Monday, July 30, 2018

The Urgency Of Defeating Gallant (From A Progressive Perspective)

Brian Gallant is showing every sign that he wants this election to be decided upon ideology, not competence.  Pretty much every Liberal ad, tweet, and scripted utterance has been built around a simple theorem:

We spent money on X

Blaine Higgs might spend less on X

Re-elect Premier Gallant, because otherwise less money will be spent on things you care about.

Now, the “X” is usually something pretty good – the talented tap-dance team of health care and education usually lead the list – so as a clash of political theory it might well work for the Liberals.  It is a common play for the Liberal playbook across Canada, because it not only defines the choice with the Conservatives in a way Liberals like, but it also forms the basis for an appeal to NDP/Green voters.  For voters on the left, the Liberal appeal is usually that the blue menace is so great that one must accept the Liberals, with all their flaws.

The central question is, then, considering how Brian Gallant has governed for four years, has he earned re-election on his proposition – that he will protect and further progressive goals.

Here, I am defining “progressive goals” broadly and from this perspective.  I believe that government has a role to play in society, in particular, in programmes that provide equal opportunity and/or a minimum safety net that allows people to remain connected to the economy and society.  I believe it is legitimate to ask those who do well to pay a little more for those programmes.  That does not mean that tax rates can be confiscatory, or ignore realities of competition.  It does not excuse waste, or government expansion into areas where the market does fine.  But there is a role for government.

That’s a broad definition, and I accept that.  Likely moderate Dippers, Red Tories, and many small-l liberals could nod along.  But that is the vision Gallant says he is defending and the mainstream that he says Higgs is outside.  And by that vision – progressive taxes that support a safety net and social programmes – how has Gallant done?

I actually believe that Brian Gallant, and his enablers, have put our social safety net at greater risk than any government in years.  I further believe that their defeat is necessary to protect the social safety net.  I am willing to explain that.

The Fiscal Oxygen

There are limits on how much government can tax.  Eventually you run into one constraint or another – the competition of nearby provinces and states, the mobility of business, the black market, or just the political tolerance of citizens.  For a while sin taxes were the one thing government could raise without a huge outcry.  After all, who could oppose making it harder to afford cigarettes? Then black markets appeared, and government had to reluctantly roll back cigarette taxes (and enthusiastically enforce laws to keep beer shoppers from driving to Quebec).  A small province like ours can only be so far out of synch with neighbours before diminishing returns kick in.

At any time, there is a small list of “plausible tax hikes” government could try if they want to increase revenue.  Think of these as the “In Case of Fiscal Emergency, Break Glass” tax hikes.  The Gallant regime has seen broken glass everywhere.  Pretty much every bit of tax room has been used up to fund this premier’s four years.  Tax the wealthy?  Done.  Raise the HST? Sure.  Property tax hikes?  Yes, to the point of scandal and overreach.  Gas tax? Done.

Even after all those taxes, our credit rating has been issued a caution.  So the borrowing is also at the outer limits.  Brian Gallant has deemed his ideas, his vision for government, to be so vital that he has sucked up all the fiscal tax and borrow room any aspiring progressive could use.  This is either an investment in the greatest expansion of the social safety net in history, or an act of self-aggrandizement by a premier so the thralls of the self that Emperor Narcissus would blush.  If he spent all the money anyone could use, one would expect social programmes to be stronger.  So, what are the results?

Spending Without Results

Quick challenge – name one statistical indicator on the social side which has improved since 2014.  In education, literacy scores are down.  In health care, wait times for everything from surgery to physician rostering are up.  Enrollments in post-secondary education are down.  And this is in areas where the government has bothered to keep tabs on results at all.  In several cases now in education, testing simply got cancelled, as it did conveniently around the student scores that would have allowed for a comparison with immersion entry points. 

I’ve tried to generously think of a measurable social problem government has planned to improve and improved.  Health care access? PSE enrollment? Mental health professionals? Reading scores? Adult literacy? Poverty rates? Tuition fees? Population growth? Family court wait times?  I mean, anyone can spend more money.  Inflation and collective agreements force it on you even if you hide in your office.  But what social cause seems to animate the Liberals’ quest for power?  What are they passionate about fixing?

You can even think more generally – what would be one case where government identified a social ill, put forward a plan to fix it and provided a statistical indicator to say “here is how you will know if it is working”?  If you’re struggling to think of one, that is not some nagging academic concern.  That framework – identify the problem, plan a solution, measure results – is the most basic expectation of competent government.  Government plans are often hidden when the money gets spent, or so vague they amount to picture books that say "Things will get better."

