Good Will Hunting

I see that Premier Alward has a 61% approval rating among those with an opinion in the latest opinion poll.   There is a lot of good will for the Conservatives right now but we don’t need to go back to ancient history to see that New Brunswickers provide this good will early in most mandates.  I remember marvelling at the good will for former Premier Graham early in his mandate – before he did anything. 

This, of course, is a double-edged sword because any difficult decisions in government will hit the polling numbers and Alward will not have the luxury of delaying the decisions. 

I have to chuckle when Tory partisans – in the op/ed pages – talk about how Alward has ‘been there before’ and was part of a fiscally responsible government that made the ‘tough’ decisions. 

More money poured into the government coffers (in real terms) under Premier Lord than any other Premier in history.  The province was awash in tax dollars – the largest increases coming from federal transfers but there was also fairly strong increases in own source as well.  The question for Lord and his Cabinet was where to allocate the 5% average annual increase in spending  – and they ended up putting the vast majority into health care (and less so into education). 

Federal transfers increased by almost $600 million from the 99-00 budget to the 05-06 budget – which is all the more remarkable given that population actually declined slightly in that period.

So Lisa Keenan’s partisanship aside (equally matched, I might add, by Britt Dysart on the Liberal side of the ledger), Premier Alward has not been anywhere close to this before.  He can expect sluggish private sector economic growth (given that he will have to ratchet down public spending which his a huge impact on the private economy) and a tightening of the belt by Ottawa over the next few years.

If Alward wants a model, he will have to go back to McKenna in the early 1990s but as Don Drummond pointed out at the FutureNB summit, even McKenna benefitted from robust private economic growth during that period. 

Back to good will.  I think that it is a murky concept but it must have something to do with a comfort level by the public that the government is in good hands.   

I also think that a clear vision for the future of NB is also beneficial to enhance good will.  Most people don’t sit around thinking about the future of their communities or future generations – they are trying to build and maintain a good quality of life in the here and now but I think at some level they want to believe things are moving in the ‘right’ direction -whatever that is.

Three pieces of advice for the Premier:

1. Open up the books and be crystal clear with people about the fiscal problems and the options for solution.  There are still a huge amount of NBers who think there is a thick layer of ‘fat’ in the public service that can be cut with minimal influence on front line service delivery.  I don’t think this is the case but it is up to the government to prove this.  As I have said before public financial accountability has gotten worse in recent years.  I recently wanted to find out how much the government spends in payroll – just that simple number – and couldn’t find it anywhere – not the estimates, not the blue book, not the AG reports – nothing.  I would publish clear data for people on the cost of government, overhead, benefits costs, back office vs. front line costs – just like a publicly traded company – this would help people support the ultimate decisions of government. 

If the public thinks the choice is between cutting ‘fat’ and raising the HST which do you think they will support?  If the public thinks the choice is between cutting doctors and raising the HST the calculus changes.

2. To any cost cutting and tax raising, I would add a clear third leg to the stool called economic development.  We spend over $200 million a year on ‘economic development’ and I think we need to get a better ROI on that spending.  In my view we could spend less but be more targeted on building the case for specific growth sectors.  If people see a path to private sector growth, they will be less (certainly not completely) worried about the contraction on the public side. 

3. People say they want to be consulted, I would consult.  Between now and March I’d have town halls in every single city, town, village, hamlet, burb – I’d do Twitter, Facebook, RogersTV, CBC, newspapers, magazines, – I know this comes at a cost but the people have asked for it – they kept saying with the Graham reforms – post-secondary, French Immersion, health regions, NB Power, etc. that they were not consulted.  Fair enough.  Consult.  Make it the goal to see that a majority of NBers felt they had some input or are comfortable with the process – they may still dislike the outcome but they won’t be able to say they weren’t consulted.

