The passing of Bill 68 has left Nova Scotians wondering how far the provincial government will go in implementing its political agenda. The drastic measures are, according to the Tories, justified by the need for the province to get its financial house in order. While the province's fiscal situation is not rosy, it certainly does not justify trampling worker's rights and stifling public debate.
The right to strike is fundamental to successful industrial relations. It is the indispensable cornerstone of the collective bargaining process and crucial to the formal legal process for dealing with labour disputes and grievances. The Bill takes away the right to strike and goes further than other "back to work" legislation. In the past when workers have been legislated back to work because their work was deemed to be an essential service, the terms of the collective agreement have been settled by a third party through binding arbitration. Bill 68 legislates the terms of the contract and takes away legal recourse from health care workers and their unions. The Hamm government has justified these measures by the claim that Nova Scotia cannot afford free collective bargaining or even, binding arbitration given the province's fiscal situation.
Over the past decade the threat of dire fiscal situations has become a familiar justification by federal and provincial governments for restructuring and cutting public services and social programs. Rather than focussing public attention and discussion on the social consequences of this restructuring and cutting, such as who ends up absorbing the costs, governments inform us that due to fiscal circumstances there are no alternatives to fiscal restraint and cutbacks. The fiscal crisis then becomes the stick that governments use to get citizens to accept policies that go against their own better judgement. Such an approach by governments attempts to transfer away from politicians the blame and the consequences for unpopular and unjustified decisions.
The provincial government has gone out of its way to put the worst face on the province's fiscal situation. The 2000-01 budget underestimated revenues by at least $250 million, according to the most recent budget documents, and this was used to justify the cuts to social programs contained in that budget. But you can only hide the revenue increases for so long. The 2001-02 budget revealed a dramatically improved financial outlook. Being cautious in government budgets may be a prudent approach, but it does not justify the measures contained in Bill 68.
Even the Tories predict a dramatic improvement in the province's financial outlook just in time for the next provincial election. The Tories' financial plan dishes out a 10% tax cut at the end of their term of office, in two years. The government is choosing to limit investments and suppress worker's rights in exchange for tax cuts -- a self-imposed cut in government revenue. Perhaps the provincial government does not share Nova Scotians' commitment to social programs. Polls repeatedly find that Canadians and Nova Scotians prefer investments in social programs to cuts in income tax.
The problem in Nova Scotia is not that expenditure is out of control or that health care providers are asking for unreasonable wages. The financial difficulties are the cumulative effect of past federal and provincial cuts and the fact that the province does not bring in sufficient revenue proportional to the economy. The Nova Scotia provincial and municipal governments receive less revenue (own-source) as a percent of the provincial GDP than all other provinces except Alberta and Ontario. Revenue derived from taxes and royalties is the lifeblood of social programs and public services. If Nova Scotia's tax regime were in line with other provinces, our fiscal situation would be much better. To cut taxes will surely make the situation even worse and undermine the viability of our social programs.
The province's fiscal situation does not justify the measures contained in Bill 68. The measures in the Bill have less to do with the province's finances and more to do with the government's political agenda and priorities. The renewal of publicly funded and administered social programs does not appear to be one of those priorities. The frustration of health care workers is a barometer of the state of the health sector after the cuts and downsizing that occurred during the '90s. The government would do well to pay heed to the outrage of these workers if it is seriously interested in revitalizing the public provision of health care and protecting public health and safety.