Wednesday, 30 November 2016

A Year to Forget

A Year to Forget

By: Ryan Young

It’s hard to imagine that it has only been a year since Dwight Ball’s Liberal Party took the reigns of government in this province. After more than a decade of Tory rule, people were eager for a change. The Liberal 5-Point Plan that served as their 2015 election platform was very specific, as were the promises that Ball repeated day after day on the campaign trail. Unfortunately, it quickly became evident that things would be par for the course under Ball’s leadership, and he wasted little time in beginning to break his promises. As far as the residents of the province are concerned it is just Liberal, Tory, same old story.

One of Ball’s most enthusiastic campaign promises was to repeal the 2% increase to the HST. Ball crossed the province telling people that the HST was a job killer and that a Liberal government would eliminate the unfair Tory tax increase. Ball did in fact keep his promise to repeal the increase shortly after taking office, but that only lasted until the budget speech, when the 2% increase was reinstated, making the whole effort to repeal it in the first place a colossal waste of time, money, and resources. The premier and finance minister claimed that they had no idea how bad the financial situation of the problem really was. Many people are skeptical of that answer, but it has started to make more sense when you consider the many other decisions they have made since. Maybe they really are that stun’d that they couldn’t see the forest for the trees, even if every engaged citizen in the province knew that we were in a tougher spot than the PC’s were letting on. When you consider everything that has happened over the past year, stun’d certainly seems to fit.

There was absolutely no need for the Liberal’s to make so many outstanding promises that they knew they would not be able to keep. The electorate was so fed-up with the PC Party that the Liberal’s could have ran on a very thin platform and still would have cruised to an easy majority. Somehow, Ball and the campaign team thought that it would be a good idea to promise the province the moon, knowing all well that they would have to make tough decisions in the days ahead. I’m sure that Dwight thought that he could follow the Clyde Wells model and get the tough stuff out of the way early on and hope that people will forget by the end of four years. What I don’t think he or anyone else in government realized is that the political landscape has changed since the 1990’s. The internet and social media have changed the way we talk about politics, and leaders are no longer able to hide behind the mainstream media. People are more engaged than ever before and they want real change and not just more platitudes with no action.

That brings us up to the disaster that was Budget 2016. With all of the promises in the 5-Point Plan, there was very little to prepare people for the extreme measures that were presented by Cathy Bennett during her first budget speech. We all knew that the government would need to take some action, but for most people, Budget 2016 was just too much too fast. People reacted, and the government was caught off guard by unprecedented protests against the budget all across the province. The public pressure caused the Liberal’s to backtrack on several decisions, and people are still actively protesting the government and demanding that they listen to the concerns of the people.

Things got really heated over the #MakeMuskratRight protests, and the government again found themselves mired in controversy. With the premier out of the country, emotions raged and the camp at the Muskrat Falls camp was ultimately occupied by fed-up Labrador residents who wanted their voices heard. After a marathon twelve hour meeting with indigenous leaders, Ball went out of his way to say that the protests played no part in the agreement that they had reached. Many saw this as another kick in the face and an example of how foolish Ball can be when he opens his mouth. The Muskrat Falls issue is far from over, and Ball, as the minister responsible for Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs, would be wise to make more than the four trips that he made to Labrador last year to talk about the issues.

As the old saying goes, the proof is in the pudding and we are seeing the effects of Budget 2016 all around us. Long-established businesses are closing, bankruptcies are up, housing starts are down, and unemployment is expected to hit a staggering 20% by the end of the current governing term. The biggest problem of all is that this government has not given us any indication that they have the slightest clue of how to get things under control. The Way Forward document is big on expectations but very thin on the details on how we will reach the very lofty targets that are outlined in its pages. There is no solid plan to address government spending and people have lost confidence that this government has what it takes to get the job done.

It has certainly been an eventful year and I am sure that Ball and Company are hoping that the next year will be a little smoother. Unfortunately for them, there is a large segment of the population that will be working hard to make sure that does not happen.The government has backed away from many of their controversial policy decisions and seem to be willing to fly through the next three years by the seat of their collective pants. When asked about what they are going to do, the best they can muster is a weak blaming of the Tories, but sooner or later they are going to have to stop blaming and start governing. 

You can be sure that the people of the province will continue to hold the Liberal's feet to the fire and it will be interesting to see how they will address the issues in the coming year. They don’t seem interested in listening to what stakeholders have to say, and they have proven repeatedly that they are not capable of making sound, long-sighted decisions, despite having had to repeal several of the decisions they made without adequate foresight or consultation. Just look to the levy and the library closures to prove that point.My advice for the future is to buckle up for the ride and get ready for another wild year of back-steps and misfires. I wish I could be more positive, but this rogue has to call it as he sees it. I just hope I will be here writing this time next year, instead of living up-along like so many others who are being forced to leave. Maybe Dwight is getting the Clyde Wells blueprint right after all...

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Do We Need New Legislation for Question Period?

Do We Need New Legislation for Question Period?

By: Ryan Young

Most people don’t bother to watch the proceedings of the House of Assembly. They get highlights of the best exchanges during question period on the news. I envy these people, as they get to bypass the unavoidable rises in blood pressure and eye rolls that come from watching the spectacle on a daily basis.

It was our second premier, Frank Moores, that brought question period into our House of Assembly after his election in 1972. The idea was to bring more openness and transparency into the legislature. Although it did accomplish that goal to some extent, Moores always considered question period a colossal waste of time and avoided it whenever he could.

The idea behind question period is a good one. Opening the government up to questions about legislative issues seems like a no-brainier. It would be except for one thing, there is nothing in the legislation that requires a member to answer a question directly and/or truthfully. In fact, it is considered un-parliamentary to call another member a liar in the House of Assembly, or to question the truthfulness of their answers. Therefore, we often have opposition parties asking the same questions, over and over, but in a slightly different way.

To give you a better idea of what I am talking about, let me quote a couple of exchanges from the first day of the current sitting of the house. Let’s start with an exchange between Opposition House Leader Keith Hutchings and Finance Minister Cathy Bennett.

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Opposition House Leader.

MR. HUTCHINGS: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker, Quebec is receiving $10 billion in equalization while forecasting a $2 billion surplus. Nova Scotia is getting $1.7 billion; yet, Newfoundland is running a deficit and not seeing a penny in equalization.

I ask the Minister of Finance: Have you made any effort to advocate for equalization from the federal government for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador?

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Minister of Finance and President of Treasury Board.

MS. C. BENNETT: Mr. Speaker, I'm very proud to stand in this House of Assembly and speak to the incredible work that our Premier and our colleagues on this side of the House of Assembly have been doing with our federal counterparts – successfully, I might add – to help lighten the burden of the financial situation that we're faced with in our province. 

