15 January 2016

‘Engagement’ can be an excuse for avoiding action #nlpoli

by Craig Westcott

The Ball administration is off to a shaky start. Actually, it seems afraid to start at all. Tuesday’s press conference announcing 15 months of public consultation on how to handle the deficit is another indication that this administration is afraid to act. To use a tired cliché, the Liberals are like the dog that caught the car and doesn’t know what to do with it.

 Granted, the party has only been in power about a month, with much of that month being down time due to Christmas and the New Year’s holidays. But the Liberals had plenty of time to prepare an action plan. It has been obvious for the past two years that they would inherit the new government. That’s why the lack of a transition plan is so perplexing.

 Ball and his ministers need to send signals, already overdue, that they are changing the way we “do government.”

So far all the signals seem to say nothing has changed, that Ball and his “Team of Leaders” intend to carry out the same policies, using the same political appointees and advisors as the old government. It was those policies, ways and people that are responsible for the severe mess we are in. They created a behemoth structural deficit that was papered over, temporarily, by windfall royalties from the oil and mining sectors.

So far, aside from several bouts of handwringing over the size of what bodes to be a $2 billion to $3 billion annual deficit for the foreseeable future, there has been no sign that government is going to change its ways. Unlike the Trudeau government, which pleasantly surprised many Canadians by the boldness and quickness of policy changes that marked a clear break from the practices of Harper, Ball and his team look and sound so far just like the crowd they replaced. That is discouraging.

The plea on Tuesday for Newfoundlanders to tell the government what to do was pathetic. It made the new administration look like it is either incapable or afraid of governing. The Team of Leaders has transformed into an unenthusiastic Posse of Wimps.

Governing is not often easy. Danny Williams was lucky to come to power when oil prices and production were skyrocketing. He took great pains to claim the credit for what was really a lucky strike of timing. But he badly mismanaged the windfall and made such terrible decisions that generations of Newfoundlanders will pay for his ego, excess and incompetence for many years to come. However, the fiasco that was the old regime set Ball up with a large majority and enough political capital to make some tough decisions and take bold actions.

Instead, the new administration is dithering, afraid to move in the face of a financial crisis. The effect on public confidence in the economy is unsettling. Waiting to see how government will eventually deal with the deficit and swelling debt is nearly as bad as facing the severe cuts that are likely to come. It’s probably better to start restructuring the government now, giving employers and others the information they need to react and plan, rather than waiting for the bond rating companies and financiers to force austerity measures upon us as a condition of their lending.

The frittering away of his political capital, so early in his mandate, will erode public confidence in the new administration, and equally importantly, within it, something the new premier could soon regret. The seriousness of our financial situation requires action, not 15 months of hoping Newfoundlanders will somehow make the tough decisions that the new administration is afraid to make. People are not fooled into thinking Tuesday’s announcement of “aggressive public engagement” is real action. They are taking it as a cop out. If it goes beyond that, to thinking that our financial problems are so severe that they are beyond our ability to act, then we are really in trouble.

Playing the Game 

 That said, for the purposes of avoiding the accusation that anyone can criticize, but it takes brains and courage to suggest solutions, I will play the new government’s game and accede to its request that all Newfoundlanders go online to suggest three things that can be done to address the financial situation.

One: Begin by cutting the obvious waste in government. This includes eliminating the Office of Public Engagement, created by the PCs. Every politician who was elected on November 30 was given a mandate to “engage” with the citizens of this province. They don’t need a special office and added bureaucracy to do what they are supposed to do, which is return phone calls, e-mails and letters and talk with their constituents and other Newfoundlanders to hear concerns and explain their own policies.
Other things that can be chopped without a big effect on the provision of services include the Women’s Policy Office and regional health boards.

Two: The government should take steps to make Newfoundlanders the fittest citizens in Canada. Health care is by far the biggest cost of government. Newfoundland has the fastest aging and most obese population in the country. Our health care system is a ticking time bomb. Government should ban sugary drinks from schools, add extra periods of gym class for all students, and levy a special tax on fatty fast foods. It should offer tax breaks for gym memberships and the registration costs of hockey, softball, soccer, dancing, etcetera. Raising the general fitness level of the population should moderate, or even counter, the rising costs of health care by staving off more cases of diabetes, heart disease and joint pain.

Three: Make Newfoundlanders the most educated and literate people in the country. We are already spending more per capita on education than most provinces, but unfortunately not always getting great results. Government needs to streamline the system, raise teaching and student performance standards, and improve everyone’s understanding of public policy making and civics, as well as technical know- how. A smarter, better educated population may break the seemingly unending cycle of government incompetence and political corruption that has tripped up the advancement of Newfoundland so often in our history. That way, future generations might avoid colossal mistakes such as Muskrat Falls.