16 November 2020

Policy Pixelation #nlpoli

The members of the House of Assembly voted unanimously at the end of October to set up a committee to decide how to give everyone in the province a cheque each month from government.

The motion started out with a few reasons why the members thought it was a good idea:  people across Canada didn’t all have the same income, people were getting such a cheque already from the federal government to cope with COVID, some people – no one indicated who they were – thought this was a good idea, and when people had more money they were generally better off.

When it came time to explain those things in greater detail, Jordan Brown, the New Democrat member who led the debate didn’t give a single bit of extra detail that showed he and his staff had done any research on it at all.

He just made flat, generic statements, including:

“There are a lot of geographical differences in regions throughout this country, too.”

“we do have very unique geographical challenges, we have a unique population. We have a lot of unique needs that make this province what it is.”

“A lot of the research that we've come across was actually Canadian research, Canadian led. As Canadians, we should be proud that we are actually looking at these things within our own country. We have a lot of the research and legwork already done here.”

“Just my observation of this province, we're a very societal province. We're very adapt. We're very caring. We seem to be a province that cares so deeply about everybody in it.

He mentioned five groups that signed a letter in favour of what they called a “basic income.”  Brown also added that a “Tory senator wrote a book on why we should do this as a country.” 

No details.  No evidence.  No specific information.

And most tellingly of all, not a single description of just what this universal basic income might look like.

A CBC reporter who covered this resolution put her own description on it.  In the video version, she suggested every person would receive a cheque of maybe as much as $2,000 a month.  That would work out to $24,000 a year.  People who didn’t need the money – whoever they might be – would give it back to the government through income tax.  Everyone else would just be better off.

When the reporter asked people on the street if they’d like free money from the government, they all agreed it was a wonderful idea.

No one bothered with a bit of simple math.  There are about 250,000 working people in the province.  Give them all $24,000 a year. 

The cost would be $6.0 billion a year.

Roughly all the provincial government’s own-source income from taxes and resource royalties.

All of it.


So, give them only $12,000 a month.

That’s still roughly all of what the government currently spends on health care.

How about if we just limited it to the 33,000 people – roughly speaking – who get income support from the provincial government right now?

$792 million.

That would be roughly double what government spends on income support alone right now.

In those few sentences, you have read more detailed, factual information than any member of the House of Assembly considered when voting to send a group of colleagues on the way to set up a test project on a universal basic income.

No one talked about how much it would cost, how it would affect existing programs, or even where the money would come from.

It’s not rocket science and it doesn’t take very much time.

But no one bothered.

They don’t need to bother because the politicians were mainly concerned with whether the idea would be popular.

And – as anyone knows – free money is always popular.

That’s the way policy goes these days. 

No one bothers with details like cost, the knock-on effects, or any of those concerns. When Tony Blair was Prime Minister of Great Britain, he championed what some people called joined-up government.  The idea was to break down divisions between departments especially on major issues that were complicated. 

Well, in Newfoundland and Labrador, we’d need to start with the idea of joined-up thinking.  You’d have to realise what you do with one project has implications for others first before thinking about getting people co-ordinated.   

The sceptics among you are thinking this is all nonsense.  There is a long way from a private members’ motion in the House of Assembly and a major government commitment.

Well, that would be true except that record of the past 15 years shows how much government does is short-term, isolated, disconnected, or otherwise separated one from the other.

People don’t think things through.

Like in 2008, all three parties supported the expropriation of property from three companies, along with enormous environmental liabilities even though the problems were painfully obvious.

Then all the painfully obvious problems turned out to be real.

Or consider an email sent by the top public servant in the provincial government to the deputy minister of finance in 2006.

“Have you been consulted,” Robert Thompson wrote to Terry Paddon, “on the financial capacity of the govt to finance the Lower Churchill project in some fashion should we decide to go it alone[?] The govt is planning to make an announcement on Monday, and I need to know whether you have any issues.”

The email came from Thompson on the Thursday as cabinet approved an announcement for following Monday that the government would green light the Lower Churchill project. 

Paddon testified at the recent inquiry about Muskrat falls.  This is a crucial date since it was – for all meaningful purposes – the start of the Lower Churchill project in the form that has proven to be such a disaster.  It’s also an important email since it shows that at the very moment the government decided to go ahead with the project, the Clerk of the Executive Council clearly didn’t know whether anyone had asked and answered this basic question:  can we afford it?

Of course, Thompson was also just covering his ass.  Both he and Paddon knew full-well that if – as Thompson wondered – Paddon had any concerns, it was too late to voice them t that point.  And both knew that it was pointless to voice them about a project the Premier personally wanted to go with.

Paddon’s answers to commission counsel Barry Learmonth tell the rest of the story:

MR. LEARMONTH:  Do you remember receiving that email?

MR. PADDON: I don’t remember specifically, no.

MR. LEARMONTH: Okay, and did you provide any response, to your knowledge, to Mr. Thompson’s request?

MR. PADDON: I likely would have. Whether it was a response – an email response or whether I called him –


MR. PADDON: – one way or the other, I would have responded. It’s –

MR. LEARMONTH: Do you know what your answer – response would have been?

MR. PADDON: (Inaudible.)


MR. PADDON: No, idea. No.

MR. LEARMONTH: Yeah, all right. Well, that’s going back 12 years –

Off Learmonth went after something else, as if the email meant nothing.

