14 November 2016

His best shot #nlpoli

The most important measurement you need to take of Dwight Ball's great vision for the provincial government is that this is his one, best shot.

That shot consists of a hackneyed, worn-out, tired list of all sorts of things that government departments are already doing,  things that won't materially affect the problem or government's deficit or the economy, or that are just irrelevant to the problem that continues to loom over all our heads.

Take as a good example, the commitment to improve breastfeeding initiation rates from their current 72% to something like the national rate of 90%.  It sounds like a great idea since breast-feeding is a good way to improve babies' health. Healthy babies mean healthy adults and healthy adults cost less to care for than the crowd currently filling our hospitals. What's more, it sounds like there is a measurable target, going from 72 to 90 and all that.  Lots of evidence in there for the evidence based fetished among you.

But it isn't.
When it comes to having a meaningful impact on health,  the rate you need to look at is not the number of mothers who start breastfeeding but the number who keep it up and who are breastfeeding exclusively at six months. The World Health Organization, Health Canada, the Canadian Paediatric Society, Dietitians of Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada all recommend exclusive breastfeeding fir the first six months of life for healthy-term infants.

These days, the country is at 90% starting with the province at 72%.  But that six-six month rate is a mere 15%. The national rate at six months was 26% in 2012.  We are still behind the national six month rate in 2003, according to a Statistics Canada report on breastfeeding trends.

Regular readers will know this well because breastfeeding is one of SRBP's pet causes.  When SRBP started writing about this 10 years ago,  the provincial initiation rate was around 62% compared to a national average of  85%.  The rate at six months, though, was a mere 11%.

The figures the bureaucrats put in this booklet that Dwight's folks call his vision weren't chosen for their meaningful impact on public health or the budget.  They were chosen because the bureaucrats will have to produce a report in six months that shows some progress.  They picked numbers that fit that outcome, not the outcome of improving health.  The knowledgeable folks in the health department picked a number that is easy to see but that is entirely useless, practically.

Had they chosen a real target, there's every reason to believe they would be able to report sufficient meaningful progress in six years, let alone the six months when they need to see a good number.  What's more, if they wanted to produce a meaningful change in breastfeeding rates, they'd have to devote some money and other attention to it and  right now that is in short supply.

That's why you really have to laugh out loud - not just giggle or snicker into your hand - when a politician says he wants to focus on improving outcomes.  What Ball is really concerned about  - like so many politicians before him -  is improving his reporting outcomes so that hopefully he can improve his polling outcomes.

What he and his advisers have missed is that by focusing on real outcomes, those poll numbers would move largely just for the effort of trying. They will not move based on piffle and yet that is precisely what so much of the document is. You cannot move polling numbers at all by letting your bureaucrats spend 11 months chatting about a bunch of recycled old ideas just so they can produce a report for you six, 12, and 18 months down the road.

It's arguable whether or not Ball  - or any other politician - actually gets this point.  If the politicians do understand, many of them don't care, which is why they keep spitting out this sort of drivel and imagining that it is a magic bullet to cure all their political and management ills.  The result for the public is still the same, whether the politicians know they are pushing piffle or not.

So the breastfeeding target isn't going to do anything to improve health care or the economy.  The aboriginal leaders' annual meeting likewise won't have an impact on the economy, government spending, or the relationship between government and aboriginal people in the province.  Ditto the "Status of the Artist" legislation.

Paving roads isn't a waste of time.  But it is something the government is supposed to do anyway and, as such, there is no reason to list it among a bunch of things that are supposed to represent a meaningful change for government.  A huge chunk of the innovative action agenda of Dwight Ball's vision is the continuation of massive subsidies to the private sector without any consideration to whether or not they actually work. The provincial government is arguably already set up to "strategically leverage federal funding."  And we have had so many governments that waged war on red tape, you'd think by now that government itself would cease to exist under its own relentless onslaught on itself.

Beware of Offshore Royalty Changes

There are one or two things in here to be wary of.  Ball is committed to make our offshore the favourite destination for exploration and development of oil and gas.  Well, we have a frontier industry, which means it is expensive to exploit it.  The only way you can make it more attractive than fracking in the United States would be to lower the cost dramatically.  The one cost government can lower to meet that sort of policy goal is to dramatically lower the amount of cash we collect in royalties.  

We should all look very carefully at the way these points fit together from the "vision":
  • "Focus on life cycle benefits from projects to maximising benefits to the province through construction, fabrication and supply and service activities in both the development and production phases of projects..."  
  • "Provide fiscal certainty to attract companies to assess exploration opportunities...."
That sounds suspiciously like a trade of jobs for royalties by government.

The alternative would be to set the royalties as one concept and, on the other side,  create a competitive free-enterprise environment in which local companies can develop globally building on the strength of the local market.  That was the original government policy for the offshore, based on the experience in places like Norway and the rest of North America.

The Williams Conservatives threw that out the window and this policy suggested by the Liberals essentially keeps the government as the dominant force in the market with a goal of funnelling money to locally-owned offshore companies. The model for this sort of behaviour is  developing countries and oil-soaked kleptocracies.

Incidentally, we have seen an accelerated trend since 2003 for the provincial government to take a corporatist approach to public policy.  Williams and the Conservatives preferred to work deals in secret with organizations representing sectors of the economy.  The Liberals have carried on this practice and it is especially noticeable with their approach to the oil industry.

The really big warning bell starts clanging when you see this statement buried away in the vision document:  
"By March 31, 2017, our Government will enhance Newfoundland and Labrador’s regulatory framework by implementing a Generic Royalty Regime and regulations."
We already have a generic royalty regime.  The Conservatives used it as the basis for their deals but fundamentally they scuttled the value of a generic regime by claiming they could get more.  The Davis Conservatives promised a generic regime using deceptive language that - like the Liberal language now - makes it appear like a generic royalty regime is new. It isn't.

What we need to watch closely for are efforts that would reduce government revenue,  especially in light of the challenges of development outside the 200 mile limit.  The local offshore is actually evolving into several different regions.  Each have different characteristics,  different risks and costs, and therefore different profitability.

At worst, we should probably be developing at least two regimes:  the current one, plus a new regime for the areas outside 200 miles.  At best we should be delaying any discussion of development outside 200 miles until we get some answers to the basic questions about costs.  The fact that the government is continuing to deal with the oil companies, in secret,  remains a very serious concern as it was when the Conservatives started the talks.