03 July 2014

Political Fashionistas #nlpoli

Before the year is out, we will have yet another strategy from the provincial government.

We were supposed to have this one on July 1, however like pretty well everything associated with the current crowd running the place, it is a day late.  The minister responsible for the strategy – Fairity O’Brien – says we will now have it some unspecified time in the fall.  That will be after Fairity releases a document that tells us what the government heard during some sort of consultation process that they are almost as fond of as they are of strategy writing.

The thing will likely also be a dollar short, as well, if recent experience is any guide.  You see this “population growth strategy” is actually the second kick at the cat for the provincial government.  Their existing strategies aimed at dealing with some of the factors affecting population were all dismal failures.

A Hat Trick of Policy Failures

The first one, nothing more than a cynical effort to buy a few votes for the Conservatives in the 2007 with public money,  consisted of paying women in the province a thousand bucks for every child they bore.  After a couple of years of increased births,  the numbers went back to the old pattern.

That’s not surprising given that the policy hasn’t worked anywhere it’s been tried.  What’s worse, though, the policy of paying women to breed is not only inherently sexist, you can be assured that every place it’s been implemented – from places in the former Soviet Union to Quebec – it is invariably tied to racist notions. None of that stopped all sorts of people, including supposedly progressive types, from enthusiastically endorsing the Danny bucks program

The youth retention strategy,  aimed at stopping young people from frigging off to the mainland, also proved a dismal failure.  Back in 2008,  the young people the government consultants picked to help develop it were repeating the Conservative election slogan to reporters, confirming that we were a “proud strong determined” people,  or repeating another time Conservative policy,  known as the homing pigeon strategy.  people were supposedly just waiting to flock home, even if the wages and such were less just because they all wanted to “get home.”

As a post at the time put it, we “can solve outmigration, to go back to the Premier's speech [to the young people involved in the consultation], not by innovation and creativity but by figuring out how little people are prepared to settle for. Or in Kara's construction [one of the young people involved in the consultation], people should expect to make less money since she does not want ‘Alberta’, she wants something else, called Newfoundland and Labrador.”

The youth retention strategy that emerged in 2009 had some radical and innovative ideas in it.  Here are the four key ideas:

1.  Create jobs.

2.  Put services in major centres.

3.  Link education to the labour market.

4.  Build “an understanding of the benefits of immigration and diversity through public education, community dialogue and strengthened curriculums in the education system.”

No one ever thought of that before.  Create jobs and young people will stay and work rather than go somewhere else and find employment.  And yet for all the brilliance of that “strategy” people are still leaving in droves.

Then there is the immigration strategy.  As the Telegram story linked above tells us,  that one has also been a failure.  The government has attracted  - at most – about two thirds of the number of people they wanted to attract annually.

Worry not, though, gentle reader.  As we heard last year when another cabinet minister was in charge of talking to reporters about this latest strategy,  the other three strategies would “inform” development of the fourth.

There is a clue in that abysmal bit of government jargon that should help you understand why none of these strategies will work.  They are not really supposed to work.  They are just trendy.  They are just popular. They are fashionable.

A Strategy for Looking Good

A strategy is supposed to be a set of steps to get to the goal.

In government fashion, a strategy is a list of goals.  Or better still,  a strategy is a lot of words that sound nice but that commit to nothing concrete.  It is Government by Fernando.

The problem for government types – politicians and bureaucrats alike is that providing steps,  dates to achieve the steps, and all those other actual strategic things would give people a way of measuring success.  Or, as the pols and mandarins fear,  measuring the failure to achieve the targets.

People who fail don’t get re-elected.  People who are associated with failure don’t get promoted.  The surest way to avoid failure is to avoid doing anything.  It’s not surprising in such a world that the “strategy” document becomes an end in itself.  Writing the “strategy” involves lots of meetings,  e-mails,  “consultations (really just another form of meeting),  as many announcements along the way as the thing will bear and then finally the Great Unveiling by the minister at a news conference dutifully attended by all the local media.

It’s all double plus good.  You get the appearance of doing something without actually doing anything.  Come election time, the pols can hold up the list of “strategies” they have developed.  We promised to develop a strategy to deal with the collapse of the widget markets,  they will say, and  - holding up a copy of the coil-bound, glossy booklet – “we delivered!”