4 thoughts on “Good Will Hunting

  1. “There are still a huge amount of NBers who think there is a thick layer of ‘fat’ in the public service that can be cut with minimal influence on front line service delivery. I don’t think this is the case but it is up to the government to prove this. ”

    I think you are right, but it will be very difficult to change the public mindset on this. There are various propaganda outfits – the stinktanks, as you described then – who will point out wage levels and pension benefits in the civil service and label these as fat or waste. You’d have to show that jobs with comparative skill sets in the private sector have similar benefits.

    It is not hard to find letters to the editor or online comments stating that 20-25% of spending in Departments is waste that could easily be cut. One also hears often the refrain that merging regional units (school districts, health regions) into larger units would reap huge savings in admin costs, thereby cutting lots of fat. I am not sure that those making that claim are familiar with other experiments with these sorts of mergers – they often do not provide much in the way of savings, and often inhibit innovations that might improve service or save costs from being attempted.

    The disconnect between services received and taxes paid is a long-standing issue. Increasing transparency might help that, but it needs to be accompanied by an educational process that tries to explain why all the nuts and bolts are needed. The LSD issue might be a good place to start. How hard would it be to present calculations of service costs to LSD residents?

  2. Trouble is, like you say, if we can’t even find the salaries, then its hard to know what is fat. Take the education cuts, they SAY they can cut it no problem, but the teachers are worried this means axing teaching assistants. One persons ‘fat’, is another persons paycheque.

    However, I remember reading a book a long time ago about how many corporations hiring practices have little to do with what they NEED, and more to do with their bottom line. If they are doing well, since most get tax and other public concessions, a company will ‘fill up’. When it crunches, then those people get laid off.

    With government we simply don’t know how many that is. There’s no point debating how much is ‘fat’, if you have no idea. However, government often works even worse than private industry, which means that if those numbers David quotes are accurate, and the population is declining…well, thats a lot of fat build up….maybe.

    The estimates at least give a range of salaries and list all the recipients, so taking an average-for example,this is where a ‘thinktank’ would come in handy…..go school by school, region by region, teacher by teacher. The teachers union publishes what teachers at various levels earn, and online I’ve found pretty good info on specific schools. Add up the capital costs (I think CBC did this for schools) and the teachers. Whats left is buses, transportation, and administration…what you could call ‘fat’ (at least extracurricular-personally I don’t think kids NEED to drive to Nova Scotia to play a basketball game to be well educated).

    Administration is where people want to cut, so once you have that figure, you’re in the ball game. Trouble is, administrators usually tend to have more clout than teachers, which means without specific knowledge of what they do, its hard to criticize.

    PS that doesn’t necessarily need a ‘thinktank’, just some body to do it. I know some critic out there is no doubt saying “you do it bigmouth”. That’s justified, but should really be aimed at CBC and Irving, even the government. This isn’t just some idiosyncratic desire for useless information, this is NECESSARY. In fact I’d suggest that town halls are a waste of time UNTIL this information comes out. If people don’t KNOW anything, then their opinion isn’t going to be that productive-it might make them feel good, but thats it.

  3. Alward should make Ottawa, and its favouratism to Ontario and Quebec through Industry policy, his boogeyman. Shelve the “cap-in-hand” approach as well as trying to negotiate with them from the position of demandeur or supplicant. Maybe he can start by setting the record straight on Ontario’s position that things are all rosy out here, both socially and economically, because we are electorally over-represented. And that this justifies using us, or in the case of this article, PEI, as a scape goat in order to pass Bill C-12. Make them pay for taking such an approach.

  4. Based on the current level of debt, the magnitude of the deficit, the probability that revenues (like transfer payments) will decline and expenses (like debt servicing and health care) will increase, the time for New Brunswick needing to ‘trim the fat’ is a distant memory.

    New Brunswick is in a position where we can no longer fund everything we’d like to fund, we can only fund what we can afford. This will mean eliminating programs that we might like to keep but we cannot afford. It is not a matter of determining if something is too fat, it is a matter of facing our economic reality.

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