Friday, December 10, 2010



I'm going to try to step around the partisan politics of the situation and talk about what does -- and what does not -- matter in regards to our new Social Development Minister and her thoughts on poverty reduction.

For those who missed it, Minister Stultz was asked a question on keeping the poverty reduction commitment to raise New Brunswick's social assistance rates. Since I might not be an unbiased editor, let me start by letting the minister answer in her own words, as reported in my morning paper.

"I do not believe and I do not believe that our government believes ... that raising our welfare benefits is the answer (to poverty)," she said in the legislature. "To keep raising the rates is not the answer. It is working with the people to ensure education and so on."

Now, Premier Alward apparently corrected this quickly, and today the minister responded by doing what ministers do when their opinion differs from the premier's....she changed her opinion, somewhat, to report that it was not the ONLY answer to raise rates.

To make sense of what to think of this, it might be worth remembering why the commitments to raise rates and add vision and dental coverage for children whose parents are poor was so important in the first place, and why my friend Bernard Leblanc was asking the question.

The poverty reduction plan isn't a Liberal plan, or even a government plan. It was developed by hundreds of New Brunswickers who all agreed to do more to lift 25,000 people out of poverty. The government commitments are there, in part, because by making them we could ask business, social groups and communities to do more. This is truly a contract government made with New Brunswickers.

Here's why these commitments were made.

Many participants agreed that the fact New Brunswick had the lowest assistance rates in Canada, with some people living on under 300 dollars a month, was a barrier to people getting work. If you have to think every minute how to find food, how to find shelter, you will never effectively think about long-term changes like education or treatment. At least in the first period of getting welfare, people need to have enough to know they won't starve if we want them to think about getting off welfare.

The child health benefits are just as important in the quest to get people off social assistance. Too many people in poverty have told us that the lack of benefits in many entry-level jobs mean they stay on assistance to keep their kids covered for health needs. This benefit is the first step to a universal health plan that will stop punishing people for working-- which is a goal even conservatives should support

Premier Alward has always not only supported the plan publicly, but I can tell you (without disclosing details I shouldn't) that everything I've seen privately has led me to conclude he was engaged in that process and believes it. Before we get too excited, we should remember that he speaks for the government and he has acted quickly in bringing his new minister in line.

The minister has hopefully been told to raise her game, though, because some of her comments are worrisome. You can see from the quote that this was not an accidental omission of "only" -- she said some things that would lead to legitimate questions about whether she understands the poverty reduction plan.

It is ridiculous to refer to the plan as one where we "keep raising rates", because New Brunswick has NEVER kept raising rates. We had the lowest in Canada, and the rates were frozen for the last seven years of the McKenna government and all seven years of Bernard Lord's. The minister should know that.

The comment that education is the answer, as if it were somehow mutually exclusive from raising rates, suggests that the minister has not gotten to know the plan. After all, raising the rates is trying to give people the shred of security needed to begin to think about education and jobs. If the minister hasn't learned that starvation welfare rates are a barrier to work, she should read "A Choir of Voices", the raw feed of what people in poverty told us about their experience. I was a better minister for having read it.

Besides that, can we retire the old canard that because raising rates isn't the full solution, that excuses politicians from having decent SA rates. We all know it isn't the only answer. But frankly, a Christmas turkey drive isn't a full solution either -- yet it has value and should not be arrogantly dismissed.

Minister Coulombe's refusal to commit to minimum wage hikes is just as worrisome, frankly. If you accept the premise that leaving welfare for work should make you better off, only a higher minimum wage will allow room to raise SA rates. You can't do one without the other. And Premier Alward needs to bury the idea his MLAs keep raising about allowing low wages for tipped workers. The problem in reducing poverty is not that we have too many blue collar jobs that allow a living wage -- we have too few.

