Monday, September 20, 2010

A Vote For The Liberals

Because I will be out of the country on Monday, I cast my ballot in the advanced poll Saturday, and I cast it in favour of the Shawn Graham Liberals.

I do so reluctantly, because my inclination and my money tend to support the New Democrats, but despite writing up a campaign donation for them this year I feel it would be irresponsible to vote for them.

I honestly do not know what the New Democrats were thinking when they adopted the slogan, "the voice of middle class families." Did they deliberately throw the poor off the bus? Do they not care for people who self-identify as something other than a family?

But more, my candidate has been totally silent - not even responding to my donation, much less my request for a sign - and the party leader has been unfortunately inarticulate and ineffective. Moreover, there are clear signs the party is searching for a popular issue to hang its hat on - MLA pensions - rather than anything that genuinely represents New Democrat values.

On the other side of it, the choice between Liberal and Conservative has been relatively easy.

As I listen to Bernard Lord on CTV right now, it's clear the Tories are hanging their hats on two major Liberal failings: first, their attempt to sell NB Power, and second, the provincial deficit, which increased by roughly three billion dollars over the last four years.

Now I don't know how he stood on the sale, but I still recall Andy Scott saying to me, "if he (Graham) had come out and said, 'Now I know we do not have a mandate, and I know we promised not to sell NB Power, but here is an offer that we have been given, and it would be irresponsible not to put it to you the people to see what you think,' and then let it play out, it wouldn't have been a big deal at all."

And what is, to me, the biggest irony, is that if it had been put in those terms, the Conservatives might very well have supported the sale. Indeed, the only thing they seem to dislike about it is that it's a sale to Hydro Quebec (as their ads remind us over and over). Whatever anti-French or anti-Quebec sentiment there is in the province coalesced against the sale of NB Power.

But it's also true that the Conservatives, had they been re-elected in the last election, instead of Graham, would almost certainly be fighting the same fight, trying to muster support for their sale of NB Power. The Conservative government had reorganized the utility in preparation for the sale, and would have found a $3 or $4 billion sale price irresistible against an $8 billion debt.

And there would have been an $8 billion debt, or even more. Make no mistake. The Conservatives were in a deficit position coming into the election, they already had $5 billion worth of debt on the books, they had already set in motion the LePreau disaster and had not yet negotiated their way out of the Orimulsion fiasco. Graham's government may have been ham-handed when it comes to the energy portfolio, but New Brunswick's conservatives have been absolutely out of their depth. And the same has been true of their debt and deficit management.

But this election is not between Shawn Graham and Bernard Lord; we need to consider the alternatives before us right now: Shawn Graham and David Alward.

That's mostly good news for the Liberals. Had Bernard Lord stayed in his seat and stayed on as opposition leader, he would be cruising toward electoral certainty. It would be hard for anyone to suggest that the former premier was unprepared for office, and after a four year stint in opposition he could quite credibly claim to have learned from his mistakes.

It would have been better for New Brunswick, as well, as an effective opposition would have kept the Liberals somewhat in check, kept them less inclined to fly off the handle with 'the right answer' before going through the necessary round of policy consultations and negotiations. But Lord was gone, headed for an unremarkable stint of job-hopping, while the ineffective opposition was led first by the unlamented Jeannot Volpe and then the aforementioned Alward.

To say Alward is inarticulate is to be kind. It is not clear from his pronouncements on the issues that he has any grasp of policy, much less English grammar. He has been given an exceptionally generous run by the media, which should have been merciless after his performance during the debates.

There's a lot to choose from, but let`s consider this quote from the CBC leaders' debate transcript:
Leadership, to me, is about respect. It is about listening to the people, getting the best advice that’s available and then making the right decision. The right decision is that there is an independent panel that is doing its work and is bringing forward recommendations to fix MLA pensions. They are doing the work right now. As premier, I will accept the work that they do. This is our position and this is a position of leadership. I will also ensure, as premier, going forward New Brunswick never again will MLAs be able to vote on their own pay packages. That is not acceptable. As leadership, it’s also important that we bring back honesty, integrity, common sense and hard work to government for the people of New Brunswick.

