Monday, 21 March 2016

GOVERNMENTS' FIRST THRONE SPEECH A MISFIRE

The public still awaits one signal the Liberals have the capacity for leadership.

The recent Speech from the Throne represents the third specific occasion of missed opportunity; the other two include an appropriate response to the Fiscal Update and revelations by the Premier, in February, of trouble in the long term bond market.

The Throne Speech is more than just ceremony signalling a new Session of the House of Assembly.  The symbolism incorporates a purpose that exceeds any ritualistic merit.
This should have seemed fortuitous to a new government promising “real change”.

A Throne Speech is expected to reflect the public policy direction, specifically the legislative agenda, of the government. But it need not. Precisely because it has no defined specifications, an enterprising and creative political leadership will lever the pageantry to profile election themes and to describe the basis of major initiatives, not just those legislative, it is planning.

But, most of all, while the Budget should constitute the financial equivalent of the pharmacist’s prescription, the Throne Speech should act as a holistic examination and diagnosis of the political corpus.

The last Throne Speech of the previous Tory Government constituted a series of disparate lines rendered from each Department, strung together with the finesse of a chainsaw. It spoke to the boredom incited by the exercise; it held a surfeit of words and repetition.  The overabundance of secondary issues left no room for either context or an overarching theme.

The Throne Speech of the new Government is certainly more elegantly written but its content is similar, and it suffers from a lack of strategic focus.

While recognizing that the Province has a serious fiscal situation, it seems incapable of describing what the cost will be on our society, how much will have to be forfeited to correct the problem.

It is fine for the Government to claim it will “restore Openness, Transparency and Accountability; Build a Stronger, Smarter Economy; Improve Health and Healthcare; Support Safe and Sustainable Communities; and Invest in Our Future Through Education”.

But how are those lofty goals accomplished when $8 billion is being spent against $6 billion of revenue, not counting Capital Account and the overruns on Muskrat Falls?

How can Government offer more when, a few lines later, it states: “decisive actions will be implemented with Budget 2016 this spring followed by…” medium and long term actions…” In plain English, that means cuts.

Platitudes come easy to politicians; sharing bad news not quite so much.

When the Government is facing the most serious fiscal crisis since Confederation, and a bond market eyeing the place as a failed demi-state, is there not a time to square an unwarranted sense of expectation with the reality of what we can afford? Why would the Government not set the ground work for the nastiness yet to be imposed unless, like the Tories, it hopes to kick that “can” further down the road?

How can the public not maintain its well-entrenched sense of entitlement if mention of unsustainable debt and improvements to programs and services are spoken without acknowledgement of conflict?

The Speech notes that the Government is “pleased to say the public have responded in a productive and real way” to ideas for trimming expenses and raising revenues. But aren’t those initiatives only supposed to impact someone else?

In the current milieu, in addition to offering an appraisal of our impending era of wrenching change, the Premier should have insisted that the Throne Speech describe the evolution and extent of the crisis, and exposed how it is the Tories placed a whole society in peril. Such an expose is needed less to give sanction to the Tories, though that would be proper, than as a warning to future governments.

This unfortunate omission is one historians will find baffling, given the size of the current financial mess.

That said, what is wrong with a new Government differentiating itself from the old one?

Shouldn’t it also set out its own philosophical basis for the key policy changes necessary to brand the new government? Isn’t such an approach still good politics?

Any new government should want to give affirmation to the institutional and community leadership, including the Caucus and the media, that the people’s faith is well placed, that the Government has brains, ideas, and a plan that reflects the current social and economic imperative.

This Throne Speech did not accomplish any such objective. Aside from the fiscal crisis, the Province is facing a demographic crisis of no small proportion, too; one that is eroding the very face of rural Newfoundland and Labrador daily. Yet, the best the Government can do is mention that the problem exists.

Like the Tories, it can’t seem to understand that the financial crisis is occurring in conjunction with a demographic crisis and an emerging unemployment crisis, too. Are not local airports feeling a hollow wind coming out of Western Canada? Aren't two of three mega projects coming to and end?

Government’s job is to help the public prepare for a day of reckoning, not to candy coat the inevitable with some undefined promise of a “new approach”. Couldn’t it, at least, have informed us where impending higher taxes and double the cost of electricity fits with higher unemployment? Or, how those higher input costs will dampen efforts at diversification?

“There is a new day dawning” might have constituted a more honest preface to the Throne Speech.