Finally, two months in, the minister should not be unaware of the commitments in the poverty reduction strategy. It is a four page document. Ministers are paid six-figure salaries, and they should know this one well. Trevor Holder showed he has read it. Premier Alward should tell his ministers that this is mandatory reading, and that is the standard he expects of those privileged enough to sit around the table. If they can't do that, I am sure there are backbenchers like Jack Carr and Kirk MacDonald who have, in fact, already cared enough to read the plan.

Nor should anyone fall back on excuses that to debate this is politicizing poverty -- the fact is, this covenant represents a bipartisan, society-wide consensus. And yes, Liberals should honor our signature on that as Premier Alward has pledged to honor his. But any minister who says they will cast that aside and substitute their own judgement must then defend that decision, because it will be that minister who has politicized the issue by rejecting the consensus. (Paul Robichaud's suggestion that the questions on this file are due to gender were laughable -- the social development minister's views on welfare rates would matter if the office were held by a purple hermaphrodite, and good for Margaret Ann Blaney for accepting that).

None of this should be read as a statement of non-confidence in the new minister. Her community service and past record has earned her a respectful opportunity to get the job down, and it is bloody tough. She does have a ways to go, and Premier Alward will keep the high standard he has met on this file by expecting her to meet the standard I still believe she is capable of setting.

Thanks for the chance to explain WHY the plan matters, beyond the partisan yelling. I'd love your comments.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Time For Balance, Not Debt Hysteria

One of the most basic survival skills people have is the ability to be able to juggle more than one preoccupation at a time. At any given time, a busy person may have to choose between various challenges at any one time. You might be worried about your rising credit card balance and need a plan to balance your household budget. You may worry that you're not getting to the gym and your waistline isn't what it was in university. And, at the same time, your three year old may be about to toddle headfirst down the stairs.
So it has always been. I'll bet an ancestor had to worry about finding food, noticing a chill in the air, and the fact an angry wooly mammoth was about to trample him.

All these things can have a bad outcome at some point, sure. Knowing which one is most urgent is the talent. Put simply, it doesn't take any skill at all to point at a threat and say -- "hey, look at that!". The talent is in focusing on the right thing at the moment, and also being able to deal with more than one threat at a time.

I've said little post-election, because our new government deserves time to define their vision with the flood of new information that greets any new government, and time to explain their theory of where we need to go to the province. Hey, they're my government, too, and the only one we have. I want them to do well.

Having heard a Throne Speech, the Premier's wrap-up, and weeks of priming us for deep cuts to social programs, I'm worried that the new government does not have the ability to grasp that there may be more than one issue that needs our collective attention. In fact, I worry that a little deficit hysteria may be distracting us all from the balanced agenda New Brunswick needs.

We have several deficits. Each must be dealt with, in a concrete way, if we are to hand our kids a better chance at success than we had.

We are spending more than we are taking in, and that cannot continue. Some of that will change as the global economy rebounds some will not This will require raising revenues, cutting expenditures, and (something we don't hear from Mssrs. Alward and Higgs) avoiding future expenditures.

We do not have the skills we need in today's people-powered economy. Too many people cannot read. While we have rebounded from where we were in 2006, when we had the cheapest school system and the least literate children, we still have a lot of work to do on the science, trades, technology and mathematics agenda -- yet the minister has announced that we will begin cutting again. Too many towns are at risk of losing an industry when the population would have few options if the employer goes down. Too many workers have outdated skills and no help affording the upgrading they need.

We have a population deficit -- we will soon have too many people who need to be supported and too few people working, taking risks, and creating the wealth to support tons who cannot. Under current trends, there will not be a mathematical path forward to balance the budget under ideal conditions of frugality and economy. Ministers Arsenault and Byrne led us through our first reversal of population decline, but the trend still isn't where it needs to be.

We also have a health care deficit, with too much money spent on old models of care, too little infrastructure in the areas where demand is, and a backlog of people in critical care facilities that robs them of the care they deserve and makes cost-saving reforms impossible.

