Monday, 27 March 2017

On Immigration...

On Immigration...

By: Ryan Young

The most common theme I heard from my political colleagues this past weekend was: “What is Gerry Byrne smoking?”

The question comes on the heels of an announcement by Byrne on Friday that the Newfoundland and Labrador Government is planning to boost immigration by 50% over the next five years. The target is 1700 new immigrants by 2022, although like every Liberal “plan” so far, the announcement was high on spin and rhetoric but very low on details.

During the announcement, Byrne also stated that the plan will include attracting expat NL’ers who have left the province to come back. It’s nice for the Liberals to keep taking their cues from the old Clyde Wells playbook, but much like when Wells promised to bring every mothers son home (just prior to overseeing the largest out-migration in NL history) the statement carries very little weight when you consider the current economic state of the province and the fact that people are leaving in droves for better opportunities and less taxes.

When you look at the numbers, NL has the second highest consumer price index in the country, after only Alberta. What that means in simple terms is that we have one of the highest costs of living in Canada and it is trending up instead of down. We have come a long way from leading the country in growth. Our GDP is shrinking and by the end of the mess that will be harshly remembered as the “Dwight Ball Years,” unemployment in the province is expected to top 20%.
  
The numbers hardly seem to match up with Byrne’s assertion that now is the best time to move to Newfoundland. It should not be too much of a shock for people to see Byrne speaking so out of touch. After a long twenty years in Ottawa as an MP, Byrne himself came home to take a stab at provincial politics. According to him, 2016 was the best year of his political career. That was certainly a curious statement when you consider the hardships that his government has placed on the people of this province in the past year. I’m sure it was a wonderful year for Gerry and his Liberal cronies, but unfortunately the people he was elected to represent are experiencing their worst year in recent history, all because of the decisions that Byrne and his government made on their behalf.

Many people in this province have strong opinions about immigration. Some are very much in favor, while others are vehemently opposed. The reasons are varied, but I did not want to turn this post into a debate about immigration. The truth of the matter is that with a declining population, more immigration is likely needed to keep our tax base afloat in the years to come. The problem that I see when I look at the issue is not one of security but one of plain economics.

Traditionally our immigrant retention rates have been extremely low. A recent report indicated that less than 40% of immigrants that come to NL stay here to live and work. There are many reasons for the low retention rate. NL does not have any large ethnic communities compared to many other places in Canada. Many of our jobs are low paying and do not provide benefits. The cost of living here is very high, with very little support for families when it comes to things like housing, child care, and parental benefits.

With these things in mind, I think we have to approach immigration in a different way. Instead of trying to attract immigrants to replace all the people that are being driven away by the high cost of living, what we really need to do is create a positive environment in the province that will not only allow our own residents to stay home and flourish, but it will also provide a very attractive destination for potential immigrants to move and raise families, and thereby building our own ethnic communities.

It makes absolutely no sense to initiate a government program aimed at increasing immigration when the government has no obvious plan to tackle the high unemployment rates and cost of living. Why in the world would an immigrant want to come and live here and suffer under our regressive economic policies when there are so many better options out there for them to pursue? The only way it would work is if our government was paying subsidies for people to stay here. I’m not sure how much political capital that will earn them when so many native NL’ers are lined up at the ferry terminal each day to leave in search of the better life their own government promised, but could not provide.

What is likely to happen is that the government will spend millions on their immigration “plan” in the coming years, without addressing any of the real issues that keep retention rates low. This means that our tax dollars will be used to help bring immigrants in and get them established in the province, but when the benefits run out, they will likely move on and settle elsewhere in Canada and become productive tax paying contributors to another provincial economy. Personally, I find that hard to justify when we could use that money to improve social programs which would likely be more effective in the long run when it comes to attracting immigrants and keeping them here.

The scariest part about it all is thinking about who is sitting in the driver’s seat. So far, we have not seen any of the evidence-based policy that we were promised during the 2015 election campaign. What we have seen over and over are reactionary decisions, many of which have already been reversed when it became apparent that people were doing their own research that was not matching up with what the government was saying. I fear that this will be another example of this government wanting to do something for good publicity without really thinking through the consequences of their decisions. If they want people to start believing in them, they need to start making decisions based on good policy research and evidence, and not on what they think will win back a few votes in 2019.

