Monday, March 25, 2013


The closure of 10 Early Intervention Centers in New Brunswick is one of those stories that suggests a huge risk to children, and a lack of interest from the media and opposition MLA's in performing some basic due diligence. If you believe, like many New Brunswickers, that there in urgency in helping children with special learning needs, then we owe it to these vulnerable kids to dig a little deeper than we have.

Here's the background, quickly. Early Intervention Centers provide home-based support to children and their parents to make sure that potential developmental needs are met. It is a cruel statistical fact that children with developmental challenges often (though by no means always) live in homes where parents may lack the background, financial resources, and work-free time needed to identify problems and act upon them.

The 17 Intervention Centers solve that problem. The now-closing Fredericton Center would be typical. It grew out of community support and government began funding its success. It has leaders and workers trained in spotting a range of problems, from Shaken Baby Syndrome, FAS, Kindergarten Readiness Skills and developmental delays. They are trained to provide parents with play-based activities to help.

The staff of these Centers have specialized training that is not easily replaced. They also have something else that is very valuable. They have built up a range of community networks and contacts which allow them to get families quickly and easily into the services their child needs. They work with daycares, health professionals, literacy agencies, NGOs, and they have directors and managers who have built these personal networks. This "community capital" is precious and cannot be easily replicated by an outside agency, at least not quickly.

Fredericton, in particular, has a history that can't be easily reproduced. It was the FIRST early intervention program in New Brunswick, dating back to 1978, and its management and board have leaders who were genuine trail blazers. Fully 75% of its clients are in the Fredericton urban area.

The idea that this Center, along with ten others, should be closed in favour of a centre an hour away in Woodstock, is a decision that should be carefully questioned. When you add in three facts --that the decision benefits the Premier's riding, that the winning Center is the one best known to Minister Carr's chief advisor on these issues, and that the whole transition is happening in five (!) weeks-- the decision should set off a few alarm bells.

Parents and educators immediately began asking the right questions. It must be said that so far, the usual watchdogs have been pussycats. Newspapers moved it way down the coverage list. The Official Opposition said nothing. CBC Radio billed Minister Carr's appearance to answer questions as allowing him to "clear up parents' confusion" about the change. I heard the interview, and the parents are not confused-- the minister has not provided clarity.

Given that there are some very vulnerable families counting on us, and failure will cost us a lot of money and suffering in the future, we all have a duty as citizens to ask some tough questions. In fairness to my friends in the media, this is a specialized area requiring some background.

We haven't all had the chance to be minister of both education and social services, so I am offering some questions here that have not been asked of Minister Carr in most interviews, nor have I heard him say that he is asking his staff these questions. I hope this helps community and media leaders put the Department through proper due diligence on this file.

1. What exactly were the criteria used in evaluating which of the 17 Intervention Centers would live or die, and why was each factor chosen?

2. On which of these factors was the winning Center judged superior to the Centers you are killing off, and what measurable evidence backs this up? Have these results been made available to the Centers being closed?

3. Minister, you cited the $38Million in new early childhood money as evidence that these Centers would have "enhanced" services. Yet in the announcement, no new money for intervention services was included in this. (Look it up, there's $16.7M for new daycare spaces, $10.6M for staff wages and training, $3M for autism spectrum services, $4.4M in daycare subsidies to needy families, $3.5M for staff -of which $2.25M is to hire only 7 senior managers-, and a quarter million for an ad campaign to promote your changes.) Where is the money that matches your claim of enhanced services?

4. Given that you are spending $2.25M on adding 7 senior management positions at the district level, is this the most efficient use of funds for services? Since this is billed as new money, what happened to the 14 early childhood positions created at the district level in 2007?

5. You have said that the mandate of these intervention programs will now expand from birth to age 8 (up from age 5). Given that this is roughly a 60% increase in caseload, how will resources be added to ensure that this does not increase the per worker caseload and family wait time?

6. What was the size of the caseload in the now-closing urban Centers, and what will be the costs of staff travel for home-based care? (If the new placement model is mitigating that travel cost, by all means cite and explain that)

7. What was the promised decision date on the survival/termination of Centers, and what was the actual date the decision was communicated to the leadership of the Centers?

8. All families affected by the closure must sign a consent letter to transfer their child's file to the new agency. Will these letters all be signed by March 31st, and will families signing these letters have received clear information on how their child will receive services?

9. What transition planning has taken place in the communities whose Centers have been terminated? Will the new directors have met with each community partner of the closed Center by March 31 to develop protocols for co-operation?

10. As you will have effectively fired trained staff and dismissed experienced volunteers by March 31st, will exit interviews and employment offers have been completed by March 31 before this knowledge is lost to the system?

In one week ten Centers with their own history, successes, relationships and staff will have been closed, and we do not know on what basis. In one week hundreds of vulnerable children will lose their existing support network, and no one is asking what comes next. Knowing the inside of that department, and its current resources and workload, I do not believe it likely on the timeline announced that children will be well-served. I have been proven wrong before, but we need to give attention to these questions so that the politicians and administrators know that we, as a society, are watching when vulnerable children are affected. I encourage anyone who reads this to use whatever platform they have to ask these questions and others.

Friday, March 1, 2013


"Dude, what the hell?"

Actually, a lot of folks have been very supportive and hopeful about my decision to join the NDP. But now that the swirl of interviews is over, I wanted to explain my decision in something longer than a tweet or sound bite. Basically, it's all about ideas. I know it isn't the safe choice, or the politically easy one. But for me, it is the right one.