Likely around August of this year, some of the largest topside modules ever constructed, about three times those built for the Hibernia platform, will enter Bull Arm from South Korea, for mating with the Hebron GBS. It will dawn on the whole prescient lot, who facilitated a decade of unmitigated madness, to ask if the locals could have done more of that work; why the mega projects weren’t staged.

But such questions do not fit with a narrative that contemplates a return of high oil prices, following which the good times will roll again. I fear that is what holds this Government back from considering a far broader, if more painful, plan for change.

Yes. Easy is alluring!

Still, common sense, minimally, should have counselled His Honor to state the Government is committed to review the mandate given Nalcor together with the intention to redesign the entire cockamamie energy warehouse concept, before it breaks us; if it hasn’t already.

The Province stands on the precipice of financial failure, one deepened by Muskrat and other schemes demanding equity and replacing public services with risk.

The Ball Government seems too fresh, too naïve, to know it will incite civil strife if the folly of the Oracle of Galway is fed by the anguish of layoffs and reduced services, including health care. The Throne Speech did not connect the dots to the dangerous brew now on boil. For Premier Ball, that education may come too late.

The Speech From the Throne was an Address suitable, notwithstanding its shortcomings, for ‘normal’ times.

Except those are not normal times.

The realty that faces Newfoundland and Labrador should have been described, and the Throne Speech should have been inscribed, with a forcefulness and a clarity understood as readily on Maxse Street as on Bay Street.  This was truly its biggest failing.

Likely, this young Liberal Government that will yet make the best students for all-day kindergarten.

5 comments:

  1. Very well said Des.

    Like our previous government, this government has not learned to tell it like it is (or even how to connect the dots).

    Maurice Adams, Paradise

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  2. By the way, I see Maurice`s site VISION 2041, has an excellent chart showing the island power peak demand and energy use since about 2002 to present.With a slight up and down along the way, we are now about the same as 15 years ago.Given Nfld Power is now forecasting a significant decline in the growth going forward for this year and next, and the reality of a slowed economy, and new house energy standards, the outlook for much Muskrat power on the island seems remote. Given our provincial debt situation, this chart should make one shutter as to the ongoing expenditure. Nice chart, Mochie. Ed Martin should have it on a wall in his office. Can you imagine Gil Bennett going to Martin`s office and saying `Ed, have you seen this, from our friend Maurice` Or Premier Ball, considering all the chopping of services in his budget, while looking at that chart on Muskrat spending.... and for what!

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  3. In 5 years when the project is completed, and the true impact on our power bills are know people will question the decision making which got us into this debacle. They will go back to the question "Do we need the power". Nalcor did not do enough work to try to avoid spending 10 Billion of public money. They did not understand the NL demographic, and effectively dependended upon econometric models. Econometric models is nothing more than linear extrapolation. This was the greatest downfall on MF. No one described the risk to the tax and rate payer, if supply did not grow 50% over 50 years. I honestly think our requirements for energy will decrease from the current requirements. This is due to the mass uptake on heat pumps which will occur. We will however still need the peak winter demand. A growth in peak, with a decrease in total energy, will spell disaster for the MF business case. All of this was predictable if Nalcor had only worked in a prudent and responsible fashion.

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    1. You say you expect energy requirements will decrease going forward, but that we will still need the peak winter demand. That depends on the type of heatpump: typical air source ducted units usually will not reduce winter demand. Minisplits both reduce energy use and also reduce winter peak demand, typically energy reduction is in excess of 60 percent and heating load peak demand per house is reduced by 50 percent at minus 15-18C. Demand is perhaps 35 percent reduction at minus 20-25 C. And these are cheaper to install then ducted units. Many of these are currently being installed. Models rated for operation at minus 15C and 0F actually operate okay at temperatures lower than this without issue. Ground source heatpumps will reduce demand for heating load per house in excess of 50 percent, but are expensive.
      So both energy demand and peak winter load will decline with uptake of these, with minisplits being the most useful to the consumer and most detrimental to Muskrat Falls. For this reason minisplits are not promoted by the power companies, and the power company says they "may not" offer demand reduction. This is true only if they are undersized, or low grade cheaper models unsuitable for our conditions. And contractors do tend to undersize. And I believe:1. the power company do not even understand the importance of sizing as to peak load reduction,or 2. are not transparent on this, so not to encourage their use, with pretence that they are of little value for reducing peak demand. The problem of course is that they reduce energy use so much that they would take a big hit on revenue from reduced sales.

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  4. For those interested, the chart referred to above can be viewed at http://www.vision2041.com/

    Maurice Adams

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