Recently, there was an announcement of a $2.9 billion enhanced federal loan guarantee which will help reduce the costs associated with the Muskrat Falls Project, Mr. Speaker. In addition to that, we've seen actions that are very broad, including things like removing the tariffs from the boats that were purchased by the former administration without even considering the tariffs on those boats. 

We have been working very hard with our officials and colleagues in Ottawa and we will continue to do that. We will continue to bring back results. 

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. 

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Opposition House Leader. 

MR. HUTCHINGS: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. 

The minister didn't indicate if she was advocating on behalf of Newfoundland and Labrador. All that she referenced in regard to funding from the federal government, we certainly applaud that, but there's a federal program under equalization that we should have access to. 

In her fiscal update, the minister talked – it wasn't a supplementary budget, it was an update. The minister herself acknowledged the unfairness of the current equalization program. 

So, I ask her again: Why are you not talking to the federal government about a fair share of equalization for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians? 

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Minister of Finance and President of Treasury Board. 

MS. C. BENNETT: Mr. Speaker, not only are we advocating, but we're getting results. I just listed a large number of them, including a $2.9 billion loan guarantee that this government has been able to bring to fruition for the people of the province against the Muskrat Falls Project which is a huge success. 

When it comes to equalization, Mr. Speaker, I would remind the Member opposite that the equalization formula as it is implemented today was negotiated and agreed to by the former administration. 

As you can see, Mr. Hutchings asked very direct questions to the minister, but the minister responded in a round-about way that did not even remotely resemble an answer to the questions that he asked. Certainly, the Muskrat Falls loan guarantee is an important issue to discuss in the house, but Mr. Hutchings was asking direct questions about equalization. Unfortunately, this is not a rare incident. In fact, if you look through Hansard for any given day, you will be hard pressed to find an example of a government member directly answering a question from the opposition members.

Another example from question period on the second day of sitting came during an exchange between Opposition critic, David Brazil, and Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, Dale Kirby.

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Member for Conception Bay East – Bell Island.

MR. BRAZIL: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. 

I ask the Minister of Education: What did the review of the library system cost the taxpayers of Newfoundland and Labrador?

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development.

MR. KIRBY: Mr. Speaker, as Members of the House of Assembly will remember, last January all agencies, boards, commissions and departments of government were requested to try and find a certain amount of savings over a number of years. The provincial libraries board, in collaboration with the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, came up with a plan. In fact, they exceeded the goal, some might argue, in terms of finding savings.

There were five proposals that were worked on. There was one that was accepted. That was incorporated into the budget. Following that, there was significant amount of public feedback about the need to have further consultation with the public about those decisions and also there was an interest in having a consultant review the system.

So that's what we did. If I have additional time, I'll continue, Mr. Speaker.

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Member for Conception Bay East – Bell Island.

MR. BRAZIL: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. 

The minister didn't answer, so I'll answer it for him. It was $187,000 for the contract, but that didn't include travel, it didn't include taxes, associated fees, stakeholder agreements and third-party surveys.

So can the minister tell me – I'm assuming a quarter of a million dollars to this point – exactly what it cost the taxpayers of Newfoundland and Labrador to have consultations around libraries after you determined that you were going to cut 54 of those in this province? 

SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development. 

MR. KIRBY: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. 

I appreciate the opportunity to continue. I don't know why the Member is asking me questions if he thinks he already knows the answer to them. 

After we listened to what people had to say, the feedback that they had provided, we used the consultant that was basically the agency of record to go out and do some work. It was a major undertaking that was done. There were 10 consultations that were held around the province; two in St. John's. Those concluded on November 8. 

There was a significant amount of opportunity for people to provide feedback. There was also an online form that people could provide feedback through. There was also a survey that people could provide feedback to. All that feedback is now going to be included into a final report, Mr. Speaker.

Again, we see a minister twice asked a direct question, and both times the minister talked around the issue without actually answering the question. Mr. Brazil asked for an exact cost to taxpayers for library consultations and Kirby just plain ignored the question and responded in the usual round-about manner. He didn’t answer the question. How can this be considered to be providing the people with an open and transparent account of governments activities? Is it any wonder that Moores called it a waste of time? Is it any wonder that Opposition Leader, Paul Davis asked almost 40 questions about Labrador hydro  developments in 3 days last week, trying to get a clear answer to his questions? I’m not saying that the opposition does not put forth some dumb questions from time to time, but it seems that you can ask until your face turns blue, but nobody is going to give an answer.

So, what can we do to make it better? We need to find a way to hold members of government accountable to the spirit of openness and transparency that question period was supposed to provide. I am not exactly sure what it would look like, but there must be a way to make our elected officials answer a damn question. It is a sad state of affairs that we even have to consider legislature to force politicians to answer questions, especially when they run their election campaigns on openness and transparency. It should be the foremost thing on the minds of every elected member. Unfortunately, as you can see from the examples above, this is not the case.

If our elected officials are not willing to be open and honest with us, then maybe we do need legislation to force them. People have grown tired of endless government spin and they want real answers for a change. The Liberals are not alone; this has been going on ever since Moores brought in Question Period more than 40 years ago. The difference is that people are more informed nowadays, and they don’t have to rely on the word of the premier or one of his ministers. They can find the information for themselves and bring it to the public eye. This is a very important change that politicians have not seemed to figure out yet, but they will learn the hard way. The people have made it clear that they are tired of business as usual, and as they say; the truth will always come out in the end.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

School Board Elections & Why You Should Vote

School Board Elections & Why You Should Vote

By: Ryan Young

Elections for school board trustees are happening all across the province today, with 50 candidates running for 17 positions on the NL English School Board and an additional 12 candidates running for 8 positions on the French board (CFSP). For the past number of years, school board trustees have been appointed instead of elected, and today’s elections mark the culmination of the Liberals, and Dale Kirby’s promise to hold trustee elections within a year of gaining power.

There has been some criticism of the amount of promotion and engagement done by the department and the school board to prepare the public for the elections. NDP critic, Lorraine Michael, has raised the issue of the website being too confusing and of the lack of direct information to voters on who can vote and where. The PC’s have also questioned the qualifications of former Liberal candidate Geoff Gallant, who was hired to coordinate the election process, without having to go through the Independent Appointments Commission.