At the end of the day, we certainly do need to have an open and honest discussion about immigration in this province. With an aging population and a growing out-migration rate, NL will need to find new ways to increase our tax base to provide the revenue we will need to pay for basic programs and services in the future. Unfortunately, just throwing a bit of money at the problem is not going to fix it. We need to re-think the way we support families in this province and we need to address the root causes of why immigrant retention rates are so low. Most importantly we need to make Newfoundland and Labrador a great place to live so that when we do attract people to move to this province, (or move home) we are able to keep them here to contribute to the economy in a meaningful way. 

Immigration does not have to be a dirty word for Newfoundland and Labrador, but in order for the masses to get behind the government's new immigration plan, they are going to have to convince people that they know what they are doing. We live in a dangerous world and people are wary of the unknown. If the government really wants this plan to work they need the people behind it and that will require a great deal of communication and discussion, neither of which are things that the Liberals seem to be fond of. It won’t be an easy sell.  

Monday, 20 March 2017

Priorities, Journalism, and Justice

Priorities, Journalism, and Justice

By: Ryan Young

Priorities

Maybe it’s just me, but I had a real problem when 28 Labrador Land Protectors were served charges for their parts in the protests against the Muskrat Falls hydro development on the Lower Churchill River. My issue was not with the charges themselves, although I personally think they are unnecessary. The protectors who stormed the gate and stayed on site last fall to protect their right to clean water and traditional food sources knew there was a very good chance that they would face legal consequences for their actions and they made a conscious choice to defy the court injunction and occupy the site.

What really gets  my back up about this case is that just a few weeks earlier, a former RCMP officer  in Labrador who was charged with child luring had his charges stayed because it took an unreasonable amount of time for the accused to go to trial. Judge John Joy noted in his decision that he was bound by legal precedent to stay the charges, and that despite exemplary work by officers and technicians, they could only operate within the limited scope of the resources of their respective offices.

So how is it that the court system in Labrador is too overworked and under resourced to properly manage a high-profile case involving a police officer in a serious breach of trust, but it can handle the load of 28 new complex cases that will use up even more resources and cash in a system already busting at the seams. Is making an example of these 28 a move to discourage more acts of the sort that we saw last October? When such an important case such as child luring against a police officer is thrown out because of a lack of resources and then a few short weeks later we see 28 names of people trying to protect their way of life added to the docket, it has many people asking just what the priorities are at the Department of Justice and Public Safety in St. John’s.

When is Journalism a Crime?

Justin Brake of The Independent is answering to charges for his role in covering the occupation of the Muskrat Falls work camp by Labrador Land Protectors last October. Brake has stated that he believed he was completely within his rights as a journalist to follow the protectors through the gate to document the real story of what was happening during a very tense time for the whole province. Brake’s reporting and live streaming of the events inside the camp often painted a different picture than was being put forth by Nalcor and the government. It allowed the world to see the protectors being welcomed with open arms into the camp and that there was never any talk of violence. While there has been precedent for such charges in the past, such as the Oka standoff in the 90's, many feel that in a case such as Brake’s where a journalist is the sole documenter of a story in the public and national interest, the rights of the journalist to cover the story must be protected.

When the powers that be in our justice system decided to go ahead with the charges against Brake, they began walking a very fine line. The story is beginning to get traction with journalists all over the world who are waiting to see what the outcome will be. Brake is officially facing charges of mischief exceeding $5000 and disobeying a court order. The charges come with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.   Many in Labrador feel that the charges against Brake and the Land Protectors are an intimidation tactic by the government to ensure that there are no more protests like we saw last fall. What they don’t seem to understand is that they are seeding deep feelings of resentment in the residents of Labrador that might very well inspire more action in the name of justice.

Using the court system to strong arm the people of Labrador is one thing, but when the decision was made to charge Brake for his coverage of the story, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador have opened up a can of worms that they will not be able to control for much longer. As the story gains international traction, more and more groups are condemning the government’s actions and demanding that the charges against Brake be dropped. The government, however, seems to be holding firm and letting Gilbert Bennett and the other top Nalcor brass run the show. Muskrat Falls must be protected at all costs, even if it means potentially facing years of expensive litigation against our government for failing to protect Justin Brake’s journalistic rights.

Justice?