So, by now you likely know that I've accepted an offer to work with Dominic Cardy and the NDP on an exciting new policy initiative. It's called "Our Province NB", and this will be a substantive approach to developing a platform with citizens from a variety of backgrounds. We seek out ideas from committed, thoughtful New Brunswickers on a variety of important questions. These challenge papers will come from thoughtful people regardless of their partisan background. Once on line, anyone who registers for the process -- whether they join the party or not --can comment, propose changes, and post their own response papers. The party's leadership must directly engage people in discussions. Later, votes on certain policy choices will happen in the open with full transparency, making sure the leader must account for his choices in light of a very open debate and decision-making process.

The initial topics are ones that are urgent, and that the two traditional parties seem to want to ignore. They include finding solutions to some challenges that must be answered in the next few years, such as:

How do we attract new creative economy jobs,people and investment in the sectors that are growing without putting public funds at risk?
How do we make sure that all our citizens can participate in the economy, tackling stubborn problems like poverty and illiteracy within the budget constraints we have?
How do we deal with an aging population, where senior care will require significant new spending, without shortchanging the programmes that keep younger families here and support their opportunities?
How do we make sure that our education system prepares people for the new economy while promoting 21st century skills such as problem solving, creative thinking, collaboration and global awareness?
How do we reform our government and its institutions to restore faith in our democracy, and faith in New Brunswick as a fair and clean place to do business?

The process won't shy away from proposing ideas, or in welcoming constructive debate. It recognizes that the next election will require clear plans and bold ideas from those who seek to lead, and that discussions should happen now so that voters can make an informed choice.

Lately, watching the Legislature has reminded me of that old joke about the two hunters who surprise a bear. When one starts to run, his friend warns him that he can't outrun a bear -- to which the runner replies that he doesn't have to outrun the bear, he just has to outrun the other guy.

If we don't attract new industry, reach citizens falling out of the economy, improve our schools and reform our democracy, New Brunswick will struggle to keep up. Lately, the two traditional parties have spent a lot of time slamming each other but little time spelling out real clear policy choices. It seems like they just want to outrun the other guy so they can win power, instead of describe what they would do about the bears that threaten our economy and our future. I want to be a part of a party that earns trust through ideas, not by just shutting up and hoping the other guy blows himself up.

I was impressed by the fact that Dominic Cardy wanted people who haven't always been his supporters to get involved and debate ideas with him. A leader who welcomes critics is a leader who won't be co-opted by a few close backroom advisors if he becomes Premier, and Dominic fits that description.

Now, many of you know that I've had a ten year affiliation with the Liberal Party. And, while my choice is more about feeling positive about this new process, I do owe you an explanation about why I couldn't find that same optimism about the place where I was.

There are lots of good people in the Liberal Party. I've long outgrown the knee jerk partisanship that suggests that one party has all the good ideas, or that any party is going to be right all the time. That kind of debate bores me, frankly, and it isn't helpful.

I have struggled since the last half of the previous government's mandate to feel comfortable where I was. I took my mandate seriously and worked within the government to advance the ideas I felt good about, like education reform, early childhood education and poverty reduction. I respected my cabinet oath to work from within, and through our party's renewal process I tried to be clear about the things that should change -- such as making real democratic reforms, rolling back costly tax cuts that didn't work, and depoliticizing economic development. I even backed a leadership candidate willing to support those ideas and add some good ones such as an environmental bill of rights. Some will say I should have given it more time, others will try to use the time I spent trying to make it work to question my sincerity now. There's no perfect time to declare an amicable split, but I do believe the Liberal Party has chosen what it wants to be and made it clear that it does not share the ideas I promoted. I should note that parties have every right to do that, as citizens have every right to decide if they fit with a party.

The Liberal Party has chosen a different route, one that entrenches the things that I thought needed to change. The new leader has made it clear that Liberals will defend the past tax cuts and continue to tell people that the deficit can be tamed by cutting alone. He has made it clear that he does not believe in structural changes to reduce the power of the leader and his advisors, but will keep the same model we had in the last government, where as long as the leader endures public meetings, he may make all the decisions. The Liberal Party will not be quick to support limits on patronage appointments or politicized economic development. Mr. Gallant says he opposes patronage, but he has managed to oppose every actual rule against it, preferring to get elected by saying "trust me to make better backroom choices". And the Liberal Leader stands by his stated opposition to things I believe in, like more financial support for making college affordable and an earned income tax credit to help the working poor. He mocks these as "making more promises", but for some of us, having things we want to accomplish is what makes politics more meaningful than a season of American Idol.

The fact that federally, the front runner for the Liberal leadership has also ran opposing the release of detailed policy options, while Tom Mulcair has sparked real debate on diversifying our economy and reforming our democracy is not lost on me. The Liberal Party is about to elect leaders at both levels who mock the very idea of proposing clear ideas, instead urging people to give them a blank cheque on policy because they are new and exciting people. If we were casting a Disney Channel pilot, I would agree. Because we are governing a country,I cannot. It is clear that we have suffered from Mr. Alward being elected without having to think clearly about what he believed in and what he wanted to do. The solution is not to elect another unprepared leader in anger, but to insist that the next election be fought on substance and ideas.

However, I remain hopeful that this can happen. I worked with Dominic Cardy on the anti-patronage bills and watched as the government yielded to good, solid ideas. I am excited by the fact that here is a party open to ideas and debate from those who don't support it blindly, instead of regarding criticism with suspicion. And I still believe there is room for people who want to enter public life for what they can do there, not what they will be there.

I am less concerned all the time with who gets elected, and more concerned with the urgency of good ideas. I hope that others will join a discussion that puts ideas above party, policy above ambition, and our future above all else. No party has all the answers, but at this critical moment, the leaders in public life best ready to offer an alternative to failed conservative policy and a government prepared to lead are Dominic Cardy and Tom Mulcair.