Overall, the controversy may be helping to promote the elections and convince more people to vote. The last time elections were held, 7 years ago, the turnout was a lowly 2.5%. Yesterday, VOCM’s Question of the day asked: “Are you planning to vote in tomorrow’s school board elections?” With over 3000 votes cast, 83% said they would not bother. While certainly not a scientific poll, it is disheartening to see such a lack of interest in the future of our children’s education. Minister Kirby has been very clear that he would like to see turnouts increased, and hopefully, coverage in the media and on the call-in shows will help to convince more people to get out and make an effort to vote.

I was lucky to have had the opportunity to attend a short Q & A with the candidates in my area that are running for Zone 15 trustee. I was very pleased at the quality of the candidates and I feel that my children will be well served by whoever wins the election today. It was also nice to put a face to the names and get an opportunity to ask some follow up questions afterwards. I would have liked to have seen more of this type of engagement from across the province, but regardless, it seems that most zones will have competitive races with quality candidates. This bodes well for the future of our education system as we will have trustees that are elected and accountable to the public, that are also engaged in the conversation about how we can do better for our children and educators.

Education is the very foundation of our province. In order to put us on a better footing, we need to provide better educational outcomes and deliver adequate resources to deal with our ever-changing needs. Yes, money is tight, but when times are tough we need to invest in our future leaders and innovators to carry our province into the next generation. The role of school board trustee is more important than it has ever been, and so is your engagement and your vote. So please take a few moments today to visit your local polling station and cast your vote for a deserving candidate in your zone. Our very future depends on it.

If you don’t know what your zone is, you can find it here:

Get to know your candidates here:

To find out where to vote click here:

Good luck to all candidates and thank you for your effort and your interest!

Thursday, 10 November 2016

The Way Forward

The Way Forward

By: Ryan Young

After nearly two years of being told that the Liberals had a plan and that we were going to like it, Dwight Ball finally released his vision document yesterday. They have still not explained why the creation of this plan required years of cloak and dagger operations, but alas, we have finally been let in on the Liberal’s guiding vision for the future of our province. It might have been a better idea to release this plan in conjunction with the budget last spring, so that we might have been able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and the Liberals have spent the last seven months burning political capital like the Tories burned the oil money. There are some good things in the document, but I fear that even the positive moves that the government has announced will be met with skepticism and cynicism.

The Way Forward’s guiding principles are “We will do better with less,” and “We will collaborate.” The document includes three phases that will guide the outlined goals from consultation to implementation.

Phase one is called “Securing our Footing: The First Six Months.” The document explains that the first phase focuses on rapidly implementing initiatives to reduce spending and support economic growth.

Phase two is called “Realizing our Potential: Six to Eighteen Months.”  We are told that the second phase focuses on actions to reverse negative socio-economic indicators that prevent economic growth and drive up public expenditures.

Phase three is called “Building for our Future: Beyond Eighteen Months.” Government promises that the third phase will focus on creating long-term conditions for growth in the province by investing in the future, including redesigning government services to fit demographics of the future and investing in children and youth.

At the end of each phase a report card will be released to measure progress, and government maintains that its decisions will be evidence-based, measurable, and concrete. The plan also laid out it’s four major objectives which are; a more efficient public sector, a stronger economic foundations, better services, and better outcomes.

The meat of the plan is designed to explain how each of the four objectives will be met within each phase. The language is very government-y (what the heck is a government silo?) and hard to read, but it does outline some clear timelines for many of the key points. In some cases, the only commitment is to do more consultation but there are some good objectives in there if they can achieve them.

Phase one contains the majority of initiatives and goals and starts by outlining the first steps towards a more efficient public sector. It looks at things like reducing the government footprint by reducing office space, adopting a leaner management structure, and reducing silos in government operations. What that actually means is that they will attempt to govern based on a broad approach with collaboration within departments instead of our current system of stand alone departments that do not communicate well. If they can accomplish that in any form at all it will be a positive move. As part of the plan to reduce these silos, government agencies, boards, and commissions will be cut by 20%, a new unified transportation assistance program will be implemented, and marketing and engineering services will be consolidated instead of being spread across all departments. It will also look at reducing red tape, utilizing zero-based budgeting, and procuring the Corner Brook Long-Term Care Facility.

To tackle a stronger economic footing in phase one, the government will enhance access to crown lands, increase immigration by 50% by 2022, double resident and non-resident spending by 2020, develop a provincial tourism product development plan, facilitate a transition to ground fish, and introduce a new procurement act. These are lofty goals and without any real details, it is hard to imagine that some of these are realistic targets. I spent over a decade working in the tourism industry and if the government plans to double our tourism spending it will need to do much more than invest in marketing campaigns and throw money at existing operators. Things like training, insurance, and co-operative marketing initiatives will all need to be addressed to facilitate such a large increase in spending in just a few short years. I will remain optimistic that they can reach these goals but I am not sold that they can pull it off. The language is also tricky as it plans to double 2009 spending, not 2016 spending.

The next part moves on to achieving better services. It discusses establishing a major investment projects unit, a multi year infrastructure plan, improvements to provincial roads, a marine infrastructure plan, advancing regional collaboration, a review of the NL Housing Corporation, designation of industry facilitators for natural resources, and positioning NL as a globally preferred location for oil and gas development. Again, all of these are great sounding initiatives but there are few details to explain how the desired outcomes will be achieved and how they will improve intergovernmental communication to ensure that the aforementioned silos are reduced.

The final part of phase one focuses on better outcomes. It is no secret that we have an outcomes problem in this province and it is important that the government says that it is willing to create and fund programs based on the achievement of these outcomes. In an attempt to repair the division between the island and Labrador that is happening right now, the document promises to establish a leader’s roundtable with indigenous governments and organizations. It also promises a Health-in-all-Policies approach that will consider health effects during the creation and/or revision of policy. It also promises to respond to the recommendations of the All-Party Committee on Mental Health and Addictions, modernize the College of the North Atlantic, increase collaboration between CAN and MUN, and proceed with the Premier’s Taskforce on Improving Educational Outcomes.
As you can see the government has bitten off quite a bit for the first six months of its plan. As much as they have worked hard to get the right things down on paper, without a clear implementation plan for each part, it is hard to imagine that they will be able to deliver on all of these objectives in the timeframes allotted and it will be important that people keep them accountable to these timelines.

The next part of the document moves on to phase two that covers from six to eighteen months. The focus of this second phase is to undertake action to reverse negative social and economic indicators that are preventing economic growth and driving up public expenditures. Concrete steps will be announced with the report card on our Government’s progress on phase one of The Way Forward.

The second phase looks at creating a more efficient public sector by strategically leveraging federal funding, supporting innovative work solutions, and implementing more effective business financing. To improve our economic footing, they promise to; release a business innovation agenda, increase the number of social enterprises, introduction of a status of the artist act, increase revenues through international education, increase mining activity, and support growth in the aquaculture industry. Again, these all sound like very good initiatives on paper but the proof will come in the implementation plan that will put these ideas into reality.

