The prospect of $150 million being slashed from the territorial budget is sending jitters across Yellowknife, government town that it is. No layoffs have been announced yet – numbers won’t become clear until the budget is tabled in June – but austerity rumours are flying fast and the Union of Northern Workers is digging in its heels. On the last day of March, the union sent a letter to the GNWT outlining “10 principles of workforce reduction,” which, among other things, asked for “at least six months [notice] before any workforce reduction notices are issued” – a proposition the GNWT rejected.
The situation is fluid, and no doubt some of the rumours are overblown; but there are similarities between what’s shaping up now and the last time the GNWT sought to shed millions from their budget. In 2008, the GNWT announced it needed to cut $135 million over two years, which, it was reported at the time, would have meant 135 layoffs and a further 88 vacant positions being eliminated.
“Don’t believe everything you hear or are told. Question why.”
Though there were some job cuts, this large-scale layoff, did not, however, end up happening. A combination of new federal money and a cohesive group of regular MLAs opposing the cuts ended up changing the budget’s course. EDGE caught up with two former MLAs, Bob Bromley and Wendy Bisaro, to chat about the similarities between today and 2008.
Down the black hole
“It is worse, I think, than it was in 2008, 2009,” says Bisaro. Debt levels have grown and revenues, especially from the mining and oil and gas sectors, have continued to decline. “But it’s not dire.”
“New [MLAs] are being asked to just take a leap of faith and plunge into this black hole, and they probably don’t need to; the experience for us, we were being asked to plunge into a black hole, and we didn’t and things worked their way out.”
In the spring of 2008, Bisaro, Bromley and the other regular MLAs got word of the impending job cuts.
“My initial reaction was, ok, what people are going to be affected and do we really need to do this? [The Department of] Finance kept saying, yes, yes, yes,” says Bisaro.
“All I could do was look back and look at their economic indicators. Our GDP was the highest in the country… there were always federal programs coming forward with money, as has happened this year again,” says Bromley. “The numbers didn’t support what they were portraying as a dire situation.”
Their recollection of events eight years ago is admittedly hazy, but both Bromley and Bisaro remember regular members coming together in committees, and as individuals, to push back against cabinet’s proposed austerity.
“It got to a point where, basically, they weren’t responding, saying no, no, no, we have to do this, and we said, fine, we’re going to vote down the budget,” says Bisaro. “The reaction of cabinet, I still laugh when I think about it now. They absolutely just freaked, and said, well you’re going to collapse the government… We had our own people look at it from a constitutional perspective and they said, ‘nope, nope, sure they can all resign if they want to, but there’s no need to do that.’”
In the end, at least according to Bisaro and Bromley, the government swerved, and the layoffs were significantly reduced: “I think there was only 35 positions [cut],” says Bromley.
Whether incoming federal money or intransigent regular members was the deciding factor is still unclear to the two former MLAs. But Bisaro was clear on one piece of advice for today’s regular members: “Don’t believe everything you hear or are told. Question why. And if you don’t get a decent answer, and you don’t believe the answer you’re getting, then ask, well what else can you do, because there are other things, and the government can be pushed to come up with other alternatives.”
Lessons for today?
The biggest factor in the success of regular MLAs in 2008 was solidarity. “We didn’t have people that who were, quote, ‘picked up’ by ministers or cabinet with a promise of whatever. We stayed firm and we believed the path we were on and the message we were sending was the right one, and we didn’t waver on that,” says Bisaro.
Bromley and Bisaro both readily admit that serious cost-saving measures are needed today to prevent unsustainable debt growth. But that doesn’t necessarily mean layoffs, they say.
“Regular members have power when they are together. They can’t defeat everything, but they hold sway over anything that’s passed in the house. It’s 11 against 7, and so it will or will not pass.”
That’s not to say today’s regular members should simply dig in their heels to avoid cuts – they might well decide the government’s vision of doom and gloom is absolutely correct. Bromley and Bisaro both readily admit that serious cost-saving measures are needed today to prevent unsustainable debt growth. But that doesn’t necessarily mean layoffs, they say.
“If we cut jobs, people are going to leave, and there is the stated goal of the previous government to gain 2000 jobs in the next five years. Well, if we cut 50 positions, odds are pretty good that 50 of those are going to leave the territory, and that’s a reduction in our revenue, because we each bring $25,000 or $30,000 with us,” says Bisaro.
They recommended cutting vacant positions and looking at cost savings on the operational side of things, reviewing programs – adult basic education and summer student employment, to name two – which, they say, have questionable bang for their buck.
“We all know of government waste… [there are lots of] old programs that haven’t had a tune-up,” says Bromley. And, he adds, there’s a need to grow revenues through reviewing tax policy, despite government reticence to do so. “We have not rolled up our sleeves on that.”