06 July 2020

Building on our successes #nlpoli

“First and foremost, be totally honest with the electorate,”  former Premier Clyde Wells told Anthony Germain on CBC’s Sunday Edition last weekend.  He was giving some general advice to the next Premier on how to handle the provincial government’s enormous financial problems.
SEP 1992

“Don't go sugar-coating anything. Fully disclose what you're doing [and] why you're doing it. Have a logical plan that will treat everybody fairly.”

Another part of Wells’ approach was to communicate.  Wells told Germain that he took every opportunity to explain what was going on and why it was happening to the public.  He made a couple of province-wide addresses to the public to do just that.   

People didn’t like it at first.  The opposition parties and the unions criticised everything.  That’s what they are supposed to do.  But, as Wells, pointed out, “the people of the province come around. In my case, it was proven that they come around, because in the 1993 election, after four years of the most severe cutting, we had an increased majority.”

Few Premiers have done that in Newfoundland and Labrador since 1855 and none have done it since Wells.  In 2007, with bags of cash, great times, and no opposition to speak of, the governing Conservatives won more seats than they did in 2003 but they did it with fewer votes.  In 1993, the Liberals got *more* votes than they received in 1989.

But that doesn’t really tell the whole story.

What started in 1989 was a change in strategic direction for the provincial government and the province. 

The provincial government didn’t just cut spending and eliminate jobs in the public service.  Reforms to health care and education organization and governance were supposed to shift power out of the bureaucracy in St. John’s and hand it to people in the regions where they lived. 

Education reform was tied to improving economic performance and opportunities laid out in the Strategic Economic Plan.  The plan was the product of a two-year-long process spearheaded by the economic planning group, appointed by cabinet in the summer of 1990 under the chairmanship of the Premier's chief of staff, Edsel Bonnell.  The group brought together a diverse set of individuals with an equally diverse set of ideas. There were within the group contending ideas, as former chairman of the Economic Recovery Commission Doug House describes in his book Against the tide. 

The process the SEP team used overcame those differences and built a consensus on a future direction found on three fundamental changes, as laid out in the introduction to the plan:

·       A change within people. There is a need for a renewed sense of pride, self-reliance and entrepreneurship. We must be outward-looking, enterprising and innovative, and to help bring about this change in attitude we will have to be better educated. During the consultation process, most people agreed that education is essential to our economic development.

·       A change within governments. Governments (both politicians and the bureaucracy) must focus on long-term economic development and planning, while still responding to short-term problems and needs. Government programs and services must place a greater emphasis on the quality of the services provided and on the client. Changes in education, taxation and income security systems are also considered critical to our economic development.

·       A change in relationships. To facilitate the necessary changes in the economy, new partnerships must be formed among governments, business, labour, academia and community groups. In particular, better co-ordination between the federal and provincial governments in the delivery of business and economic development programs is needed to eliminate duplication and to prevent confusion for those who use them.

What happened in 2003 abandoned that strategic approach in favour of (once again) using provincial spending as a substitute for economically and environmentally sustainable private sector development. Megaprojects were all the rage and economic development became basically an exercise in handing out cheques.  Changes to education and health care governance put power back in the hands of the central bureaucracy and minimised the connection between schools/hospitals and communities.

In every respect, the current financial and organizational mess of the provincial government is the result of the strategic change of direction after 2003.   Dwight Ball’s “Way Forward” stays within all the same strategic premises. Not surprisingly, it hasn’t fixed the problems.

Any proposal from any political party that doesn’t change the strategic direction of the province won’t succeed in fixing the current financial problems the provincial government faces.  That doesn’t mean going back to the 1992 strategic plan, which was designed for a different situation. 

It means using the same integrated approach, though, starting with the understanding that only a strategic shift will work.  The process is important as:  strategic change is only possible with a consensus across the province. A strategic consensus is essential because making strategic changes will require a commitment that will last beyond one four year administration.

That consensus will only come with a lot of public discussion and debate. There will be differences of opinion.  There needs to be a lot of disagreement to make sure we explore all the options before setting on a new strategic plan made up of elements that can work.  

The new strategic plan must shift the focus of economic development from government to the private sector.  Government needs to create the environment in which the private sector can succeed while protecting the public interest through proper regulation.

The plan needs to focus not on specific topics – like substituting “tech” for the current obsession with oil – but on creating an environment in which the private sector can respond to market forces.  We cannot know what will be important in the future.  Instead, we need to create the economy that can bet respond to shifts.

The lesson from the 1990s is that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians can succeed in solving their own economic and financial problems. Wells’ interview this past weekend is the first he’s given in almost 30 years. 

We’ve been ignoring what happened in the 1990s in Newfoundland and Labrador.  People are casting about for some easy answers to their current problems that don’t involve actually changing anything. Unfortunately for them, more of the same simply isn’t an option.  

Well, the answers are right in front of use.  We just have to decide to build on our past successes rather than continue with tales of doom and gloom that get us nowhere. After all, it’s not like we haven’t faced bigger problems than the ones we have today and solved them ourselves.


Guiding Principles for Economic Development

from the

1992 Strategic Economic Plan

  1. The Province must focus on strategic industries. With increasing competition in world markets and limits to growth in primary- resource industries, the Province must target high-value-added activities in which we have, or can develop, a competitive advantage.
  2. Our education and training system must adapt to the changing labour market demands for a highly skilled, innovative and adaptable workforce. In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, it is critical that governments, business and labour work together to improve the level and quality of education, training and re-training.
  3. Newfoundland and Labrador must be competitive both at home and in world markets. To improve our prospects for economic growth and  development, and to maintain and expand local and export markets, the province must diversify its economic base by producing goods and services that are internationally competitive in price, quality and service.
  4. The private sector must be the engine of growth. While it is the role of government to create an economic and social environment that promotes competitiveness, it is the enterprising spirit of the private sector that will stimulate lasting economic growth.
  5. Industry must be innovative and technologically progressive to enhance productivity and competitiveness. A competitive advantage can be created by integrating advanced technologies in the workplace with the innovation, skills and creativity of our people.
  6. To achieve economic prosperity, there must be a consensus about the need for change and a commitment from governments, business, labour, academia and others to work together in building a competitive economy.
  7. Government policies and actions must have a developmental focus where the client comes first. The structure of government must be streamlined, efficient and responsive to public needs and to changes in the economy.
  8. The principle of environment must be managed to ensure that development can be sustained over the long term.sustainable economic development must be maintained. Our natural resources and environment must be managed to ensure that development can be sustained over the long term.