To achieve better services and better outcomes in phase two, the plan discusses; improving community support services, implementation of an individualized funding model, and one window, multi-year community grants. They also plan to expand primary health care teams, implement healthy living initiatives, implement child health risk assessments for school-aged children, implement healthy living assessments for seniors, streamline financial assessment process for community support services and long-term care, implement responsive justice and public safety measures, provide increased educational support to disengaged and at-risk students and youth, improve the performance of child protection services, advance and finalize land claims and self-government agreements, and release a climate change action plan.

The final part of the document, phase three, focuses on measuring progress beyond eighteen months. The description given explains that The Way Forward is a living document. Each year, our Government will announce the actions we will take to help realize our vision. The focus of the third phase of the vision is to create long-term conditions for growth by investing in the future, including redesigning government services to fit demographics of the future and investing in children and youth. In pursuit of these objectives, our Government has set down a variety of long-term goals to establish a stronger economic foundation and achieve better outcomes for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

Phase three promises to measure progress through targets such as:

-By 2022-23, our Government will return to surplus.

-By 2022, Newfoundland and Labrador will have increased its food self-sufficiency to at least 20 per cent. Our province is currently only about ten per cent self-sufficient in its food requirements.

-By 2020, there will be a 20 per cent increase in timber allocations and harvest levels over the previous five-year period.

-By 2018, the water area available for development to support growth of the salmon industry will have increased to 50,000 MT and the mussel industry will have increased to 10,750 MT annually.

-By 2020, Newfoundland and Labrador’s annual tourism spending by residents and non-residents will be double 2009 levels.

-By 2022, immigration to Newfoundland and Labrador will increase by 50 per cent. In 2015, Newfoundland and Labrador welcomed just over 1100 immigrants.

-By 2025, Newfoundland and Labrador’s breastfeeding initiation rate will increase by seven per cent. The current provincial rate is 72.7 per cent, while the national rate is 90 per cent.

-By 2025, Newfoundland and Labrador’s obesity rate will be reduced by five per cent. The current provincial obesity rate is 30.4 per cent, while the national rate is 20.2 per cent.

-By 2025, Newfoundland and Labrador’s smoking rate will be reduced by four per cent. The current provincial smoking rate is 21.7 per cent. This target will bring us to the national rate of 18.1 per cent.

-By 2025, Newfoundland and Labrador will increase our physical activity rate by seven per cent. The current provincial rate of physical activity during leisure is 48.3 per cent. This seven per cent increase will see Newfoundland and Labrador surpass the national rate of 53.7 per cent.

-By 2025, Newfoundland and Labrador residents will increase their rate of vegetable and fruit consumption by five per cent. The current provincial rate is 25.7 per cent, while the national rate is 39 per cent.

It is encouraging to see our government engaging in some lofty goals after keeping us waiting for so long. The Way Forward Plan contains some very good ideas and is capable of being part of the solution on restoring this provinces finances without a drastic reduction in services. While there are certainly some parts of the plan that contain questionable targets, there are many initiatives included that would be very positive for the province. While the document does require some expansion, by all accounts it is a good place for our government to start addressing the major problems we are facing. So, what is the problem?

Governments and political parties are very good at putting positive things on paper, but that does not always translate into policy decisions. This government has not exactly done a very good job of keeping the trust of the people after campaigning on an unrealistic platform that led to them breaking far too many promises when the budget came down last spring. It also abandons several key issues that the Liberals promised to address such as child care, democratic reform, injured workers, and many more. While we should be cautiously optimistic about The Way Forward, many are already rolling their eyes and saying that all we got was another pile of lies from Dwight. I don’t want to be quite as cynical myself. Even a broken clock is right twice a day, and this government is overdue to make some positive decisions. We are all angry with Dwight Ball and his government but we still need to support them when they make positive policy decisions. We have not seen many of those yet, but we have to hope that they are committed to implementing much of this plan in the timeframes they have outlined.

One thing is certain, if the government fails to deliver on The Way Forward they will be nailed to the wall at every opportunity. It was easy to say that something was coming, but now that the document is out the Liberal’s will need to be 100% committed or else face the wrath of the people again. Some of their goals and objectives are questionable and they will need to find ways to deliver on them. I am sure that they left the document vague on purpose, but the people will want details and they will want them soon. There will be no hiding if the government is unable to fulfill the promises that it has made this week. At this point I am going to stay open to the possibilities, while at the same time holding the governments feet to the fire to make sure that they do what they said they would do. Things have changed and many people no longer have the wool over their eyes. Now that we know The Way Forward, they had better make sure we get there.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Is Steve Kent Planning to Make NL Great Again?

Is Steve Kent Planning to Make NL Great Again?

By: Ryan Young

Despite all of the media hype and wishful thinking, the race is over and the bad man has won. There is a lot of shock going around on social media today, with people shaking their heads and asking how this could have happened? I tried my best to avoid this marathon election like the plague. With all of the problems we are facing here in Newfoundland and Labrador, it was hard to justify expending energy on a foreign election that had gone so far off the rails. But should people really be surprised at the result?

It was easy to get caught up in all of the media hype and spin. From emails to assault, there has been no shortage of side shows to distract people from what was really happening among the electorate. None of the pundits seemed able to recognize the growing discontent in America towards the establishment, and the media ignored all but the most hard-core Trump supporters, painting them all as hillbilly “deplorable's.” They failed to take into account how many closet Trump voters were waiting in the wings. These voters decided the election. They didn’t want to be publicly associated with Trump’s “crazy” views, but they were fed up enough with the status quo that they were willing to take a chance on him, rather than deal with another for years of business as usual in Washington.

All throughout the campaign the narrative was about how Trump’s support came from the dark, uneducated underbelly of America. He was endorsed by both the Christian right and the KKK, and he threw a rock into the hornet’s nest of immigration with his stance on Mexicans and Muslims. He was shown to be a racist, a bigot, a sexist, and a man who has no qualms about mocking people with disabilities, yet he was elected without much difficulty at all by a large majority of the American People. His promises to build walls and ban Muslims were met with a sympathetic ear by millions of people, but the truth lies in the demographic numbers. Despite the claims about the identity of his support base, Trump was able to carry 52% of educated white men and 30% of women voters. This is a clear indication that there is something very wrong with the US political system and people wanted change, no matter how crude that change might be. For many voters, anything was better than the status quo. This should be a wake-up call to political leaders everywhere, that people are waking up and they want the power back.

