent British Columbians who died in the last six months, and ends 4,000 words later with an ode to the Olympics. There are no less than a dozen warm references to the importance of B.C.’s children.
But you can hear what’s really being said in the phrases about seismic economic change and decimated government revenues, and in the promises to protect indispensable services while rooting out unnecessary spending. I get the shivers when government starts talking like that, because those are nice little setup lines for all kinds of cuts.
The feeling I got from reading the throne speech was of a worried-uncle type peering sincerely into my eyes, giving me one of those sad-faced, isn’t-this-just-crappy-but-what’s-a-province-to-do looks.
He’s telling me that he’s sorry, so sorry. But these are extraordinary times, and we’re all just going to have to hunker down and tough it out. Why, if he had the money, he’d be taking me out to paint the town red right now, but his fiscal cupboard is bare.
He urges me to trust him, and assures me that all will be well soon. He squeezes my shoulder and says I should be happy that he’s here to take care of things, because at least he knows how to live within his means.
Not quite, what with four or more years of deficits on the horizon. But never mind. What worries me more is having to trust that government will think things all the way through before making cuts. I’m not sure I have much trust left for any government after decades of politicized, poorly informed and random cuts and policy changes that definitely haven’t turned out well for B.C.
When I read in the throne speech that government is going to minimize spending on non-essential services, I wonder: Who’s defining “non-essential”? When I see a pledge to “protect critical health and education services,” I’m curious to know what government considers critical, and why it is that so many other vital government-funded services were left off that very short list.
I guess we’ll all find out in the weeks and months to come, when the long columns of figures in Tuesday’s revised budget become the flesh-and-blood faces of people and communities who are affected negatively by whatever cuts are coming.
You and I will have no say in any of it, because the decisions have already been made. The programs and services that government considers “non-essential” or “discretionary” have already been identified and marked for cuts. Our input wasn’t sought, but we’ll be the ones living with whatever new world order comes out of this.
The throne speech is as interesting for what’s not in it as it is for what’s mentioned. There’s not a single word about income assistance, poverty, affordable rental housing, or mental health and addiction services during hard times ahead, even though the downturn is already having a heavy impact on all those areas. Aside from a brief reference to the need to “strengthen our social fabric,” there was no talk of social services at all.
Shall we take that to mean such issues are so deeply a part of our value system in B.C. that we no longer need to include them when talking about indispensable public services? I fear not.
But we’ll just have to wait until Tuesday to know, and then through the months and years it sometimes takes for the impact of cuts made in haste to hit home. In the meantime, read between the lines at

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