We have been talking quite a bit about justice in this province lately. From controversial verdicts, to overcrowded courts and prisons, to the need for new legislation to catch up with our modern times. There is much work to be done, and it will take more than one government to bring our justice system in line with the needs of the people. We have seen several cases where charges were stayed because the accused had not been given timely access to a trial. This has led to much discussion about the R vs Jordan decision last summer where it was ruled that there would be a ceiling of eighteen months for provincial court cases and thirty months for supreme court cases, after which time a defendant may make a motion to have the charges against them stayed. We saw this happen in the case I mentioned about the RCMP officer above, and it has been causing havoc for court systems all across the country who are scrambling to keep up with the new guidelines.

Justice and Public Safety Minister, Andrew Parsons, has said on record that the province will not be hiring any new judges to handle the caseloads, so that means that the province will need to look at other ways to find efficiencies and get cases to court in a timely fashion. It is no secret that our court system is already perilously under resourced, and with the Jordan decision adding even more pressure we can expect even more high profile cases to have charges stayed before they get their day in court.

All of that makes the decision to proceed against charging Brake and the Land Protectors even more curious. Most people I know would agree that if you break the law, you will face consequences, but how does that work when you are up against the people making the laws? It was the government via Nalcor that petitioned the court injunction that denied the Land Protectors the right to protest for their own safety and the very water that they depend on for life and culture. When an MP from town tells the people in Labrador that depend on the river that they should just “eat less fish,” it just emphasises the disconnect between the folks in fancy offices in St. John’s who only care about the economics of the project and the politics behind it and the people on the ground who feel that they are in a legitimate life and death battle with their government.

At the end of the day, the people of this province are feeling let down by their justice system. They are losing confidence in the police and in the courts and they are left to wonder just what the priorities are for this government. In Labrador, people are left to feel that their justice system is being used against them and they have lost all faith that the government is there to protect them. Where is the justice for the people of Labrador?

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Time to Come Clean

Time to Come Clean

By: Ryan Young

It was a bitter pill for many to swallow last week when the premier finally confirmed that the principal beneficiary of the Muskrat Falls project would not be NL, it would be Nova Scotia and Emera. It becomes even harder to swallow when you consider that the entire reason for going through Nova Scotia in the first place was to give the finger to Quebec and ensure that we would be the ones to benefit from our own energy production. Danny’s $7 Billion-dollar tantrum will likely turn into a $20 billion dollar noose before a kilowatt of power ever flows from the Lower Churchill River, if indeed it ever flows at all.

At the time of sanction, we were told that Emera’s generous Maritime Link deal was good for this province because it would ensure access to southern energy markets without having profits hijacked by Hydro Quebec. It was an easy sell to a province that never got over the bad deal on the Upper Churchill. Unfortunately, as the project has progressed and bits and pieces of the truth about Muskrat Falls have been dragged out of politicians, it seems like in our effort to screw Quebec, we sold the farm to Nova Scotia.

The premier came clean in the House of Assembly on March 9th, telling the province that Emera’s share in the Labrador-Island-Link (LIL) had risen from 29% to 59%. Ball was quick to shift the blame to the PC’s saying that "This was not my idea. This was not the idea of anyone on this particular side of the house." While that might be true, it still doesn’t explain why it took a premier who campaigned on openness and transparency 16 months to let the people of the province know that they wouldn’t even own a majority share of the LIL, despite the fact that the ratepayers would be the ones covering the cost overruns. Emera will enjoy an 8.8% return on their investment, with zero extra financial risk to them, and all paid for out of your rising hydro bills.

How could this happen? Well, as the Uncle Gnarley blog has been saying for quite a long time, ratepayers in Nova Scotia were protected by their public utility board, the UARB. The UARB ensured that their stakeholders would get the best deal possible, and even sent Emera back to the bargaining table to make sure that Nova Scotia would get a better deal than the original 20/20 deal signed by Danny Williams. Our own PUB has had no such oversight and has been shrouded in secrecy as far as Muskrat Falls is concerned. As pointed out in this recent Uncle Gnarley post, the PUB didn’t even have the terms reference to look at the Emera deal during their 2012 review.

With Danny’s hand-picked puppet, Andy Wells, at the helm, the PUB has failed to protect Newfoundland and Labrador ratepayers and has not offered any sort of meaningful oversight for the Muskrat project at all. It will be interesting to see if Wells will throw his hat into the ring for St. John’s mayor again this fall. With Dannyland aka Galway nearing its initial opening dates, good King Danny may need a puppet more in City Hall than at the PUB. Now that Dwight Ball and Cathy Bennett have made it quite clear that it will be business as usual at Nalcor, Danny can breath a sigh of relief, and Wells’ work at the PUB is done.