What effects this election may have on Newfoundland and Labrador are yet to be seen. Trump’s promises to break down free trade deals are met with conflicting views. Some believe it could be a great thing for our economy, while others caution that it would be regressive. We will have to wait and see how things play out policy-wise, but we have certainly witnessed a further awakening of our own political extreme right with the rise of Donald Trump. Many people in this province are also fed up with the establishment and the status quo. We keep changing back from red to blue but nothing really seems to improve for the people. Even though most local pundits would not admit it, there has been quite a political awakening in this province in the past year, and people here are ready for real change. Plenty of people agree with Trump’s views on things like immigration and it is not that unbelievable to think that we might find ourselves with a similar personality running for leadership before long.

One interesting thing of note on the twitter feed on election night was PC MHA, and leadership hopeful, Steve Kent. Kent posted, and then quickly deleted a photo of him wearing a Trump “Make America Great Again” hat. He didn’t delete it before someone grabbed a screenshot, however, and the image was shared widely on twitter. With his recent support for federal Conservative Party leadership candidate, Kellie Leitch and her “Canadian Values” platform, we must wonder where Mr. Kent stands on the political spectrum. Many in the PC party have been hoping for a return to traditional conservative values and maybe Kent is getting ready to play that role in the hopes that he will become the next premier.

Let’s face it, as much as people hate to admit it, much of the Trump-style rhetoric would go over very well with a large segment of NL voters, especially conservatives. Is it too much of a leap to think that Kent’s far right leanings in recent months could be an indication of the path he intends to take to the eighth floor of Confederation Building? The PC’s are convinced that their time in opposition is no more than a four-year sabbatical until they are ushered back in to fix all the blunders made by the dastardly Liberals. As far as they are concerned they will have little opposition in reclaiming the throne in 2019, but Kent knows that to become premier with his baggage, he will need to change the narrative.

Now I am certainly not saying that Steve Kent is any of the things that Donald Trump has been accused of being. I have never heard him use racist, sexist, or bigoted words during his time as an MHA and I certainly have no reason to believe that he is anything but a good, hard-working public servant. But if Kent does not hold the same type of conservative values as Trump and Leitch, then why the support? Why would you venture out into that political wilderness? Steve Kent may be a lot of things, but stupid is not one of them. He says that he supports Leitch because she is his friend, but I think there is more to the story than that. During the last federal election, we endured former Prime Minister Stephen Harper telling the country that it was okay to be racist towards your neighbors, and even though he lost, the conservative base that resonated with that message was strong. The siren song of legal marijuana was just stronger, allowing the Liberals to get out the youth vote that put them over the top. The federal Conservative strategy was well thought out, and they proved that millions of Canadians were willing to vote for the Leitch style of Canadian Values.

With Newfoundland in so much political turmoil, the PC’s are looking for something to turn the tide in their favor. Despite the plummeting Liberal polling numbers, the Tories have been unable to capitalize on public discontent, and their own numbers have remained very low. They are still seen as out of touch and people have not forgotten the mess they left behind when they were given the boot last fall.  Any logical thinking conservative would be well aware of how well the values game went for Harper, and with the election of Donald Trump, the timing may be perfect for that type of extreme right leader to swoop in and be the pied piper that NL voters are always waiting for.

If this is indeed the road that Steve Kent is planning to go down, it will be a bitter pill to swallow for Newfoundland and Labrador. We are in the midst of a unity crisis right now as it is, even though most people don’t realize it. If we get a party leader that is willing to stir up that same dark underbelly of our province to further his or her own political fortunes, it could very well do irreparable damage to our social fabric. What we need is a leader that can unite us. Further division will be our downfall. Would our province vote for a Canadian Values style campaign? I don’t know, but people are so angry at the Liberals right now that even those who don’t support those values might be willing to vote blue, just to get rid of the red boogeyman.

I have no idea what Steve Kent’s intentions are, but when it comes time for the PC party to pick a new leader, I hope that people will ask him what his support for both Donald Trump and Kellie Leitch means. What are the values that Mr. Kent intends to bring to Newfoundland and Labrador if he is given the premier’s chair? Political strategy is one thing, but if Kent is planning on dragging our province down the same road that Donald Trump just dragged the US down, we should know about it.  

There are many problems in this province right now and we need a party and a leader that can unite us. We can’t afford the divisional politics that have dominated the political landscape of North America for the past couple of years. As tempting as it is to follow down this proven political path, it will be up to us to keep our potential leaders in check and remind them of what real Newfoundland Values are. Kindness, generosity, and the ability to work together to get things done are the traits that have guided the people of this province for five hundred years. Maybe it is time that we flipped the narrative back on its head to start applying these values to our politics, instead of preying on fear and uncertainty and always pointing the finger of blame. So, instead of taking the easy political road, let’s leave the politics of fear and hate behind and start working together to build a united Newfoundland and Labrador that will work for everyone. What are we waiting for?

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

PEI Picks Proportional Representation

PEI Picks Proportional Representation

By: Ryan Young

While most people were gearing up for the last day of the marathon Clinton/Trump campaign in the United States, the real local political nerds and junkies were following the results of a plebiscite happening on Prince Edward Island. Islanders were asked to choose between keeping the current First Past the Post electoral system or changing to a form of Proportional Representation (PR).
The PR options on the ballot included Mixed-Member Proportional Representation (MMR or MMPR), Dual Member Proportional Representation (DMPR), Preferential Voting (PV), and a hybrid system called First Past the Post + Leaders (FPTP+). For a detailed explanation of how each system works you can visit the elections PEI website for detailed information and videos on each system on the ballot.

In an effort to do a better job of engaging the electorate, voters were given the option of voting in-person, online, or via telephone. Despite these updated voting methods, the turnout for the vote was a dismal 36%. The vote was done using Preferential Voting with Mixed-Member beating out First Past the Post in the final round of voting with 52%.

The government so far has been non-committal. Premier Wade MacLauchlan has publicly stated that he does not support PR and referenced the low-turnout numbers in a short statement to media. He has promised that his caucus will discuss the issue today and issue a statement shortly after. If the government accepts the results of the plebiscite, PEI will become the first province in Canada to use a form of Proportional Representation to elect their provincial leaders. Islanders are due for another provincial election in 2015, just before our own provincial election and the next federal election. Many questions are still swirling about Prime Minister Trudeau’s promise to move Canada away from the First Past the Post system, but the vote in PEI is a great first start to changing the way we elect our leaders.

