Sign booing Newfoundland and Labrador premier sums up budget anger

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - A sign outside a chiropractor's office takes aim at Premier Kathy Dunderdale as Newfoundland and Labrador's job-cutting budget is felt across the province.

It says: "Dunderdale Boo Hiss" and it was put up this week by Lee MacAllister in Conception Bay South near St. John's.

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He said it's to support public servants facing 1,200 job cuts as the Progressive Conservative government grapples with forecast deficits totalling about $1.2 billion over the next two fiscal years.

"They don't know what their future holds," MacAllister said Wednesday as several of his clients confront unemployment or at least uncertainty.

"I think it's going to inflict an enormous amount of pain on this province," he said of the austerity budget that includes cuts across all 16 government departments. "I really don't think government has any idea what they've wandered into here."

He fears that public sector job losses will have a ripple effect on private businesses as affected workers hunker down and stop spending.

Response to the sign in large white and yellow letters has been overwhelmingly positive, MacAllister said.

"There have been people stopping to take pictures."

Dunderdale has said the government made tough but necessary moves to help bring spending in line with revenues. The province was hit hard as the global economic downturn reduced earnings from Labrador minerals and offshore oil.

But critics say civil service cuts will affect everything from security and timely justice in the courts to tourism.

John Brooks, who has worked as both a prosecutor and defence lawyer in St. John's over the last 30 years, said he has never seen such a shakeup in the legal system.

The provincial Justice Department is losing 147 jobs through layoffs, plus another 52 vacant positions that won't be filled.

Layoffs of probation officers could put more people in jail as electronic monitoring for those serving house arrest is curtailed. And the province's Family Violence Intervention Court, introduced with fanfare as a pilot project in 2009 to offer a more streamlined response with social work supports, has also been cut.

Office of the High Sheriff's staff, providing courtroom security, will be trimmed in half from about 40 to 20.

Brooks said he's concerned that safety could be jeopardized and that outbursts could escalate.

"Security is always a concern at the criminal courts and at the family courts, and when you have less security you have more potential for those kinds of things happening."

Justice Minister Darin King said public safety is his prime concern and that extra sheriffs will be assigned wherever necessary, as they have been for years. But he said the sheriff's office was running a $500,000 salary deficit separate from the province's own fiscal crunch that had to be managed.

King also took issue with what he called totally false speculation that the number of Crown prosecutor positions will be cut to 15 from 25 — a prospect that has raised alarms about unjust delays.

"We're working through a process ... but it's highly likely it's going to be as few as two people" who will lose their jobs as Crown attorneys, he said in an interview.

"Frankly, I don't expect the kinds of delays that some are speculating on. And I think the key word is 'speculating' because no one knows how this is going to play out."

King stressed that the government will continue a long-standing practice of hiring support staff on contract to ease court backlogs or help with major cases as required.

A broader issue is how budget anger and anxiety will affect Progressive Conservative fortunes in the province. Recent polls have suggested a steep drop in support from the heady days when former premier Danny Williams scored approval ratings that were the envy of other leaders across Canada.

Dunderdale downplayed the apparent popularity plunge as the inevitable result of having to make tough decisions. And that was before the provincial budget cuts.

Williams, too, made hard decisions back in 2004 when bankruptcy was a real threat. But he could blame 14 years of Liberal rule and purported mismanagement.

Christopher Dunn, a political scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, says Dunderdale should be worried that her government is falling victim to what he calls the political laws of gravity.

"A regime can't stay at the same level, that historically it was, forever."

Parties run into trouble after about 10 years in power unless they renew themselves, Dunn said. "And this government has gone out of the way not to reinvent itself.

"So it suffers the fate of old governments."

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