If you actually read the paragraph closely the sentence structure actually falls apart, so it's not always clear exactly what he's saying (and the transcript as a whole is very kind to kind, correcting numerous errors). The only generous interpretation of this is that he does not understand what he has said. Because he has said, literally in the same breath, that he will "respect the decision" of the panel, but that he will "not allow" a certain outcome.

But also, consider this pair of statements, that " there is an independent panel that is doing its work" and that "this is a position of leadership." To take a leadership stance, in other words, is not to actually lead, but to turn the decision over to an independent panel.

It is this position, more than anything else, that has been characteristic of the Alward opposition. Not the position - much lambasted - that he will offer consultations on everything. That I could actually respect, if I believed it. But what we are actually presented with is a leader who doesn't really know what he wants to do on an issue, has strongly stated views on the matter nonetheless, and a policy that waffles between these two extremes.

If, for example, the matter of what to do with energy is, as the policy book says, being referred to consultations and committees, then what are we to make of the most recent announcement that energy prices in the province will be frozen for three years. Both cannot be true, which means that one or the other is utterly unbelievable, and the worst of it is, we don't know which.

Any Conservative government that emerges out of this election would be much in the same position as the Lord government that found itself unexpectedly in power in 1999 - in power with no clear understanding of why, with no plans except to take power, and without the skill and expertise to manage an enterprise the size of New Brunswick. An election of an Alward government would result in four more lost years.

Or worse. Because his plans are in fact unbelievable, and he will not be able to keep his promises, and he will be forced (as they all will) by financial exigency to begin to cut services. Alward will not raise taxes (such as the HST) and despite his convenient pledge to revoke a tax break to New Brunswick's richest citizens he will not impose any particular hardship on them. This means significant cuts to the Conservatives' usual targets: hospitals and health care, education and social development.

This may seem like an unfair criticism, but it's worth pressing him on this point. He is not going to do this? Then what will he do instead? His own promises leave him in a position where he can do nothing but this.

Now to the Liberals. And after the four years they've had, it is indeed remarkable that I would cast a ballot for them at all. They have mishandled a number of key portfolios, managing somehow to cache the correct policy within an envelop of failure. The reforms of the health care regions, the school system, and energy have all been afflicted with the same failure: a government that came out pronouncing the 'correct' solution, then backing off amid a sea of criticism that shows they didn't actually talk to anyone before launching their policy.

Moreover, I think the Liberals have been irresponsible with tax policy. Alward is quite right to criticize the tax break given to the wealthiest New Brunswickers, and (had he any courage) he should have gone on about the tax breaks given to corporations, a long-discredited approach to economic development which accomplishes little and leaves the government unable to manoeuvre.

But these concerns are offset by the series of successes the Liberal government has had. Its gas price regulation has made New Brunswick the destination of choice in the region. The job situation in Mirimichi, a disaster a few short years ago, has begun to rebound with initiatives as far apart as cranberries and Federal government offices. We finally saw the arrival of wind power in the province, through a deal with Alberta Power to finance the construction. He has convinced the Harper government to make some restitution over LePreau, though we would all like to see more.

Locally, we have seen even more. The river is flowing at its natural rate again, something the Conservative government had refused to allow. Roads leading in and out of Moncton have been repaved, after having lain fallow over most of the decade. Progressive education and development policies have led to companies like CGI locating in Moncton because of the city's skilled workers, not in spite of them. We've seen natural gas flow into the city, lowering heating bills for many residents (including me).

And, ultimately, the NB Power sale would have worked. It would have worked in two key areas. First, it would have reduced the debt by $3 or $4 billion, meaning that New Brunswick, unlike any other political jurisdiction, would have emerged from the recession without a significant additional debt - the very debt that Alward is criticizing today. And it would have given New Brunswick access to much less expensive hydro power, at a rate that was capped for five years - just what Alward is promising (but can't pay for) today.

The fact is, even with the missteps, New Brunswick came through the recession more intact than any other province in the country, and almost any other jurisdiction in the world. The standard line is to say "well we didn't have so far to fall," but in fact what kept things together in this province is the very $3 billion debt the conservatives decry. What would have been the impact had Graham imposed $750 million a year worth of public service layoffs and program cuts instead? What if he had decided to eliminate highway construction, add extra taxes on fuel, or raise the HST? Would we then be saying "we didn't have so far to fall?"