There does not seem to be much interest in electoral reform from our own government, but many people are working behind the scenes to develop an action plan to start moving the idea forward in NL. It is no secret that our democracy is badly damaged and needs a complete overhaul. The writing has been on the wall for a long time. People in this province are not always the most receptive people when it comes to change, so we need to do a good job of explaining what is wrong with our current system and what options are best for NL to consider moving forward.

Making every vote count is something that should be a no-brainer, but governments are often reluctant to relinquish their own strangleholds on power for the greater good of all. All over the world, PR has been proven to improve cooperation between political parties and it is long past time that we looked at ways of getting rid of our own antiquated system.

Hopefully, the Prime Minister will follow through on his promise. If he does it will put pressure on the provinces to follow suit. In the meantime, we need to let our own government know that we want change, and offer some realistic solutions on how we can make it happen. The time for electoral reform has come and we must embrace it. In the meantime PEI should be a great case study to follow.

Monday, 7 November 2016

#Hashtag Governing

#Hashtag Governing

By: Ryan Young

Just for clarity, the term “hashtag governing” was coined by VOCM Open Line host, Paddy Daly, a couple of weeks ago, and not by this good rogue. It is a good term though, and I thought it would be a good theme for this post, which has been rolling around in my head for a while. The term cuts straight to the heart of why there are so many negative issues within our provincial government right now, with reactionary policy being created on-the-fly, instead of being based on evidence as we were promised in the Liberal 5-Point Plan.

Now I fully acknowledge that this problem is not unique to the current governing party. King Danny was hard to budge on pretty much any issue, but during the Dunderdale-Marshall-Davis reign, we saw plenty of examples of reactionary policy making. This is why we currently have so many wasteful government programs that have no measurable outcomes. As much as people hate to agree with Dwight these days, he was absolutely right when he said we had an outcomes problem in this province. The problem, as usual, was that there was no real communication to explain that statement, or no facts given to explain what our outcomes problem might be, or what plans they may have to fix it.

A couple of quick examples we can look at are the 10 year child care plan and the provincial population growth strategy. With the child care plan, the former government attempted to address the growing issues of affordability, availability, and quality. An voluntary operating grant was brought in as an attempt to subsidize private owners to provide lower rates for parents. The idea was good in theory, but with no real consultation from the industry and no long-term plan to bring all child care providers on board, they have created a two-tier system for childcare that does not meet the needs of the majority of owners or parents. That money would have been much better spent on parent subsidies, to ensure that parents who need the help the most get it. Under the system that has been created by the operating grant, a parent making $200k a year can take advantage of low parent fees under the operating grant, while parents making under $40k are often forced to pay the full price. By reacting to the problem without doing adequate consultation and looking at all the evidence, millions of dollars are being wasted on an ineffective program that is failing to meet any of its objectives.

In the case of the population growth strategy, the former government moved very quickly to present a plan to the public to deal with our declining population. The plan was released shortly after several media stories and public questions of how the government planned to deal with the issue. The focus of the plan was to attract more immigrants to the province. Now I am all for increasing the number of immigrants, especially those with the specific skill sets that our province requires, but immigration alone will not solve our problems. One of the main issues is that without any large international communities in the province, many immigrants only stay in the province for 3-5 years before moving on to bigger centers. immigrant families also have to deal with the same issues that NL families are struggling with, such as; expensive housing, childcare, transportation and food costs, just to name a few. In order to attract new people to the province, we first need to provide a positive environment to make this an attractive place to move and raise a family. Many families here in NL wish they could have larger families, but feel restricted due to the high expense of raising children. By creating a policy that was designed to attract immigrants, without addressing any of these concerns left us with millions more taxpayer dollars spent in a strategy with no underlying plan or measurable outcomes.

When Dwight talks about our outcomes problem, what he is really saying is that his government is finally realizing how much public money is tied up in programs and strategies that are not working. The tough part for the government is that they have already used up all of their political capital dealing with communication blunders, that any cuts to government programs with earn them a ton of grief, even if the cuts are justified. Finance Minister Cathy Bennett has talked several times about zero-based budgeting. If there is any innovation within the bureaucrats that manage the various departments they should be working hard to develop new programs, based on facts and evidence, to replace the ones that should be eliminated. This would not only start putting more of our money to good use, it would start rebuilding some of the trust that this government has worked so hard to lose.

So far into this mandate, that all seems like wishful thinking. Despite his complete opposition to the operating grant, Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Dale Kirby has not only kept the program in place, but he is trying to expand it by getting more child care centers to sign on. This is causing much division within the industry and owners are wondering why they are not seeing action on this issue, as was promised by Mr. Kirby while he was in opposition. I know first hand that he has received more than enough consultation on the issue to know that changes are needed, but at last check there was talk of even more money being funneled into the program. In Kirby’s defense, he did not create the policy, and he has to work with the very people that created the plan. I can understand how that would make it difficult to make meaningful changes to the policy, but when you have an entire industry telling you that a program is not working, the answer should not be to throw more money at it and hope for the best. Minister Kirby certainly has access to plenty of expertise, and in order to move forward he needs to start listening to those experts instead of the bureaucrats.

At “The Way Forward” event earlier this month, the premier talked about bringing in an additional 500 immigrants a year by 2022, moving from 1100 to 1600 annually. While I commend this initiative, I would like to know more about how they plan to achieve this goal, and if they have considered any of the well-known concerns regarding immigration and raising children that I have outlined above. Without addressing these concerns and moving forward with a clear and direct strategy in place, we are just setting ourselves up for more wasted money on ineffective programs. We need to develop a population strategy that is based on evidence and facts, and target funding to programs that have measurable goals and outcomes.

When the Liberal’s said last fall that they would be facilitating a shift towards evidence-based decision making, many people cheered. The thoughts of political decisions being dictated by facts and science and good fiscal practices after more than a decade of perceived mismanagement was one of the things that lead to such a lopsided election last November. That’s what makes examples of reactionary governing such as Kirby’s library blunder, for example, so hard for the public to forget. We were promised that the decisions would be made based on evidence, not on accounting exercises with the evidence part hastily thrown in (at great expense to the taxpayer) after the fact. The same can be said for the levy, or the courthouse closures, or so many other decisions that this government has made during its short tenure that seem to have thrown the evidence-based approach right out the window.