For an $800 Million dollar investment, Emera will earn an annual profit of $70.4 million for at least 50 years. That should finally kill the myth that Dwight and all the premiers before him have perpetuated that there will be profits for NL from Muskrat energy. In case anyone out there is still confused, there will be NO profit from the sale of Muskrat Falls power, other than what the rate payers will be forced to pay each month on their electricity bills. Then Why didn’t the PUB raise any alarms over such a deal? How could they have remained silent and secretive when we were knowingly selling ourselves up the river in the name of getting Muskrat built or bust. Sadly, it looks like even if it does ever get built, it will still be a bust for the people of NL.

So, if we can’t trust Nalcor or government and we can’t trust the PUB, who do the people of NL have to turn to? As good as the PC’s have been in the official opposition role, you will not hear them ask any tough questions about Muskrat for obvious reasons. The NDP have done a fairly good job of asking tough questions, but with such a small caucus their attack is limited and their questions almost always get blown off with spin by the premier and his ministers who know that they only have to be a little long-winded and wait out the clock. Paul Lane has done an admirable job of engaging the public and raising major issues in the media, but with limited resources and no questions in question period, it has been difficult for him to get the government to acknowledge the issues at hand when it comes to Nalcor and Muskrat Falls. The Auditor General is currently investigating Nalcor, but with only a small team and limited resources and no clear mandate from the premier, it could take years just to go through the books, let alone all of the other issues that deserve a look.

Where does that leave us? If people want answers, they will need to stand up and demand them. They will need to find a way to force the government into opening up Nalcor and the Muskrat Falls project in particular. While many have been very vocal, many more seem to be perfectly fine with allegations that could possibly include criminal acts, and at the very least the squandering of billions from the provincial treasury. In a recent poll, however, for the first time since it began, more people were against Muskrat Falls than were for it. This proves that people are willing to change their minds, when given a chance to look at the facts.

When Dwight Ball promised openness and accountability for Nalcor, people expected more than just asking their buddies at EY to do an expensive study on the cost. Why hasn’t the premier opened things up and come clean with the people of the province? He is quick to point fingers at the PC’s every chance he gets, but he has the power to reveal the truth about Muskrat and he refuses to do so. Why? By opening it up and showing the people the truth of the extent that we will be burdened by Muskrat Falls, they might even be able to earn enough credibility to keep a couple of seats in 2019. Instead, they have decided to keep us all in the dark and stay the course set by the previous administration that they are always so quick to blame.

By now it seems common knowledge that Dwight and Co. do not consider honesty and integrity to be part of their job description. They are fully committed to the spin and no matter how many times they say that they inherited the project, they can’t deny that they have failed to take any meaningful action on the file since they took over the reins. If they can lie or stay silent on things that are so obvious to so many, it leaves people scratching their heads and wonder what else they might be hiding. It’s time for the people to demand that the premier come clean.


Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Funeral March

The Funeral March

By: Ryan Young

When Education and Early Childhood Development Minister, Dale Kirby, publicly stated that any teacher cuts in this year’s budget would be made “over my dead body,” most people rolled their eyes at the ministers attempt to make it appear like he was finally ready to stand up for the children of Newfoundland and Labrador. The very next day, we learned that Mr. Kirby was already backtracking on that statement, and what he actually meant was that there would be no change to the teacher allocation formula, but that there was still a possibility of more job losses for teachers.

Of course, Kirby was not literally talking about his own dead body, he was talking about the death of his career. As a long -time advocate for education, Dale Kirby became known for being stubborn and voters had assumed that after four years on the opposition side criticizing education policies, that he would be a good man to get our system back on track. Nobody could have predicted that Kirby would quickly cut education in this province to the bone, a term that was a favourite of his when in opposition. He is already feeling the heat, and he knows that further cuts to education will certainly hasten the end of his time in our House of Assembly.

Nothing was spared in education last spring. Teacher cuts, busing cuts, library cuts, and child care cuts were all offered up as part of Cathy’s directive to trim 30% from each budget. The provincial child care budget alone took a 16% cut in funding, just months after Kirby had ridiculed former minister Clyde Jackman at a public child care forum where he promised investment, not cuts. I’m sure that everyone understands that the province is in a tough place, but when you make a career out of advocating for better education and then when you finally have the chance to make a difference, your first act is to make dramatic cuts, people are going to question your credibility. Kirby has continued to defend his actions by blaming the opposition whenever a serious question is asked of him and has refused to take responsibility for any actions or comments he has made. All of this has elevated him to the same level of disdain that people have for the premier and the finance minister.