Meanwhile, former widget workers have gone to wherever it is they are still making widgets.  Or they have changed careers and now make some other kind of thing…in Alberta.  Meanwhile, the good jobs at home are still held by the people who develop strategies.

Inconvenient truths

The difficulty politicians have with the demographic problem facing the province is not that they don’t understand it.  They do.  The problem is that they come to office having never thought about it before or in many cases having never heard about it.  When the people who have been thinking about it lay out the real choices, none of them are very palatable.

Take, for example, the current crowd running the place who ran it with Danny Williams as their front man.  They are exactly like the crowd who ran the place with Brian Tobin.  Danny is a lot like Brian. They could be brothers.  In a recent joint public appearance, they looked like twins. 

And when both of them heard about the demographic problem they both said the same thing:  bullshit.  The sensible choices – like not building a school or a hospital in a place where people are leaving – doesn’t go over well with politicians who thrive on public adoration. 

You see, people get pissy if you tell them that their part of the world is on the down-swing of history. They have come to expect that politicians can fix every problem with their bottomless pit of money.  And the politicians in these parts are used to fixing every problem with the endless supply of money that came once upon a time from Ottawa and lately comes from oil.

In fact, local politicians are so addicted to spending money that when it looked like the supply would be cut off – a decade ago – they threw gigantic hissy fits in a desperate attempt to keep the cash flowing forever.  When it didn’t come from one source (Uncle Ottawa), they just switched gears and spent the money from another external source (oil).  $18 billion in oil money and not a cent of it left.

Take for another example, Muskrat Falls.  Demographics tells us that in a few years,  more people will be retired and living on fixed incomes in this province and will be under the age of 15 years than there will be in the work force. Tax income will be constrained.  On top of that, we know  revenue is likely going to decline, so government will not be as flush with cash as it has been in the past few years.Those older people will also be costing us more for health care.

If you are an ambitious politician who came into office with plans to blaze a trail of glory for yourself at public expense,  finding out that you really shouldn’t be spending wildly is a bit of a buzz kill.  Muskrat Falls makes no sense on a whole bunch of levels, but on a demographic level it is perhaps one of the stunnedest ideas imaginable.  The whole thing is built on making all those old people on pensions pay $8 billion for a dam and a power line.

And the decade of unsustainable spending?  Well, that’s pretty nutty if you stop and realise the implications of a population that is getting smaller and older.

The politicians who back Muskrat Falls or chronic overspending – Liberal,  Conservative, New Democrat – all understand the demographics of it.  It’s just easier to go along in order to get re-elected or it’s more important to go down in history as the most popular politician in the province, ever.

The New Fashionistas

Or to recite the latest fashionable talking point.


Paul Davis,  the apparent leader in the Conservative leadership vowed on Wednesday night that he will lead a party of listeners.  it’s a variation on the “consultation”  fashion that started with Tobin’s Liberals  and continued under Williams’  Conservatives.  There’s another variation of the same idea in Cathy Bennett’s idea about how to deal with the demographic issue. 

As Bennett told the Telegram,

“Part of what has to happen with immigration is we have to have dialogues with stakeholders. So we have to have ongoing dialogue with the immigrant community to find out where the (service) gaps are. We have to have dialogues with those organizations that are providing settlement services like the Association for New Canadians,” she said. “And I think it’s one thing to say you’re going to have a dialogue, it’s a whole heightened level of accountability when you commit to a scheduled dialogue.”

84 words, including all the small ones like “the”,  “it” and so on.

Four sentences.

Five uses of “dialogue”.  Government needs to “have a dialogue”,  an “ongoing dialogue”,  “have dialogues” (plural) then “have a dialogue”  (back to singular) and lastly Bennett goes for the ultimate jargon score:  government will reach a “heightened level of accountability”  - the ultimate worship word of government jargon these days – by committing to “scheduled dialogues.”

Holy crap.

Pick the New Conservatives with Paul Davis and you will get listened to death, or at least unconsciousness.

The Liberals will dialogue you into accountability.

And the New Democrats will say they will do something different, although it will be the same, even though they will insist it is better because, after all, they are New Democrats,  the only people whose crap really does not stink.