People are mad at the government and they are mad at the premier, and rightly so. They certainly have plenty of fair and legitimate reasons to gripe. But the simple fact is that we need this government to start making some good decisions that will guide this province back in the right direction. That cannot be done while blaming the PC’s for everything on one hand and then embracing all of their past policy decisions with the other. The people are hungry for change and they are very disappointed that the evidence-based approach to governing that they were promised has been seemingly forgotten. What the premier and his government need to do now is take a deep breath and start over with a zero-based approach for Budget 2017 that will see government funding and support directly related to evidence and research. It may be too late already to start making things right in the public eye, but they at least need to try to find their way back to those guiding principals that they ran on last fall or it is going to be a very long 3 years indeed.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Silent Stan and the Chalillo Boondoggle

Silent Stan and the Chalillo Boondoggle

By: Ryan Young

 “Silent Stan” Marshall, has finally broken his silence. In a lengthy interview with CBC this week, the Nalcor CEO offered his opinions on the recent protests and the potential dangers associated with the Muskrat Falls project. Many people, especially in Labrador, were not happy with his comments, but let’s be perfectly clear; Stan Marshall was never brought in to worry about the concerns of the people of Labrador. Nor was he brought in to address the peoples concerns about methylmercury or the north spur. Stan was brought in for one reason, and one reason only, to get the finances of the project back on track. His experience comes from the boardroom of an energy giant where decisions are made based on profit-margins, not heath or the environment. Stan Marshall has certainly had a long and successful career as a dam builder, but before we question his recent comments, we need to understand his position.

Stan Marshall was brought in to try to get the ballooning cost of the Muskrat Falls mega-project under control, while at the same time restoring the faith of the people in the leadership at Nalcor. He was outspoken against the project in the past, saying that he did not think it was a good idea, and he said he felt it was his duty to help the province get the project back on track. By all accounts he has been doing just that, albeit behind the scenes. Negotiations with Astadli have been ongoing, and yesterday it was announced that the federal government would be providing an additional $2.9 Billion on the loan guarantee. For Stan Marshall, this was never about clearing more soil or opening the north spur analysis to outside scrutiny. It was simply about trying to lessen the overall impact of Muskrat Falls on the provincial treasury.

When Stan Marshall comes out and says that he does not expect that any soil will be cleared from the reservoir, he is saying it from a business perspective. That is what the man knows. Methylmercury is just the cost of doing the dam business. As a CEO, it has never been his job to worry about the relationships between people and governments. It is curious to hear him challenge people to prove that there have been adverse health effects from the Upper Churchill reservoir, when fish consumption advisories have been in place in the area for decades, but that is what the CEO of the company building the dam is expected to say. It’s just the way the world works. We know that the science is very clear on the effects of methylmercury, but since when does science factor in to decisions made at the boardroom level? The only language the people in those positions speak is dollars and cents.

Make no mistake, the reservoir will be flooded to the minimum level in the very near future, no matter what comes of the meetings being held in Labrador this week. Winter is already upon the big land and there is no way that Stan is going to be willing to risk further delay and cost due to ice damage. While he says that he fully supports the agreement between the premier and indigenous leaders, his language makes it quite clear that he does not believe that the protesters concerns are valid and he does not expect to honor any commitment to clear topsoil from the reservoir. This has caused Opposition MHA, Barry Petten, to question if the premier and the CEO of Nalcor are on the same page when it comes to methylmercury concerns. Since Marshalls interview we have not had any comment from the premier.

So, what are we to think? Some in Labrador are already talking about feeling betrayed by Marshall’s comments and many have vowed to stand-up again if the province reneges on its deal. There is much uncertainty in Labrador right now as people are waiting to see what their leaders will say. It would not take much to send people back to the site to shut it down again, and certainly neither Nalcor nor the government wants that to happen. Stan has a job to do, after all.

Trust Stan. That has been the word from the government since Marshall took over as Nalcor CEO last spring. It kind of sounded like the “Trust Ed” kind of talk we were given for years by the previous administration, with the one obvious difference being that Stan actually knows a thing or two about building dams. But did anyone stop to look at Stan’s track record? While much of it is certainly impressive from a business and profit perspective, his record is far from perfect. Remember when he called Muskrat Falls a boondoggle? It was certainly an interesting choice of words to use as Marshall had heard them before. In 2002, environmental lawyer, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., called Fortis’ Chalillo dam project on the Macal River in Belize, “The worst boondoggle I have seen in two decades as an environmental lawyer.”

The Chalillo dam made headlines worldwide for the amount of controversy related to the tiny 7MW project that Fortis was building under its local subsidiary Belize Electricity Limited (BEL).  The area that was flooded contained the only known nesting site in Belize for the rare Scarlet Macaw as well as habitat for endangered jaguars, tapirs, and howler monkeys. Celebrities such as Harrison Ford and Princess Anne raised public concerns about the project and environmentalists and biologists from all over the world condemned the damming of the Macal River.

The whole project was mired in controversy with allegations that there was a cover up by Fortis and engineering firm, AMEC, to suppress data that questioned the feasibility of the dam. In an editorial in 2013, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. goes even further, accusing Fortis of digitally removing visible fault lines from satellite photographs to suppress the local earthquake risk. This information did not come out until after the dam was complete. He also alleges that BEL lied about its claims that it would not harm endangered wildlife habitat, and that it withheld information about methylmercury contamination downstream from another one of its nearby dams. Sound familiar?

On top of all that, BEL promised that the project would not raise electricity rates for local customers, but in 2005, 2 years after the dam went live, electricity rates rose by 25%. A few years later BEL became insolvent and attempted to raise rates again by 25%, threatening to implement rolling blackouts if they were not allowed to charge higher rates. With local electricity rates already double that of neighboring countries, the Government of Belize rejected the idea and in 2011 it decided to expropriate BEL and the Chalillo Dam.

The expropriation of the Chalillo dam led to a long court battle between Fortis and the Government of Belize. It was ultimately settled in 2015 with the government having to pay Fortis $35 Million US dollars and return a 33% stake in the company. This settlement came not long after Barry Perry had taken over as CEO after Marshall’s retirement. Marshall was not willing to let the government off so easy and had been holding out for a $300 Million payment, plus damages. Since the takeover, however, BEL has been stabilized and electricity rates have been reduced to a new modern low. The government has worked closely with its partners to restructure the company back onto a sound footing.

Now, what can we take away from the Chalillo story? It certainly highlights how a corporation can be willing to bend the facts and do what it takes to make sure that pet projects see the light of day. The withholding of information and misleading of the public and the government that was witnessed in Belize sounds eerily familiar to the situation here with Nalcor. When you start to look at it from that angle, it is easy to see why Stan Marshall was the right man for the job. Stan is a man who gets things done. He doesn’t worry about pesky protesters or governments with cold feet. Stan was given a job to do and he fully intends to do it. It has been made quite clear that the project will not be stopped, and all Stan is worried about now is getting the project finished by 2020, without topping out over $15 Billion. This was what he was hired to do.

