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Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason.
Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason.

Gary Mason

Newfoundland must play the long game on cod Add to ...

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the cod moratorium in Newfoundland and Labrador, a sad, seminal event in the economic history of the province. It would put more than 30,000 people out of work and incite an out-migration of youth in search of employment – an exodus that in many ways has never abated.

It was odd, therefore, to find reference to such a calamitous epoch surface this week in the province’s Speech from the Throne. Why would a government want to remind people of the miserable socioeconomic consequences that resulted from the depletion of cod stocks at the hands of an industry that willfully ignored the many alarms that were being sounded?

Perhaps because of the inherent value in the adage: Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

There has not been a lot of good news coming out of the province in the past few years. In fact, Newfoundland is an economic wreck. Unemployment sits at 14.2 per cent, although the number is likely much greater when you factor in those who have simply given up looking. It is the highest rate in the country, and more than twice the national average.

Newfoundland has been the victim of an array of punishing blows, the greatest of which has been the steep drop in the price of oil. Not only did it decimate revenues from the offshore Hibernia field – last year the province derived more income from fees and fines than it did from oil royalties – but it also affected thousands of young workers who had been commuting regularly to Fort McMurray (often called Newfoundland’s second largest city) to work in the oil sands.

Many of them now sit at home in small towns around the province, on welfare, having lost houses and automobiles because of their inability to make mortgage and loan payments. Bankruptcies have skyrocketed.

The government of Liberal Premier Dwight Ball will unveil its second budget next week; it is expected to outline the province’s grim predicament. The books aren’t expected to be balanced again for six years – if everything goes right. By then, the accumulated debt for the province of just over half a million people is expected to top $17-billion. Debt-servicing costs are set to rise by 55 per cent by 2022.

Mr. Ball has designed a program in an attempt to rectify things. The first step was cutting $45-million worth of programs and services. The next phase, called Realizing Our Potential, consists of “reversing elements that are prohibiting economic growth and driving up public expenditures.”

We wish him luck.

The Premier’s initiatives have not gone over well with people. Shortly after assuming office in December, 2015, a poll showed his approval rating at 60 per cent. Two months later, it had plunged to 20 per cent, which is pretty much where it has remained. The only provincial leader more unpopular is Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne.

To be fair, Mr. Ball is in a horrible bind. In terms of remedying the province’s ugly fiscal position, he does not have many options. He inherited the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project from the previous Conservative government, and it is in every way a disaster. It could cost nearly $12-billion once it’s completed – or more. The fact that there really isn’t an economic case to be made for it, makes it a first-rate scandal. But it is too far along to bail on.

Mr. Ball hopes oil prices will rebound, alleviating some of the pain. Meantime, there are encouraging signs that cod stocks are recovering, at long last. The union representing fishermen and plant workers wants to expand the cod fishery immediately. Federal biologists say it’s too soon.

The pressure will soon fall on Mr. Ball’s government to act. It would be tempting to accede to the union’s wishes and enlarge the fishery now, providing employment to hundreds. It would also be the worst decision the government could make.

Twenty-five years ago, a fishery that had sustained those living on the island for more than 400 years collapsed under the weight of people’s greed. If that experience taught the people of Newfoundland anything, it’s what can happen to natural resources if you don’t take a long-term view.

Otherwise, the results can be disastrous, with the fallout lasting for decades.

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Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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