09 June 2006

Outside the box: up the harbour and down the shore

Remember March?

Yeah the month, not the former ombudsman who could apparently travel in Newfoundland and make phone calls from Nova Scotia simultaneously.

March: just a few short months ago when Danny had the Lieutenant Governor read a Throne Speech so fulsome with its praise for our Glorious Golden Boy and his Golden Achievements that everything in Newfoundland and Labrador would soon be leafed, paved, lacquered, glazed and otherwise covered in the most precious of metals.

Yeah, well now its June.

Forget the Gold crap.

These days, the Premier is feeling a bit beleaguered, at least if a piece that aired recently on CBC is anything to go by.

The piece is a solid, straight-up reporting that looks at the issue of the Premier's election promise of "jobs, jobs, jobs" with what has actually been going on.

The Premier's own take on things doesn't really have an evident shred of optimism. Rather the Premier appeared to be speaking defensively: gimme credit for saving the place from imminent bankruptcy. We have things going on that no one can control. In the meantime we are working on planning to plant seeds for future growth.

Interestingly enough, the province was never facing imminent bankruptcy - that was the Premier's fiction. The other factors he mentioned were specific to the issues facing some companies in the fishery alone. The same factors - like Chinese competition and high exchange rates - don't affect other economic initiatives or don't affect other industries in the same way.

The segments with the Premier were an interesting clue to Danny Williams' current state of mind. If March was manic, then June is borderline depressive.

The whole thing reminded me of a piece I wrote in late 2003 or early 2004 for the Sunday Independent about the Premier's "jobs, jobs, jobs" agenda. At the time, no one knew how Williams would run a government. People were looking ahead with a sense of curiosity at what the New Approach would actually look like.

What was pretty clear in 2003 was the province could get out of its budget woes with some careful planning and with the continued economic growth coming from the offshore and Voisey's Bay. We all knew that growth was coming. Danny knew it too and that's why he ran the election on the up-note of growth.

What no one knew was that oil would hit US$70 a barrel and the cash would be pouring in at a rate no one in the province had ever seen before. That allowed Danny Williams to avoid making a whole bunch of good decisions and to crank up spending to unprecedented and, and in light of the economic slowdowns, likely unsustainable heights.

These days, though, there is no mistaking the point that the provincial government is in a hard spot. There are some factors in the economy that are beyond Williams' control. The stuff that is within his purview either foundered for one reason or another or simply have never existed.

And that goes to the core point of this piece from shortly after the 2003 election: government needs to focus on what government does.

In largest measure, since 2003 Danny Williams has focused his considerable talents in areas where, as Premier, he simply can't have an impact. He has been trying to run in the business sector rather than applying his managerial skills to running a government that will in turn create an environment where the private sector will develop the economy.

If he wanted to create jobs, he should have stayed in the private sector and put together the deals to create jobs and generate wealth. Instead, we have wound up with a mismatch between Danny Williams' considerable skills and the challenges at hand.

Worse still, the centralizing tendency of government bureaucracy merely reinforces the most pernicious attributes of Williams' own hands-on leadership style. This has slowed down government's processes such that many policies are done one at a time rather than in parallel. Government has slowed to the point where it has taken three full years to get even the vaguest idea of some policy areas - like widening Hydro's mandate - and others, like the role and impact of the Business department or Danny Williams' own economic development seeds still haven't been seen at all.

When Danny Williams said his government has been pre-occupied with other things besides economic development, he was telling the truth. That situation is the problem and there is no sign it is being overcome or changed.

Running government is like drinking from a four-inch firehose. The most important thing for an incoming administration is having a way of figuring out how much to drink so it can avoid getting drowned. An incoming administration has a list of the things it definitely wants to accomplish and sets to work on them right away. For everything else there is a framework that identifies what is important, what is not important and gives a guide that helps triage the stuff that pops up along the way.

In a sense, we are looking at a Premier and a government, three years into its mandate, that is increasingly being driven on some major issues instead of doing the driving. It's a variation on the idea discussed in another "Outside the Box" column from early 2004. Back then, it looked like those columns were just penetrating insights into the flipping obvious. In hindsight, the observations seemed to be all too relevant.


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Up the harbour and down the shore

If Danny Williams wants to solve the government deficit problem by producing new jobs, as he said he would, he will have to create something between 50, 000 and 100, 000 new jobs in the province over the next eight years.

To put that in perspective, there are about 219, 000 full-time equivalent jobs in the province today according to the Economics and Statistics branch of the provincial government. Since 1996, the economy produced about 31, 000 new jobs. To meet his commitments, Danny Williams will have to produce twice or three times as many jobs in the next eight years as the province could create in the past eight.

And he will have to do that while providing increased health services to an aging population, providing education, services, roads, water and sewer and all the other things people expect from the provincial government. And he can'’t lay off government employees or increase the deficit.

Sounds impossible?

It is. Just look at our collective experience in the province and you can see why making promises like "“Jobs, Jobs, Jobs" ” is nothing short of silly. Politicians seem to forget that whenever government tries to create jobs, it fails and fails miserably.

Stupidity, someone once said, is doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different outcome. To stop being stupid, politicians need to focus not on creating jobs - something they can'’t do - and focus on politics, something they can do.

That'’s why, a decade ago, the provincial government decided to get out of the job-making business. It decided the best it could do is creating a climate where entrepreneurs - – people with ideas - – could focus on making jobs that last. There was a bit more to it, though. The regional economic boards were supposed to be a way to let people in the different areas of the province decide for themselves what they would do to develop their local economy.

The boards were also part of a wider move toward more regional control over a number of things, including health care and education. After all, politics is about who decides. In a province as big as this one, with a very small population, the "“who"” who decides often shouldn'’t be someone hundreds or thousands of kilometres from the issue. One major problem is that it has been hard to wrestle power out of the hands of bureaucrats and politicians in St. John'’s who want to keep deciding just about everything, right down to who can and cannot ride the local school bus.

But the logic remains. Take Eastport, for example, or other areas of the province where local fishermen have had a greater say in how the resources they depend on are managed. They make sensible decisions based on science, their own knowledge and their own interests. They virtually eliminate poaching. They close fishing in areas where it needs to be closed and develop new ways to improve the price they get for their product.

Maybe it is time to take these ideas a step farther and create a form of regional government that promotes economic development and administers health care, municipal services, education and even social welfare programs. New regional councils, elected regularly, would sort out local priorities and make decisions on that basis. The provincial government can look after setting broad strategic goals, much like the federal government set down basic principles for Medicare and then lets the provinces actually deliver the services. But the decisions on where hospitals go, or indeed if a new hospital is actually the best way to deliver health care in that particular region are left to the people who will be directly affected.

Transferring power for some decisions from St. John'’s to new regional governments wouldn'’t be a magical solution to job creation or anything else. It also won'’t guarantee equal success everywhere. What it will do is involve more people in deciding what the future will look like in Newfoundland and Labrador. In an odd way, a new approach of regional government -– a county system - might help people realize that the issues up the harbour are much the same as the ones down the shore or in the four distinct regions of Labrador.

For the provincial government, those politicians can look at projects like Voisey'’s Bay or the offshore for the government revenues they generate, rather than the number of jobs. The deficit problem might just get sorted out by thinking outside the box for a change.

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