If you read my last post, you would know that credibility is a big problem for our government. With the House of Assembly open again, the Liberals have continued to dodge questions and dance around the issues, all the while pointing the finger of blame back at the opposition side every single time a serious issue is raised. Dwight Ball continues to throw his own credibility under the bus by maintaining his Ed Martin story, and Cathy Bennett maintains that her fiduciary responsibility to Nalcor, a crown company owned by the people, trumps her responsibility to protect the people of the province by providing pertinent information to government about the corporation. If that was indeed the case legally, then why was Bennett ever appointed as a minister in the first place? How can we have a finance minister that stated publicly that her first responsibility is to the Nalcor board and not the people of this province that she was elected to represent?

Politics is a world built on trust. You don’t always have to make the most popular decisions, as long as the people feel that you are being honest with them. Governments in this province and elsewhere have quite often been able to get themselves out of trouble by coming clean with the people and providing a clear plan of action. For this government, it seems to be more about duck and cover and one-way communication. Trust does not seem to be a matter of concern as the tendency has been to not be honest until evidence is presented that forces them to acknowledge the truth. Even when faced with blatant facts, such as in the recent Auditor General’s report into Ed Martin’s severance, they continue to go with their own story, despite the fact that everyone in the province knows that they are not being honest.

Trust is something that when broken, is very hard to get back. Most governments realize this, and work very hard to ensure that those values shine through in their interaction with the people. In our case, government has failed at every turn to be upfront and honest, or to provide us with a clear plan of what their intentions are. The Way Forward is a lovely document, but one that is very short on details and facts, and even when they make announcements that sound positive, hard facts are always left out in favour of spin and fluff. Even after all of the public outrage and backtracks in the past year, they still can’t manage to come out and have a real conversation with the people about the issues.

Despite the millions spent in communications, it seems like every single time a government member opens their mouth, something comes out wrong. This is a tell-tale sign that the decision makers in this province are not in tune with the wants and the needs of the people of this province. People are tired of the same old political games. They want the real change they were promised and they want their elected officials to listen to them. Kirby’s “over my dead body” quip has been a gold mine for cartoonists, media, and bloggers, but it does raise the issue that there will likely be many “dead bodies” of political careers after the next election. Cue The Funeral March…

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Credibility

Credibility

By: Ryan Young

cred·i·bil·i·ty
noun
the quality of being trusted and believed in.

Our great sage and eminent premier, Dwight Ball, could have saved himself a whole lot of trouble if he had just told the truth last spring. Would anyone really have been that angry if he had told us that his government did not have confidence in Ed Martin’s leadership? Would we have flipped a lid if he told us that the cost of the severance paid to the former Nalcor CEO would be justified by putting the Muskrat Falls project in the hands on a man who actually had a lifetime of experience in building hydro dams? It would have been so easy for the premier to say something along those lines. There still would have been backlash at the amount of the severance, but the whole issue would have quickly faded away and been forgotten. Instead, Ball decided against the easy route and withheld the truth about what he knew and when he knew it, which has led to this issue dragging on for nearly a year.

Let’s start right back from the press conference held on April 20th  2016, when it was announced that Ed Martin was resigning as CEO. The official story was that Martin was leaving because he wanted to spend more time with his grandchildren. The government was more than happy to prop up a make-believe press conference to tell the public that all was well and there was nothing to worry about. It was Ed Martin’s decision all the way. Despite what we were told that day, it is clear from the Auditor Generals report that the “facts” offered by both Martin and Ball on April 20th were not entirely factual after all. Let’s take a quick look at a few points of contention:

Even though both men said that the decision was Martin’s, Terry Paddon concluded as the #2 summary point in his report that “Mr. Martin did not initiate any of the resignation provisions of his Executive Employment Agreement by giving the required notice.” During the April 20th press conference, it was made quite clear that the decision to leave was Martin’s.

Summary point #7 indicates that during a meeting on April 18th, Stan Marshall had agreed to accept the position of Nalcor CEO. Remember that during the press conference on April 20th, Ball said that they had not spoken to any potential replacements for the CEO job.

