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Taking the politics out of spending

in View From The Mainland by

When the December CRA poll results on party/government satisfaction were released, nobody expected the results to be overly favourable for the PCs or their (former) leader. But that has never stopped the governing party from trying to manipulate public opinion during the period when CRA pollster folk start calling around the province.

This isn’t a new activity, nor is it a new observation; many bloggers and members of the public have noticed a correlation between public spending announcements and polling periods (especially following bad poll results). Ditto for budget periods and election year ramp-ups. Just check out Labradore’s blog on this sycophancy, particularly halfway down where he has some nice charts. Same goes for Sir Robert Bond Papers’ ramblings on the subject.

All about image

Yes, it’s true that governments everywhere try to improve their own image. Just not as blatantly as here in NL, and not as much since the middle of the 20th century. I’m pretty sure this kind of obvious public opinion goosing happens in, say, many developing countries where both the electorate and the government allow public spending manipulation beyond what is best for their citizens. I mentioned this exact phenomenon in my very first column on electionauctioneering for votes. Election pavement. Vote buying. Bleugh.

My reasoning? Governments must always endeavour to provide the infrastructure and amenities that their citizens (and economies, families, etc.) need to prosper. What else are they really there for? I absolutely agree governments must follow the direction voters give them when it comes to elections based on platforms. I also agree governments need to govern based on their political policies (those they are elected on) and occasionally tinker with government programs based on revenue streams. That’s all fine. But I find it gross mismanagement to announce or withhold funding for projects, and to arrange the timing of them based on interest considerations of political gain (in some cases over and over and over).

We elect legislators

We shouldn’t be electing micro-managers. We shouldn’t have ministers running around trying to take credit for “investments”. It’s not their money and it’s not their pavement. For the most part, sitting governments aren’t even responsible for the revenues that come in (often it’s due to the actions of previous governments). Theoretically, we have government departments with highly skilled policy advisers and planners to advise ministers on what needs to be built, maintained, demolished, replaced, and when all that should be done.

I’ll give the PC government some due credit. Since they’ve taken office they have, in fact, improved strategic planning in departments – as in, departments have to come up with multi-year plans and priorities for their ministers. I’ve crapped on them a bit before, with the Northern Strategic Plan from the department of Laboriginal Affairs. Sometimes this is due to content, but often these kinds of “strategic plans” tend to restate what the department is already going to achieve, and then makes that the plan. Thus, they won’t fail. And they’re still conveniently planned according to election and polling timelines.

I’ll also throw some credit to the PCs for the (so far untested) act of eliminating the ability of a sitting premier to call an election when her government is polling the highest, or when the bulk of announcements are ready to roll out, via fixed election dates. There’s much speculation about loopholes in this legislation, one being that there are no consequences for breaking it.

Legislating plans

Having a look back at Ontario, I’m noticing that the minority government out there also got sick of governments changing vital infrastructure priorities during their term of office to suit their political agendas. Having lived in Ontario I can say with confidence that the vote buying is considerably less obvious. There is no election pavement. There are usually differences in the priorities each party presents to the public and after elections the parties generally follow through on those commitments.

Generally.

So they’re currently proposing that governments be legislatively bound to make 10-year plans. This means that plans will be in place with priorities ‘locked in’ with the ability to update every five years. No more election pavement. Effectively, such plans would span multiple governments and eliminate the election pavement temptation.

It will mean the people get infrastructure, in an organised and responsible fashion based on the overall public good. This doesn’t preclude extra spending in boom times, or special deals with the federal government, say, for ferries or major critical upgrades to crumbling infrastructure like bridges and so on. It brings a long term stability for the construction industry as well. Fewer boom and bust cycles. It allows a steady, predictable path of improvement and also helps maintain more stable, locally sourced industry. The proposed bill also ensures the hiring of local (from within the province) tradespeople in order to maintain long term training and retention of their own workers.

It (mostly) takes the politics out of public spending

If applied here, it would remove some of the inter-regional fighting for resources. It would help ensure that underdeveloped or ignored regions of this province receive their fair shake. I realise this seems to go against some of my arguments about “perceived injustices” and my arguments that Labrador needs more “investment”. But it actually doesn’t. I’ve only ever really complained about having a relatively unfair share of quality infrastructure compared to regions of the Island. I just want an equitable share (or all of it; either way is OK, really) of the vast amount of resource revenue that comes from here. Taking the politics out of it would force a clear recognition of the differences in infrastructure and services available to all citizens.

Of course such legislation wouldn’t remove the poll goosing and announcement timing. But at the very least the public could look up the master plan and realize that it was already going to happen anyway. Throw in the idea of a heritage fund to offset bust years with boom years and we’d have long term, stable upkeep of our vital infrastructure.

Besides, if ministers get to come up with the priorities and planning, without consultation with the public or the rest of the House of Assembly for that matter, what the Fox Lake (NL) do we even have ever-growing-departments of experts for?

You know what good, long term planning gets you?

Vancouver. They even have an internationally recognized name for the extremely well-planned development model: Vancouverism. I realise it’s comparing apples and interplanetary travel, but good planning reaps rewards if you draft a good plan and stick to it. For example, if you make meddling for political gains next to impossible.

Our own people would be able plan ahead, and to decide whether they’ll take their surveying skills to the oil patch or hang on at home. They’d have an easier time doing that if there were a long term plan to guide their decisions. Families have mortgages. As it is now, who knows when the Trans Labrador will ever get widened or paved, or when docks will be upgraded?

Sure, we might still ache for that paved road or new ferry, but we won’t ever feel left out or accuse governments of spending more in their own caucus districts. We wouldn’t feel that one region gets more than another based on current politicians’ pork barreling if it’s already laid out on the master list.

And we certainly won’t have a hospital, auditorium, or long term care facility dangling in front of our noses when we head to the polls ever again. We could then vote on our candidates and parties based on their ideas and ideals. Businesses and industry would know that we’re a responsible province to deal with, and when and how they can expect to invest in our future.

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