That problem – a lack of basic competence – has been this government’s Achilles Heel.  Too often, they have lacked the pretense of having any core belief that lasts for more than 15 minutes.  Today, Premier Gallant brags of having committed to hiring 200 new teachers, but he fired 200 teachers in his first budget, and did so after pledging in Opposition not to fire teachers.  In Opposition, Mr. Gallant blasted the Conservatives for rolling back Liberal tax cuts, but today enthusiastically raises taxes and suggests that Blaine Higgs is a cruel Visigoth at the gates of decency for expressing doubts about it.  On post-secondary education, Minister Don Arsenault  cut the tuition rebate program and rolled back the timely completion programs that were launched in 2009 by…..Minister Don Arsenault. A programme review was much ballyhooed, then shelved.  In short, one never gets the sense that there has ever been any plan, principle, or policy that can survive the lure of tomorrow’s shiny object.  This isn’t the Gang Who Can’t Shoot Straight.  They are the Gang That Doesn’t Know What To Shoot At So They Shot Off Their Toe.

When social problems have found them, where due to inaction or incompetence a problem grows to the point where others ask, the cabinet has shown a curious lack of interest in the problem.  Steve Horsman, the Minister responsible for child protection, has repeatedly responded to questions about children in his charge showing up neglected or worse with the kind of glazed-over wonder one would expect from a man who was just sent here from an alternate universe, only to find he’s been made minister of something against his will.  Minister Landry, asked why the government made its tuition bursary programme less generous than the Ontario programme it copied, literally ran from the room.  The Education Minister rose in the Legislature to state that he wasn’t worried about declining student reading scores because he himself had performed poorly in school, and here he was, being a minister like a big boy.  This was done with a straight face.

It would be sad, if it weren’t so serious.  Even a right-wing government of Liberal nightmares might, while neglecting the social side, leave some taxing and spending room available for those who might come later.  In their rush to brag of having spent more, the Gallant government has done absolutely nothing on the social side and they’ve used up all the money that someone more passionate and useful could have used.  That isn’t just wasteful – it sets social progress back.

And, Actually, Not Much Spending

Part of the reason why the results have been lousy on the social side under the Gallant government is because, in truth, they haven’t really been investing in the social side of the ledger.  In many cases, the things they attack Blaine Higgs for wanting to cut are areas where they have a pretty lousy record.

On education spending, they delivered the largest cut to school districts in a quarter century in the 2014-15 budget, firing teachers and closing schools.  Their overall rate of spending on education has gone up far less than the Graham or Lord governments, and about the same as the Alward government.  For all the hype about the “free” Tuition Access Bursary, it was set to such a low qualifying point that 80% of those eligible were already getting federal bursaries equal to “free” tuition.  In fact, the programmes and tax credits cancelled at the same time took millions more away from students than TAB gave.  Health spending is lower under Gallant than under Graham.  The poverty reduction plan has seen every element cancelled, and the Department of Social Development received a real dollar cut under Gallant for the first time in 17 years.  The only anti-poverty announcement of any significance has been a grant of $10million over 5 years for Saint John policy groups to study poverty – cruelly, this money will not actually reach anyone living in poverty, so there will be a fair bit to study.  And on minimum wage, the Gallant government has been more miserly than any government in my lifetime in terms of percentage increases.

This is not to deny the fact that the government can claim to have spent more – much more – in the last four years.  They can claim to have spent aggressively.  They simply have not spent much of it on health and education and social programmes, much as those concepts have reappeared magically in Liberal campaign ads.

But if a Liberal vote is not a vote for social spending, what spending are they really defending?

What the government has spent on is clear from a review of the budget.  The largest growth areas have been infrastructure projects and grants to private business.  The Gallant government has managed the feat of becoming more statist without actually being more progressive.  Money is not taken from the well-off and provided to the less well-off.  Money is taken from everyone and given to the politically connected in the form of pavement and subsidies.  The timing of projects is often political, rising and falling with the political timetable, and sometimes seeing phantom announcements that don't align with any budget at all.

As we saw in the last fiscal update, government is growing debt beyond the rate of annual deficits by expanding capital budgets.  We have seen a rush of government spending announcements, released in such a rush that they have come out before any infrastructure plan, and even before the Legislature has actually approved them.  In the recent case of nursing homes, there is no pretense that government has even budgeted enough to build everything they are announcing.