Point #10 indicates that “Mr. Martin had no intention to voluntarily resign as CEO of Nalcor energy. Again, if Martin had no intention to resign, why did he say that he was retiring?

Point #17 says that the Board Minutes and the Settlement Agreement were constructed in a manner to ensure consistency between what the Board understood to have occurred at the April 19, 2016 meeting and the provisions of the Employment Agreement. The Board understood the Premier had terminated Mr. Martin’s employment and that severance payments would apply.

In Paddon’s own words:

"In the April 19, 2016 meeting, the Premier stated that he could not put the confidence behind public support for Mr. Martin and his team.” "This statement by the Premier was incompatible with the continued employment of Mr. Martin as the CEO of Nalcor."


All discussion of the severance aside, it is very clear from the auditor generals report and past statements by both Martin and Ball, that the real story of Martin’s departure was much different than the one both sides had agreed to give to the media. Martin wanted public support from government and Ball was not willing to provide it. They both agreed that Martin would leave on his own terms and take a little golden handshake on the way out. No harm, no foul. What Ball didn’t realize is that he was walking straight into a set-up and he had no idea that he was about to get his first real taste of political blood-sport. The board never received a formal resignation from Martin, and after the premiers press conference they decided to use that fact to terminate the contract without cause and promptly resign en-masse. Ethical? Certainly not. Legal? Absolutely. This would entitle Martin to receive the maximum severance and ensure that Ball was exposed for not being honest during the April 20th press conference.

Despite the underhandedness of the boards decision, this was a golden opportunity for Ball and the Liberals to shift the focus away from themselves and onto the Nalcor board and the PC’s. Ball could have capitalized on the board decision and taken the whole severance issue out of his own hands and right back into the oppositions lap. Instead he decided to continue to withhold the truth and allowed Paul Davis to preform like a master opposition leader as he grilled the premier on his inconsistent statements. Instead of taking an opportunity to deflect the issue to the other side, Ball allowed Davis to shine during question period and in the media, while he himself continued to shed credibility by refusing to acknowledge the truth that everyone else already knew.

All of this left the premier in a very tough spot. He likely realized that he had gotten himself caught up in a web of spin and half-truths that he really had no business being involved in, and began to search for an easy way out. He first called in the Department of Justice and asked them to investigate the matter. I filed an access to information request for the subsequent report, but my request was denied. After justice had concluded their investigation the matter was then turned over to the Auditor General to determine if the severance paid out to Martin was appropriate. Unfortunately, the terms of reference for the AG were very narrow, and only dealt with the appropriateness of the severance. He was never asked to investigate why there were so many inconsistencies between the official story offered by the government and the information that came out after the fact.

The problem with not being honest, especially for a politician, is that once you get caught up, the only way out is to keep up the lie. Even after the Auditor General’s report made it very clear that Ball knew more than he said he knew, the premier continues to stick with the story that Martin resigned. When speaking with media yesterday, Ball continued his line that Martin left voluntarily, despite the information provided in the AG report. Even though he would not come right out and say it, his words indicated that he did not accept Paddon’s conclusion that Martin’s departure as CEO was constructive dismissal.

Paul Davis quickly jumped on Ball for continuing to call Martin’s departure voluntary. He says that with that claim, the premier is rejecting the Auditor General’s findings. It seems that even after a report that let him off easy, the premier is unwilling to acknowledge any error on his or his governments part and continues to stay the course, even in the face of overwhelming evidence against his case.

The issue for most people was never the appropriateness of the severance package. We all knew that even though it smelled really bad, Martin was likely legally entitled to it if he was indeed terminated without cause. The real issue for most of us is: why was the premier not honest with us?

Let’s be very clear. The severance package and the termination were not Dwight Balls doing. It was entirely the work of Martin and the Nalcor board in response to the scathing words from Cathy Bennett during her budget speech last spring. Ball had several opportunities to wash his hands of the matter and let the folks on the board who orchestrated the entire fiasco take responsibility. Instead, nice guy Dwight decided to protect those who would drive the knife in his back, even at the expense of his political credibility.

Credibility. That is the word that really is at the heart of this story. When your political leaders fail to be honest, they lose their credibility. This is especially true when it is so blatantly obvious that Ball didn’t have to lie. He was the victim in the story and he had nothing to hide. The set up was so obvious that he only had to be honest and let the blame fall at someone else’s feet. All he had to do was let the public know the truth and let the chips fall as they may. His choice to deliberately mislead us has led to a total lack of trust for the government, and himself as premier. When you lie to the people about the little things, they can’t help but assume that you will lie about the big things as well.