Now, if you came with a magic wand and offered me a chance to make one, just one, of those deficits disappear, it wouldn't even be my first choice to attack the fiscal deficit. It's the option that has the most possible other solutions out there, and it isn't the one that makes the others better -- higher literacy rates or population growth make the fiscal deficit better, but eliminating the deficit does not in and of itself attract new people or teach people to read.

Of course, in the real world, we don't just solve one problem, and there are no magic wands. But that's the point -- this is not the time for one-dimensional plans, or a fixation on any one of our deficits. We still need leaders who can walk and chew gum at the same time.

I'm seeing worrying signs that this is not what we have.

The Minister of Education has said little except for a vague order for districts to cut funding for education and cancel teacher training -- this after we were told the PC platform would not require cuts to education. The Ministers of Social Development and Health have had so little to say about what must be done on poverty, on nursing homes, on hospital reform, that they may soon be on milk cartons. Only the new Attorney-General has really given us a sense of what she sees as the social urgencies in her department, and that should be noted.

To be fair, this is not limited to Conservative politicians. To read the Telegraph-Journal or listen to media outlets today, you would think we had only to balance the books and life would be perfect. The TJ even ran an editorial which deemed the education system a "failure" because per student spending had gone up. It was striking that a newspaper that once ran 14 editorials in a year urging action on literacy now deems our schools to be successes or failures with no reference to learning outcomes, just cost. We have seen a number of experts, and one former Conservative premier, come forward and demand spending cuts in the abstract with no willingness to suggest what those might be.

This is, of course, foolish. A cry for cuts in the abstract is every bit as vapid as a demand for more spending in the abstract. After all, only when we see a particular cut can we debate, as a democratic people, whether the expenditure is worth borrowing for, whether it will create wealth or save money in the long run, or whether such a cut would make some other of our deficits worse.

The Conservative government is trying to be against spending in the abstract, without being seen to actually cut anything. What they have done so far is issue a series of orders to others -- municipalities, school districts, departments -- while taking responsibility for no specific cut. However, this across the board approach can't really work as strategy, because not all our spending is equally unnecessary, and not all is equally to blame for the deficit. It is not the case that magically, our school children are 1% overfunded, our seniors are 1% too well cared for, our municipal services 1% too good, and our poor 1% too comfortable. To make the new spending realities match our needs, it will require choices that some things are worth paying taxes for, some things are worth borrowing in the short-term for, and some things we do not deem worth doing either. That, frankly, is governing.

This blog will not be a blog where you'll find the scandal of the day, or personal attacks, or jeering the Conservatives every time they struggle. Look, it's a hard job, and you don't prove yourself worthy of a hard job by just rooting for the other guy to fail. If Liberals are going to be effective in opposition and win back the trust we lost, we need to take this time to define what we are for and what we believe is worth the fighting for. If you want substantive debate beyond the spin, I'd love to have you along for a conversation about where New Brunswick is going.

I'll have more to say about other topics - how to deal with the deficit, what our social deficits require, why my party lost (and just as important, why we didn't) and policy debates that can't get covered in a tweet or a sound bite.

Maybe I'll close with this -- we as New Brunswickers are more than a balance sheet. We are here because we love and believe in this province, and we are bound to it in a way that requires us to hope, dream, and accomplish things together. A government cannot be wholly subsumed by what we cannot do, without awakening us to the things that we can. I do not accept that the fiscal deficit, which even Premier Alward has acknowledged helped New Brunswick weather a recession and which most Western democracies also chose in the short-term, has killed every other dream we have. We still want the best schools for our children, to welcome others to our province, to have a society where everyone can be included and dream of a future a little brighter than the one their parents had.

At some point, the new government will have to move from bemoaning the fiscal deficit and begin speaking to how we keep these other common goals within our grasp. If they cannot or will not, the opposition will have to show people these things are indeed possible. And that little race -- the race to common hopes -- may well be the race that has already begun to decide who will win what no party can take for granted -- the people's trust four years from now.

I welcome your comments on what other goals we must address. U