But what Learmonth had right there was the proof that the largest project in the history of the provincial government came without so much as anyone thinking about whether we could afford it.

No one ever did.

What’s the difference between universal basic income and Muskrat Falls? 


The root of this behaviour is in how politicians and their special advisors – the Brits call them SpAds – think about what they are doing.  Once, not so very long ago, there was campaigning and then there was governing.  One was short-term and the other was, implicitly, long-term, and more complicated.  While campaigning is entirely a political activity that tended to last a couple of weeks every few years, governing was the field dominated by career public servants.  It involved issues that lasted years either to develop or to resolve.

After 2003, politicians in Newfoundland and Labrador simply ignored the governing part.   They never stop campaigning or thinking in campaign terms. Political considerations and political advisors – the latter often lacking in meaningful experience - tend to dominate on most decisions.

They think mostly about popularity.  They are tuned to what they believe is public opinion.  Politicians and their staff used to judge public opinion by polls that took days or weeks to gather. These days Twitter and Facebook dominate political calculations even though neither of those is a reliable indicator of public opinion. Twitter storms happen in seconds and political responses often come just as fast and with very little understanding of the implications.

Because opposition parties in Newfoundland and Labrador tend to ape the party in power, the same obsession with the short-term spread. That’s fundamentally why the parties sound so much alike on so many issues. Well that and the fact that, as in most western countries, the needs of the urban middle and upper middle classes dominate political discussions.

All parties agreeing with one another most of the time is so normal that have even forgotten how to appear to differ.  Not so long ago, the opposition would vote against the budget.  If they didn’t want to trigger an election in a minority parliament, enough of their members would have to change the air in their car tires at the crucial moment so that the government budget passed. By contrast, in the most recent session of the legislature in Newfoundland and Labrador, all parties voted for the government budget despite opposition party claims they had issues with it.  

All three parties support the government, even though some might claim they don’t.  The reason the politicians all want to appear to work together, by the way, is that this is a very popular idea on the bits of twitter that deal with local politics.

The fixation on the short-term or local is mirrored in other parts of the political system as well.  Parties chose candidates who can win a local seat with local support.  As one party advised prospective candidates recently, they had better come with their own volunteers and money because the main party had shag-all to give them.  Parties don’t exist like they used to.  These days they are closer to franchise deals where local wannabes can buy into a brand and central campaign organization to get through the election in exchange for going along with the party program.  Party organizers don’t care about recruiting potential cabinet ministers. They just want to win seats so any local luminary will do, regardless of what their other experience or sills might be.  That’s all.

When the politician doesn’t go along with the program or looks like they will cause a problem on Twitter, the political instinct is to get rid of them.  Every member of caucus – regardless of party - is expendable. Every member could be the subject of a Twitter-storm of controversy, real or, frequently, contrived.  Since the go-to response from the political masters in any party is to cut first and think later, if at all, politicians do everything they can to stay in line with the rest and out of the line of fire.  The result is, as in a campaign, all the people on the same team say the same thing.  Discussion and disagreement – the stuff that fuels smart policy – disappears.

The political approach pioneered under Danny Williams lives on in other ways.  Government news releases don’t contain information.  They meet bureaucratic schedules for good news that will make the government popular.  Ministers learn quickly to recite only prepared lines – commonly called a KM (kay em), short for key message.  KMs seldom contain useful information or anything that sounds like a logical argument. This is the age of unformation and uncommunication after all.

 Industry and energy minister Andrew Parsons is fond of responding to questions with the cliché start “What I can say is…”.  That’s not a joke. It’s the reality and ministers like Parsons may frequently not be the person who decides what is or is not allowed in their KMs.  The person may not be familiar with the issues at all, let alone appreciate the wider implications.

Opposition parties copy the same approach.  It’s so virulent a method that it has spread to municipal government, like the one in St. John’s.  City councillors now act like their provincial cousins.  They don’t disagree in public.  They act as spokespeople for the bureaucracy even though they have no managerial responsibilities for the bureaucrats.  Communications policy controls and cleanses their public statements of anything controversial or unsupportive of the city’s direction.

The recent controversy in St. John’s over paving walking trails so bicycle users can speed down them is a case in point.  The project is a massive change to the existing trail system.  The people who will benefit most from the changes are a small and relatively affluent segment of the population.  Council bought into their proposal early on and the communications about it, as a result, including the highly structured “consultation” process are, designed to manage and marginalize discontent.  Council is putting the checks in the boxes of a process, but the outcome is already decided, just as it is all too frequently in the provincial government as well.

Former finance minister Ross Wiseman has said several times in public speeches that the reason we have problems with government finances is that the government has a one year budget cycle and a four year election cycle.  The mismatch between the two forces politicians to always think about the next election.

The only problem with Wiseman’s theory is that the same is true of every Canadian province, the federal government, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.  Yet none of them are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy for the second time in less than a century.

What’s going on in Newfoundland and Labrador has some similarities to what happens in other places, but for the most part it comes from what people in Newfoundland and Labrador believe about politics. What they believe drives how they act.

Taken altogether, it’s a set of beliefs and actions that sees pixels, not pictures.  That pixilation is what allows a group of politicians in a province that still cannot pay for Muskrat Falls or reduce its massive budget deficits to think of ways to spend billions more that it doesn’t have.

And no one thinks that’s a problem.