Dwight Ball is hoping that the Auditor General’s report will make this story go away, but I have a feeling he is going to be in for a rough ride when the House of Assembly opens next week. You can bet that both opposition parties are already sharpening the knives and will be ready to take a stab at Ball over this issue every chance they get. It makes me wonder how long Ball will continue to stick to his story, even in the face of mounting evidence against it. We all know how quickly things can go downhill when a politician loses credibility in NL…

You can read the Auditor General's report here:

http://www.ag.gov.nl.ca/ag/special/EdMartinReport2017.pdf

Monday, 20 February 2017

Let's Talk About P3's

Let's Talk About P3's

By: Ryan Young

Dwight Ball and his Liberal government recently made two announcements regarding the construction of new healthcare facilities in western Newfoundland, to be built and operated through public-private-partnerships (P3’s). While many are happy with the announcements, and the prospect of brand new facilities, others are not so sure, and have cast skepticism on both P3’s, and Ball’s ability to get the deals done in a way that benefits the province and not the private business owners.

At the heart of the matter are a new 164 bed, acute care hospital and 120 bed long-term care facility in Corner Brook. Both facilities will be built at the same location and will offer a much-needed upgrade from the current 217 bed Western Memorial Regional Hospital. Having lived in Corner Brook, I can personally vouch for the poor condition of the existing hospital, and it is no secret that we need more long-term care beds to serve an aging population. The infrastructure is badly needed, but the question must be asked: is the P3 model right for Newfoundland and Labrador?

There has been much discussion from several different sides on the merits of P3’s. Proponents claim that it is a great option to save the government money and provide essential services without all of the up-front capital costs. The labour movement claims that P3’s will take away good paying public-sector jobs, decrease the quality of service, and cost the government more money in the long run. And then there are the people who depend on the facilities who just want to see the new hospital and long-term care center built, no matter what model the government decides to use.

In the most recent announcement regarding the new Corner Brook Hospital, Premier Ball claimed that the province would save 7% on the cost of the project using a P3 model. No specifics were given on the estimated cost of the contract, nor were any details given on where the 7% figure came from. How can you claim to be saving 7% when you don’t even yet know the cost of the contract? Unless, of course, the deal is already done, and pushing through the public eye is just an unfortunate hurdle that needs to be cleared. As has become the norm, the government has failed to properly communicate the details of their plan, and people are once again left scratching their heads and wondering what it all means.

When I started digging a little deeper into P3’s in Canada, things began to get murky. Organizations like the PPP Council, P3 Canada, and our own NL Employers Council claim that with aging populations, higher debt loads, and less federal funding for provincial governments, P3’s offer a sensible alternative that can enable the construction and operation of facilities and services that might not otherwise be able to fit in the budget constraints of governments. The major selling points are that governments do not pay for the assets until they are fully operational, contracts are paid out long-term and include provisions for proper maintenance and quality of service, and that the lifetime costs of the assets are known in advance, ensuring that the taxpayers are not left on the hook for surprise overruns.

Flipping the other side of the coin, it is easy to find evidence where the claims above have not exactly panned out. One of the terms that keeps coming up in various studies and reports was “value for money.” Policy documents supporting P3’s often showcase them as the best value for money for governments. That claim has been disputed by evidence from reports from across the country. In 2014 the Auditor General of Ontario that showed that 74 P3’s in Ontario will cost the government over $8 Billion more than the traditional procurement route. In British Columbia in 2014, their Auditor General also concluded that the province will pay a higher cost on P3 projects than if they had been procured through the public sector. Auditor Generals in Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan have issued reports regarding higher costs to governments when using the P3 model.

In Nova Scotia, in particular, the Auditor General reported that no credible evidence was provided that P3 schemes would save money, so they had no choice but to conclude that the decision to use P3’s was an attempt to hide debt. They also noted that no resources were allocated to monitor the construction and operation of P3 schools in the province.

So where does that all leave us? While there are many examples of where P3’s cost more money and were plagued with delays and problems, many others have been completed on time and on budget and have been providing acceptable levels of quality service. While the long-term costs of these more successful projects will take time to become known, they suggest that it is possible to use the model in a positive way that can be a benefit instead of an extra burden.

