23 September 2014

Needed: a local think-tank #nlpoli

Anyone who was paying attention to these things has known for about 25 years that the province would face a demographic crunch starting ‘round about now.

Anyone who has been reading Bond Papers for any length of time will know that demographics have been a big issue your humble e-scribbler has been banging on about pretty much since the beginning in January 2005. Go over to labradore and you will find what is known in the professional analyst trade as a shitload of posts, graphs and other sorts of information about demographics.

Collectively, we’ve got a good handle on both the magnitude of the problem and the implications. The problems are already here and the deliberate lack action by successive provincial governments means we are substantially behind where we need to be to cope with the consequences of a rapidly aging population.

So it is that after studying all the stuff that people have already produced about the problems the province is facing, the good folks at the Harris Centre at Memorial University have concluded that we need – brace yourself – “additional research” in order to “get ahead” of these changes.

Ye frackin’ gods.

The Harris Centre has a forum in early November and this demographics thing is the first of six reports they will produce to both draw attention to the forum and to serve as the basis for discussion at the event. The forum is supposed to bring together “thought leaders” and a bunch of other people to discuss these big issues.

Frankly, if the rest of the discussion papers are like this one, the Harris Centre is going to produce a gigantic disappointment to anyone in the provincial and federal government looking for some ideas about how to actually deal with these big issues.  They have produced a massive survey of what’s already been talked about, studiously avoided any discussion of concrete things government could do to address the problems that come from the demographic issues, and then merely proposed further study.  It’s all wonderful academic stuff for people who like to study things but pretty much a useless pile of nothing for people who actually have to do anything meaningful.

What the paper and the forum are not is anything that is likely “to assist in the responsible development of the economy and society” of the province, one of the two objectives of the Centre.  Nor is the forum likely “to stimulate informed discussion of important provincial issues”,  the Centre’s other objective.  That’s really the crux of what the Harris Centre ought to be doing. It should be a centre for policy studies. The Centre should be trying to operationalize the academic research: that is, turn the abstract and theoretical into practice.

Some of the people who will make up the panels for each of the discussion topics  - like Max Ruelokke,  Doug May, Shannie Duff, and Doug House - know their stuff and have concrete experience in trying to implement policy.  Unfortunately, most of the panellists have very limited experience or, in some instances, none at all. Meanwhile, the former public servants or even current ones who could add depth to the sessions are missing entirely.

All this stands in stark contrast to things like the Galbraith lecture or the public policy fora that the Centre has sponsored over the last decade or so.  It’s a reminder, though, that the province could use a local group dedicated to the exploration of major issues for public policy affecting the province.  We’ve never had such a group and the one or two individuals who have ventured out into the area of policy studies have produced mixed results.  Doug House was very successful for a while but has since retired and Wade Locke remains largely a world-class policy schlockmeister, as his infamous Muskrat falls presentation  at the Harris Centre or his work on recent provincial budgets has showed. 

A think-tank, privately funded, and separate from Memorial University could do a lot more.  If nothing else,  the competition might spark the folks at Memorial to stop squandering their resources and considerable potential.