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.