This isn’t just a concern about contempt for Parliament (although it is that).  It is a reminder that the spending the Liberals have favoured is the most political, least policy-driven spending in which government can engage.  Unlike education and health spending, which takes place within certain parameters and has to meet particular outcomes, infrastructure spending has often been driven by raw politics and Cabinet whims. 

If the infrastructure spending has been opaque and mysterious, the corporate welfare has been more galling.  In general, corporate welfare has gone to two types of companies – those who don’t need it (the TD Bank) and those who can’t compete in the free market (Sears).  Under Gallant, we have been treated to a culture of non-accountability for these grants, with Opportunities New Brunswick officials smugly telling MLAs they have no right to inquire of jobs promised at multimillion dollar ribbon cuttings have ever materialized.  These questions seem more relevant than ever when we have seen past grant recipients – IBM, BMM  – gobble up their grants and then cut or never create jobs.

In some cases, we are bidding only against ourselves.  We have seen the Gallant government lavish money on marijuana companies, even to the point of giving one company financial help to ensure a supply of recreational marijuana.  You might ask when it become a concern worthy of the public purse to ensure the supply of a recreational drug when the free market is available.  You might ask, but the answer is rarely forthcoming.  Yet, one of Canada’s largest marijuana companies, Tilray in Nanaimo, British Columbia, chose that location despite a refusal by government to offer subsidies.  As a report prepared for local government showed, Nanaimo won against places offering government funds by offering a better business environment – something which would favour all competitors equally but perhaps rob government of ribbon cuttings.  Yet the Gallant Liberals speed towards subsidized companies offering product through a statist pot monopoly that will lose money in the first year.  You might not recall any public debate on the merits of reducing the public funds available for schools so that access to recreational drugs could become part of the public weal.  That’s because there was no public debate, just a government communications plan where the mind and soul of a government should be.

Again, the lack of a plan is striking.  Premier Gallant used to call subsidies a "short term fix", and not a real solution.  Now, he hands out payroll rebates like his political life depends upon it.  Grants often seem driven by political timing or companies’ connections to the ruling party.  (One minister openly encouraged businesses to purchase tickets to a Liberal fundraiser to discuss their business projects.  While I am not so naïve to believe that the Gallant Liberals are the first to sell access, they are the first I’ve seen openly brag about doing it).  Too often, entrepreneurs are deciding projects based upon what will please the government rather than what will work in the market.

The orgiastic splurge has been driven by the worst kind of junk economic analysis.  From the 2014 campaign on, government has continued to offer studies showing that throwing millions of borrowed dollars at projects has “economic impact”, meaning that it gives dollars to people who will likely spend those dollars.  Smart readers will notice that this is a low bar – every project has some economic impact.  Throwing money off the back of a truck in the local parade, a la Eva Peron, would have economic impact.  One thing these studies never do, at least under the Liberals, is study the relative impact of one spending project versus other uses of the same money – a basic calculation before spending any finite resource.  Yet the Liberals continue to gorge as long as some policy analyst can show an economic analysis, which is the public policy equivalent of stating, at 1:55 a.m., that you will only go home from the bar with someone if they can be proven to have a pulse.  It’s an existentially low bar.

The bottom line is that since 2014, the number of public sector jobs has gone up by 10,000 and the number of private sector jobs has fallen by 5,600.  And now, more private sector employees are now on the public payroll.  It does not take a crystal ball to see the problem.  If there are more people being paid through taxes, and fewer private sector people paying taxes, AND government also starts paying private sector employees to do work for private companies…..who exactly pays for teachers and nurses and social workers and scientists and those who must do the public’s work?  A progressive government that follows the example of successful social pioneers would choose to fund social programmes through fair taxes upon a roaring private economy.  The Gallant government has chosen to underfund social programmes to fund a patronage-driven, statist economy in which teachers and nurses are squeezed out by a need to put private companies on the public payroll.  If you care about public services, there can be no greater urgency than the defeat of the Gallant government before the contradictions collapse upon themselves.

If you see government as a force for good, then you will care about the public trust and political functioning of government.  And it is on this question that the case is most urgent to defeat the Gallant Liberals.

Our Trumpian Premier

This heading is designed to be provocative, so let me start by noting that Brian Gallant has a number of public and personal qualities that deserve praise.  He is, as many of his generation are, comfortable with diversity and welcoming in his actions towards all.  I fear no truck with the alt-right from this premier, quite the opposite.  He is generally polite and proper where Trump is a norm-shattering disaster.  And, of course, while Premier Gallant has his political mentors, Dominic LeBlanc is a much more palatable handler than Vlad Putin.  I can also say that on some policy fronts – the recent changes to the Employment Standards Act and his recruitment of female candidates, the Premier deserves some praise.

