Winter is Coming

Game of Thrones

Nova Scotia’s electoral Game of Thrones is in full swing and while it may lack the dramatic flair of the HBO series, it has one thing in common, winter is coming. Unfortunately, the parties are either unaware of it or are seemingly oblivious to a stark reality.

All of the parties have launched their offensives by flinging open the doors to the treasury, each with new and creative ways to spend our tax dollars with the greatest political efficiency.

The number one priority for CFIB’s 5,200 members in Nova Scotia, consistently, is a reduction of the overall tax burden and the clearest path to this is through alignment of public sector wages and benefits to private sector norms and an overall reduction of the size of the public service. In other words, reduce the cost and the size of government.

For those who argue we have already been dealing with austerity budgets, here’s the reality. Since 2007 Nova Scotia government spending has risen from $7.3 billion to $10.5 billion, an increase of 43 per cent. Additionally, we’ve seen a whopping 22.5 per cent increase in our debt from $12.4 to $15.2 billion over the same time period. All this with an increase of only 16 per cent in the CPI (inflation) and our population flat-lining at 1.5 percent. This is not restraint and certainly not “austerity” by anyone’s definition.

Spending restraint is becoming more important than ever before. Perhaps because the weather is warming our politicians are floating sunny prognostications but there is an inevitable, relentless sociological cold front headed our way. Stretching our Game of Thrones metaphor, let’s call it “The Wall”.

According to Statistics Canada, that “wall” can be found in baseline population predictions. In 20 years, those over 65 years of age will make up fully 30 per cent of our population. A great majority of those will be out of the workforce and needing higher levels of healthcare. Keep in mind, in 2013, that same cohort made up only 17 per cent of Nova Scotia’s population.

By 2038, the forecasts indicate our median age will be nearly 50 and our overall population is expected to decline to under 934,000.

So who will carry additional tax load? If you’re a voter in your 20’s and 30’s, have a look in the mirror.

While efforts are being made to increase immigration, and claims are being made about having the largest population “ever”, the fact remains, unless we make some fundamental and dramatic changes to the way our government spends, we will be faced with some very, very difficult decisions indeed.

Absent in all of the spending promises in this election is a discussion of any long-term fiscal planning to deal with this issue. By long term, we don’t mean 4 years out, we mean 25 years out. Intergenerational forecasts which will set sustainable spending patterns.

Where are the real plans to deal with the inevitable decline in revenues from a shrinking and aging workforce? While some creative gains are being made through immigration, they are incidental and the problem is not getting people to Nova Scotia, it’s keeping them here. More than half of those who arrive leave within five years.

It’s not much wonder as we’ve been struggling with economic growth and carry the some of the highest tax burdens in the country. Our public service is nearly 5 points larger than the national average and their salaries and benefits are completely out of whack with private sector norms. Is anybody connecting the dots?

Meanwhile, the front pages are littered with political spending sprees.

Small business owners want politicians to have the courage to not just stop the bleeding, but begin to fix the problem through an actual reduction in the size of government, lowering the costs of doing business and a putting laser-like focus on better regulation and more efficient service delivery.

If not, we are sentencing our next generation to a cold, bleak future, on the other side of the wall.

This originally appeared in the Chronicle Herald, May 13, 2017

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