Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Spin to Win

Spin to Win

By: Ryan Young

The premier held another fancy event yesterday. As usual it was full of glossy graphics and plenty of pats on the back for a job well done. The occasion was a report on Phase 1 of “The Way Forward,” the Liberal roadmap designed to make people believe that our government has the slightest clue of what they are doing. The funniest thing is that someone in the premier’s office really thought that the information presented yesterday would actually impress the individuals and groups in attendance and instill confidence in the public at large.

What we learned from Premier Ball’s announcement was that after nearly a year and a half in power, and six months into “The Way Forward,” the Liberals have only managed to find a meagre $45 million dollars in savings. I wonder if that includes the cost of developing and marketing “The Way Forward” to the masses? Finance Minister Cathy Bennett promised that immense savings would come from the utilization of zero-based budgeting, but according to their own numbers they were only able to find $24 million dollars of government waste to trim. “The Way Forward” also pushes many of the government targets well into the future, some as far as 2025, without any definitive information about how they plan to meet them. There is plenty of fancy jargon, but when it comes to actual ideas and plans, “The Way Forward” leaves much to the imagination.

Phase 1 of “The Way Forward” was touted as a plan to reduce government costs, but despite all of the spin and hoopla from the government, it fell flat. With all of the extra taxes and fees that are burdening the population of this province, and job cuts likely coming in the very near future, $45 million is hardly enough to convince anyone that the government is willing to clean up its own house before looking for cuts elsewhere. Despite all of the pretty red checkmarks, very little has been accomplished so far, and there are little or no details on many of the initiatives that have been brought forth.

As James Mcleod pointed out in The Telegram, many of the things the Liberals are claiming as completed with red checkmarks are not entirely factual. For instance, the leased space savings they indicate at the very top of the report card was actually a move made by the school board months before “The Way Forward” was even released. In fact, out of the dozen red checkmarks on the section titled” “A More Efficient Public Sector,” the only two initiatives that actually showed real savings were the $24 million from zero-based budgeting and another $20-25 million from laying off core government management positions.

Phase 2 of “The Way Forward,” will focus on job creation and growth, and promises 14 000 person years of new employment, whatever that means. While new jobs should be a positive thing to announce, this ends up being just another example of the poor job being done in the government communications office. God forbid that they tell us how many actual jobs they plan to create or how they expect their plan to offset the predicted 20% unemployment in a few years. Instead we get 14 000 person years of employment. No matter how much the communications staff try to dress up the incompetence of their masters, people are not being fooled by fancy vocabularies and glossy brochures full of rhetoric and spin. For a government that is so out of touch with the common person, you would think they would try to communicate in a way that will allow voters to feel connected to them, but nope…14 000 person years of employment is the best they can come up with.

I’m sorry dear reader if I sound a little bitter, but in the age of fake news and alternative facts it is very difficult to sit back and watch this government spending our tax dollars on these asinine events designed to pat themselves on the back and make them look better in our eyes. People are tired of empty promises and endless spin, and a leader that can talk for hours without saying anything at all. They voted for a government that promised openness and transparency over and over again, but instead have become one of the most secretive and tight-lipped governments we have ever seen. People want the truth and a little hope, but instead they are constantly given the same old political runaround that has become so common that it is the only thing we have ever known.

Maybe the Liberal’s do have some real ideas on how they expect to meet all of the outcomes promised in “The Way Forward,” but why they would keep it all to themselves is beyond this bloggers comprehension. More likely, as it seems to the public, they are actually trying to keep up appearances and look competent, while they hope and pray for a return to high oil prices so that they can start spending money again and be all things to all people before the next election. The major problems with that strategy are:  1) According to all the best experts the price of oil will continue to hover around $60 a barrel for the foreseeable future, at least as long as the current Liberal reign. 2) People don’t want another spending spree with our oil revenues. They want a stable economy where oil royalties are a bonus and not the basis of our entire economic fortunes.

The people who are running the communications for the government on the hill would do well to take notice that all of their unique language and high priced promotional materials are falling on deaf ears and blind eyes. The time for political spin has passed, and with the Liberals having burned every bit of their political capital so early, they have no credibility left to convince people that their spin holds any weight. The people are ready for the openness and transparency they were promised and Dwight Ball would be wise to realize that no matter how much he smiles and talks in circles, that we are just not buying it anymore. It’s time for them change the narrative and try something radical and new. You know, like telling the truth… 

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


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.


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…