Yet the damage Trump has done is by his wanton destruction of norms, institutions and ground rules.  Trump is truly sui generis in his attacks on a free press, judicial oversight, and the very idea of facts.

Yet Trump did not develop in a vacuum.  He feeds on the cynicism borne when people stop expecting any politician to play by any rules.  While I despise cynicism because it winds up rewarding the most brazen liars and sleaziest backroom officers, I do know that it grows when politicians are willing to bend the rules and disrespect institutions for short-term gain.

If Brian Gallant is re-elected, it will encourage more cynicism and move us closer to the “biggest liar wins” rule of Trump.  And Gallant has conducted himself in a way that is not politics as usual, because he has broken norms that Premiers McKenna, Lord, Graham and Alward did not.  Consider the following:

·         Within days of being sworn in, Team Gallant became the first government ever to unilaterally change the rules of the Legislature without an all-party consensus.  And the changes – giving New Brunswick the fewest sitting days of any provincial assembly – were done brazenly to weaken an institution for the benefit of the government.  This was new.  Even Premier Lord, faced with a 1-seat majority and a difficult Opposition, refused to move unilaterally to change the rules of the game.  Despite government’s Orwellian talking point that it was “modernizing” the Legislature, it showed a premier who saw decades of convention as meaningless compared to his immediate political needs.

·         The Gallant government has been more willing than its predecessors to resist the independent oversight of legislative officers.  The unexplained defenestration of respected Medical Officer Eilish Cleary, with a severance package that screams wrongful dismissal, is the most egregious example, followed as it was by a revamp of public health that apparently no one wanted.  But the attempted changes to the Ombudsman role, the surly underfunding of the Auditor-General, and even the Premier’s haughty dismissal of a court order to stop a school closure as “advice” all point to a government which – from its head down – struggles to accept objective truth and independent analysis.  And this is without calculating the severance packages that seem to have a risen from firings that were simply partisan revenge, which have cost taxpayers millions.

·         The government visibly leans towards secrecy to a worrisome degree.  When there are clear failings of government – invented property tax assessments and contaminated beaches come to mind – the Premier has often seemed to run interference more than he has shown leadership.  The property tax imbroglio saw a judge hired and given a mandate carefully crafted to avoid any study of how the dishonest assessments occurred, only to see the judge leave when the Auditor-General offered to run a more fulsome review. And court time and lawyers’ fees have been used to hide basic details, from severance packages to health care contracts, from the public.

·         The ethical standards to which the Premier holds Cabinet have declined.  I once saw Shawn Graham red the riot act to his team about avoiding false statements and checking pronouncements with officials.  Premier Gallant watched CBC show a cabinet minister making 5 false statements in 55 seconds without doing anything but sending him out to obfuscate the next day. Government charts are fudged.  The discovery of obvious factual errors in ads just lead to the Premier doubling down.  Most ministers cannot explain at the most elementary level the reason for policy decisions, and this has led to continued public frustration of reporters who cannot get interviews, and the sad spectacle of apolitical public servants being sent out to defend policy decisions to a degree unforeseen in past governments.

·         Politics has never been pure of motive, but the triumph of politics over evidence has been notable under Gallant for just whom the government is willing to ignore to get its way.  Most notable have been decisions that affect children – the moving of mental health services to Campbellton over the objection of every professional and the disgust of former Advocate Bernard Richard, the cancellation of school tests and refusal to await results of Grade 3 immersion before changing the programme (which was then promptly shown to have raised test scores), and the closure of schools without economic savings being proven all stand out because, usually, even hardened pols hesitated to pursue petty politics when kids were involved.  That was a good norm.  Gallant broke it.


The ads will tell you that Premier Gallant is running as a champion of progressive government.  Yet the values government needs to survive – evidence-based policy, truth-based public debate, and a respect for basic principles of good government – have been under attack in a way that would have drawn bipartisan censor twenty years ago.  Further, by being loose with public money while redirecting it away from social programs and into pork, patronage and pavement, Premier Gallant has put social programmes at greater risk than even the stingiest right-winger could.  We have used up credit, tax room and a good global economy while improving neither economic growth or the social safety net. We are now very vulnerable to a downturn unless we change course..

Progressives must not rally to the Gallant government’s aid.  Those that do are, by innocent error or institutional interest, mistaking statism with social policy and spending with results.  Those who want to preserve the vital role of government in society should deny their vote to this wolf in liberal clothing.  What I make of the alternatives is for the next missive.

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