That brings me to the concerns people have about this government being able to do a good deal for us and not just sweeten the pot for their business friends. Everyone knows the Liberals are desperate to get these deals done and hopefully raise their profile a bit before the next election, but will their desperation and haste lead to another bad deal for the province? It is certainly hard to make a judgement on that as we don’t really have any facts at all about the project and what any of the potential costs might be. As much as Ball and the Liberals promised to deliver openness and transparency, they are once again making plans in secret, with the public not privy to any of the numbers.

I personally think that there is a place for P3’s in this province based on our current fiscal situation and the advances in technology and the internet, but I’m not entirely convinced that they should be utilized for essential services such as health care. The evidence that we currently have before us does not support the case that they will save money or improve services. Maybe government has information that shows exactly that, but they sure are not sharing it with us.

Maybe the simple fact of the matter is that this in the ONLY way that these facilities will be able to be built right now. If that is the case, the premier should just be honest with the people and level with us on how it has to be. Instead of selling us on imaginary 7% savings and giving assurances that this is the best way to go, just tell us that the province is broke and if we want shiny new facilities, this is the only choice we have. People may not like it, but I guarantee that many more would respect the decision if they were told the truth. More rhetoric and political spin around this issue wont help anything. What we really need is for Dwight Ball to open his mouth and be honest with the people on why this is the route we are choosing to go. 

Friday, 17 February 2017

Growing Forward

Growing Forward

By: Ryan Young

It’s not often I get to write about positive moves from our government, but I am very happy to do just that when the opportunity arises. After all, if I am going to be quick to criticize the blunders, I also need to highlight the positives that occasionally come our way.

Yesterday, Premier Ball announced that the government will be making 64 000 hectares of crown lands available for agricultural development in 62 areas of interest. Like most announcements made by this government, the details are slim, but no matter which way you look at it, increasing our agricultural capacity is a good thing.

This is a move the industry has been calling on government to make for years, and with the high cost of importing food getting higher all the time, we really need a comprehensive plan to strategically develop this long-neglected sector. This announcement is certainly not that, and neither is the initiative in The Way Forward to increase our food self-sufficiency by at least 20% by 2022. That is a bold target, but one that can easily be achieved by planting up the acres, but planting up the acres wont work unless there is a comprehensive plan to guide the growth of this industry. What we really need is a strategy that fully assesses both the growing potential and the consumer market, and targets resources accordingly. Ideally that would include a mix of traditional farming, along with green-housing and hydroponics.

The Harris Center at Memorial University released a report by A. James Quinlan in 2012 titled: “Building Agricultural Capacity in Newfoundland and Labrador.” The report gives a good overview of the historic levels of agriculture and the sharp decline in the number of farms after Confederation, as well as a number of recommendations on how to improve our capacity.

Some of the major recommendations given in the report include: establishing an agricultural college on the west coast of the island, sponsoring students to study agriculture programs out-of-province until we have an agricultural college, changing the way subsidies are delivered to support more small scale farming, facilitating livestock inspection and slaughtering for small scale producers, and creating a program that will offer business and marketing guidance to small scale producers.

These are some great recommendations and I know that if I took the time to contact the agricultural associations in the province, that I would get even more great ideas to write about. There are lots of ways that we can improve our agricultural capacity, but we need to stop looking for small step solutions and start looking at the bigger picture. No single program is going to solve all of the problems, but if we have a clear idea of exactly what type of growth we would like to see, we can create a series of interconnected programs that work together instead of standing alone. By doing so,  we increase our chances of stimulating some real growth in this sector.

Developing a partnership with a place like UPEI might be a great start to adding some new, highly skilled farmers to our local workforce. Eventually we would be able to do the training ourselves, perhaps as an offshoot of Grenfell College or maybe in a place like the Codroy Valley. If we are going to get serious about expanding this industry, we need to be able to support it with a qualified workforce.

We can hope that the government will continue to invest in agriculture and to continue to make even more land available to those who wish to utilize it, especially for new participants to the industry. Agriculture really is one of the few industries where we have a huge potential for growth, if managed correctly. So far, the Liberals seem to be listening to what they are being told by the people who know the industry the best, and if that continues we might very well see some positive growth in the near future. In order for that to happen, a real plan will be needed. In the meantime, lets enjoy a small step in the right direction for a change.

You can link to the Harris Center report here:

https://www.mun.ca/harriscentre/reports/arf/2011/11-SPHCSRF-Final-Quinlan.pdf