So, as much as we all want to hate on Stan Marshall right now, try to remember that the man is only doing the job he was asked to do. The real culprit is the government, who tried to sell us on the fact that one man could somehow come in and make this project magically right. The government does not care about the protesters anymore than Stan does, but they don’t have the will to face the people and say it. That is why the ball was put in Marshall’s court this week and Dwight has been silent again. They might have been wise to keep Stan’s muzzle on until next week when the flooding is done and the amount of damage that could be done by another occupation of the camp would be minimized. People in Labrador were already skeptical, and Marshall has only added fuel to the fire. But Stan knows that he was not put there to answer to the people of Labrador, he was put there to get this project done. The CEO and the Board of Directors may have changed, but it is still business as usual at Nalcor. Until government is willing to take a real stand and bring some transparency back to the company through an independent audit and a real hard look at the science and economics of Muskrat Falls don’t expect anything to change soon, or at all. Full steam ahead.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Egos in Education

Egos in Education

By: Ryan Young

Is there a portfolio in the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador that is off to as bad a start as Education and Early Childhood Development? There are certainly some close challengers, but the repeated failings of the D-of-EDU under its new minister, Dale Kirby, has earned a place of distinction as the worst of the worst. This should be troubling to many, and not just parents, teachers, and administrators. As the old saying goes, a person without education is like a building without a foundation, and our foundations are being torn apart from the inside. In our current time of economic crisis, we need to be making investments in education, but instead we have seen nothing but cuts and bad accounting decisions. As if that was not bad enough, we have a minister with skin like parchment paper, who refuses to engage in any meaningful way with anyone who dares to question his decisions. Instead of offering us facts and evidence, Mr. Kirby has continually resorted to personal attacks and the immediate dismissal of serious concerns. At what point does the premier say enough is enough?

Of course, we can’t blame Dale Kirby for all the problems in education, and it would be foolish for us to assume that there would be an easy fix to the many complex problems we are facing. Nobody denies that Minister Kirby and the rest of his colleagues inherited a tough situation, but the people overwhelmingly voted for change and on that front Kirby has fallen short. Everything he has said and done so far as minister has been in direct contrast to everything he said while in opposition. From libraries, to school closures, to school bus safety issues, Minister Kirby continues to contradict his old self at every opportunity. He has certainly come a long way from the vocal protester that demanded better rights and opportunities for students.

Many of my readers will remember my recent departure from the chair position at the Child Care Coalition of NL. Kirby was a big supporter of the coalition while in opposition, and we had a few meaningful discussions shortly after he took office. That all changed with the budget last April, and my vocal opposition to cuts, and pretty soon the cord was cut. After months of being ignored by the minister and department staff, and having to file Access to Information requests for simple budget documents, it became clear that the organization was being ignored because of my vocal opposition to cuts and lack of communication. As much as I didn’t want to leave the position, I felt that my only option was to step down and hope that someone else might be able to re-establish an open line of communication with government.

Soon after, Federation of School Councils President, Peter Whittle, also resigned his position after a very public battle with the minister. NLTA president Jim Dinn has also been very vocal about Kirby’s attitude and lack of communication, and has asked the minister to apologize for undermining the teacher’s union. After hearing comments that the minister had made about Mr. Whittle, Mr. Dinn, and the complete dismissal of their legitimate concerns, I realized that I was not alone in my struggle for answers and recognition of real issues. Somewhere along the way it seems that Mr. Kirby has forgotten the role of education minister, and has completely ignored the mandate letter that he was given by the premier when he was sworn in last year.

Not many were surprised then, when the news broke yesterday that the NLTA executive had lost confidence in Minister Kirby, and that they had voted unanimously to ask for his removal from the education portfolio. As Mr. Dinn pointed out, if stakeholders can't have a discussion with government about hard issues relating to schools without resorting to personal attacks, then we have to wonder about their ability to resolve important issues in the education system. When you hear those kinds of words from someone like Mr. Dinn, it makes you step back and wonder how much damage are we doing to our children’s education in order to satisfy the minister’s fragile ego?

Another great example is Dave Callahan. Mr. Callahan has been speaking out for years on the bus tendering system in this province, and has promised us time and time and again that government policy was going to lead to safety issues within the bus system. He, like many other advocates, had a friend in Dale Kirby while he was in opposition, but since last November, Mr. Callahan’s concerns have fallen on deaf ears. Now with buses being pulled off the road and more than 100 charges pending due to safety violations, it appears that Mr. Callahan’s warnings have come true. The school board promises that safety is its top priority, but the department who is ultimately responsible has been silent. Again, I don’t blame Dale Kirby for the unsafe busses that were discovered, but he was given information that this would happen and failed to act on it. As minister, he has the responsibility to ensure the safety of our children and in the end the buck stops with him.

The minister may not like people like myself, Mr. Whittle, Mr. Dinn, Mr. Callahan, and the plethora of others who have been speaking up about issues in the education system, but sooner or later he needs to address the concerns of stakeholders and offer a clear plan for education in this province. Nobody in government ever likes to admit they are wrong, but how long can we afford to gamble with our children’s future so that Dale Kirby can feel satisfied that he is right? The situation has escalated well beyond political norms and it is not only the NLTA who feel that it is time for a change in our education portfolio.

Last fall, the Liberals promised to break the cycle of governing based on politics in favor of evidence-based decision making. Instead we got full-day kindergarten before we were ready, cuts to teachers and child care, and the closure of libraries followed by the after-the-fact $187,000 Ernst & Young review to see if closing them is actually a good idea. In one of the few times the minister has come out of hiding, he told reporters that it was unlikely that the government would have the stomach to go back to the library closures. So why are we still spending that kind of money on a review, while the School Lunch program was forced to raise its own money to meet the demand from thousands of new students enrolled in the program this year because of full-day kindergarten? Want to know how many school lunches the EY library review could buy? About 53,429. Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

At this point the only thing that we can hope for is a cabinet shuffle soon. Several ministers have lost the confidence of the people and if Dwight is ever going to get this ship right-side-up, he is going to need to start drawing on some new sources of ideas. When it comes to education, how long can you allow a minister to alienate stakeholders and the public? It is long past time for Dwight Ball to shed the nice guy persona and start getting tough with his own people. Yes, the ministers will take their own heat, but at the end of the day it will be the premiers leadership, or lack of it, that will be remembered. In a few years, Dale Kirby’s name will be forgotten as he fades into the annals of history as part of the governing class that couldn’t quite make the cut. Dwight Ball, however, will be remembered for much longer. Does he really want to hitch his legacy on the egos of people like Dale Kirby? I guess we will have to wait and see.