And, despite a rocky period during a term of economic upheaval and a steep learning curve, the Liberals have set in place the beginnings of a foundation for something more. They appear to have an economic development and jobs development plan. They are beginning to manage the health care portfolio effectively. They have been successful in education, with significant improvements in outcomes, more people learning French than ever before, and plans for 21st century curriculum and a student laptop program. It would be disappointing to lose these initiatives, especially at a time when challenges to funding will make them both more difficult to defend and yet more important than ever.

So I voted for the Shawn Graham Liberals. And I am endorsing a vote for the Liberal government in this election.

5 comments:

  1. Thank you for an honest assessment of the options and issues. I am fortunate enough to have an NDP candidate worth supporting. I wish you did as well.

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  2. Dear Stephen,

    I just read your blog and am sorry you haven't heard from your NDP candidate. We don't have a record in the provincial office of your donation; please get in touch to make sure we get this sorted out - we don't want to cause any problems with your tax credits, etc.

    On our messaging, more than 80% of New Brunswickers identify themselves as middle class, including those at the bottom end of the income scale. Not many people like being called poor, so the NDP is using the language people use to talk about themselves.

    I'm sorry we missed your vote in this election, I hope we win it back in future elections.

    Best wishes,

    Dominic Cardy
    Campaign Director

    dcardy@nbndp.ca

    ReplyDelete
  3. If you read the NDP platform you'd see they definitely haven't abandoned the poor.

    The change in the NDP slogan was probably meant to appeal to a broader voter base* and cast off the stereotype that they are only a party for poor people (i.e. 'welfare bums). I've heard this stereotype parroted many times. It's unfair and unfortunate.

    *The vast majority of voters would identify themselves as middle class, even if they are actually making wages below the poverty line.

    As for the candidate in your riding, it's a pity that they didn't respond to you.

    If they had have, I suspect you might be writing something different than, what seems to me, a well-articulated justification for plugging your nose and casting a vote against the party you don't want to win (in this case the PCs).

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  4. Jim, I agree with your analysis. But this doesn't get to the heart of why this is a mistaken strategy.

    First, it's an approach that is divisive. It creates an us-versus-them dynamic. It's pretty easy to find oneself (as I have) on the outside of that target group.

    Second, it appropriates the people's voice. By saying they are "the voice of" the middle class, it fails to respect that these people have their own voice, and that the political party should be listening rather than speaking.

    Third, by selecting such a large group (the middle class) it is meaningless. By being more inclusive, you actually reduce the sense of identification with the group you are trying to target.

    Fourth, and related, it is policy-agnostic. We don't know what "the middle class" wants. Probably there is no single representation of that. But worse, we don't know what the NDP stands for when it says it's "the voice of the middle class."

    Fifth, it plays against rather than with aspirations. People don't vote according to their current status, they vote at least partially according to what they want to aspire to. Someone studying to be a pilot votes for higher pilots wages, even if it makes it harder for him to be a pilot. Saying "we are the voice of the middle class" says that the NDP will be against them should they ever rise to be more than merely middle class. Not a happy thought.

    On many levels, the Conservatives - who are using much the same strategy - are much more sophisticated (they have some very good marketing people supporting a poor leadership - again, with someone stronger and more experienced at the helm, this would not be a close election).

    Their marketing to seniors, for example (a) picks out a very distinct and identifiable group, (b) matches their aspirations, and (c) says, not, "you have very little", but rather "you have been successful and we will protect that success".

    Personally, I think playing one segment of society against another is distasteful. neither party should be involved in setting up the 'battle between seniors and the middle class'. But if you're going to play this game at all, you should do it well.

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  5. Well put argument there. I really hope the policy analysts at the NDP are reading what you wrote and how you interpreted their change of slogan/message.

    Maybe there's a better way they can try to appeal to more voters than their current effort that won't leave questions like yours in people's minds.

    However, despite your analysis, I do honestly believe their heart is in the right place when it comes to being interested in representing the common citizen versus the important, the connected, the wealthy and the corporation.

    The PCs and Liberals more than adequately represent the interests of those segments of society in our politics.

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