Saturday, February 17, 2018

On Inequality: Government Policy

I would like to be a member of a special interest group, a big group that can catch the ear of the Premier. I want to be one of the insiders, the ones in the know. I want to be a member of the group that actually influences public policy. That group currently consists of Liberal party insiders (not the rank-and-file members), personal friends of the Premier, the industrial barons, and the senior bureaucrats

Our special interest group actually exists, but we have not yet come together. We are citizens, taxpayers, voters, many of us volunteer in the community, many of us want to make a bit of difference in the lives of others. We care about future generations, we care about leaving the earth in good condition for our grandchildren. We think that jobs that degrade our environment are not really very good jobs, and not jobs that we should encourage. But government does not seem to hear us, or if they do, they try not to let on.

There was a telling pundit comment in the media a few weeks ago at the time of the announcement of a new candidate for the job of leader of the Progressive Conservative Party; it was that this particular fellow (I have already forgotten his name) would learn to be a retail politician and then he would become Premier. I took that to mean that he would learn to sell himself to the voters without really committing to anything, so that he could later do what was good for his party and his supporters and his donors and his bureaucracy. I have lived with retail politicians for most of my life.

I always find it interesting (and infuriating) when government consults with us, and then ignores the results of the consultation. Sunday shopping was a big issue a dozen years ago, and the government of Premier MacDonald asked the voters what they thought. The results were about 53% opposed to Sunday shopping, 47% in favour. But Premier MacDonald would not stand up to the big retailers, so we got Sunday shopping. Notice that government offices did not open on Sunday.


The next big issue that I remember was the huge Voluntary Planning initiative surrounding the future of our Natural Resources. I still have the final report on my bookshelf. So many people put so much work into that initiative, and the people very clearly said that they wanted a responsible, thoughtful, sustainable harvest of the forest resources, and a careful exploitation of our mineral wealth. The NDP government didn't really want to hear that as they were focused on union jobs in forests and mills, so they went out and found a tame consultant from the forest industry who would tell the NDP what they wanted to hear (change the definition of clearcutting, and carry on). The Deputy Premier of the day, Mr Corbett, collapsed the Voluntary Planning Secretariat down to one desk in one department, saying why should we pay for advice we don't want? The voters gave the NDP some advice at the next election.

Just a few years ago we had an online consultation on the matter of allowing big-game (deer) hunting on Sundays. This is a big issue in rural areas because Sunday was always the day that we were sure that we could be safe in the woods. The results of the online consultation showed that 54% of respondents wanted to keep the ban on Sunday hunting, so the government only gave away two of our safe days, to be fair to everyone. I have heard that the real reason Sunday hunting was permitted was that some guiding outfits said that hunters-from-away wanted to be able to hunt on Sunday, and jobs might be lost! Jobs trumps all in Nova Scotia!

Special interest groups get what they want from government - all they have to do is organise. The sawmill/pulp and paper industry appear to own the Department of Natural Resources; they have their partisans controlling the bureaucracy. Elected governments will not stand up to bureaucrats, so we have continued clearcutting on Crown lands (our lands!) despite widespread support in both town and country for less damaging harvesting methods. The mining industry appears to own the mineral resources division of DNR, which is why we have two active gold mines in the province. Gold mining is probably the most hazardous and destructive of the extraction industries, as it always entails huge quantities of cyanide left in tailings ponds. About once a year somewhere in the world one of those ponds fails, and the environment downstream is forever contaminated. It's only a matter of time before those troubles come to Nova Scotia. And now the mining industry wants to frack in Northern Nova Scotia, and they will probably get their way. Jobs, don't you know.

If you want anything from government all you have to do is talk about jobs, or economic benefits. We taxpayers have poured millions of dollars into two pulp mills, a convention centre, a Yarmouth ferry to nowhere, and now some fast boys want the government to build them  a CFL-sized stadium in Halifax. Make up some jobs numbers and you can have it!

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I have recently read a fascinating article written by the manager of Rob Ford's first campaign for Mayor of Toronto. It's at https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2017/08/rob-ford-donald-trump-new-direction-political-polarization/ It's a good read on many levels, but a good  take-away is the story of Mr Ford's career in municipal politics. For ten years, as a councilor,  he focused on making the city work better for its citizens, and in the course of those ten years he took or returned 100,000 phone calls (he logged them) from people with problems with city services. So when it came time to run for mayor he had a solid track record of making life a little easier for city residents, and on that basis he attracted voters who would otherwise be repelled by his natural buffoonery.

That has become my new metric: does the government make my life easier? My provincial taxes are very high because we give so much money to rich owners to subsidise mill jobs. My school is closed, my road is a mess, I have no doctor, the premier is fighting with Doctors Nova Scotia, and my skyline is marred by a huge clearcut on the Cobequid Mountains, on Northern Pulp land which they bought with our money which the government gave them. I vote very carefully, looking for a government that will make my life a little easier. But government only works for insiders, and I am not one of them.

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At some point a political party will probably be able to make a credible populist appeal to the people of Nova Scotia and they might well win. Ten years ago I thought that the NDP was that populist party, and I actually voted for them. They ended up moving all the way to the right of our political spectrum, driven by the ideology of support for the union man. The current Liberals are the most openly patronage-focused of any party since the Tories under John Buchanan - count the number of friends of the Premier working under rich contracts. And they certainly don't stand up to the bureaucrats.

I think that there is a real opportunity for a populist party in Nova Scotia. Populism gets a bad name when it is used to appeal to the worst and basest of voters' attitudes, but it can also be a force to harness and focus the best of voters' attitudes. It can also be harnessed to accomplish important (and often local) projects. I see this sometimes in municipal politics, where the relatively small size of the electorate and the very local nature of the decisions allows for radical shifts every once in a while. Many councils have long-serving members and long-serving staff and governance gradually becomes sclerotic (Wikidictionary: rigid and unresponsive; losing the ability to adapt). When voters come together in support of a specific project (getting a new school, improving the arena, re-thinking the delivery of municipal services, reining in the bureaucracy) they often end up with an almost completely new council that can and will deliver on the populist promises. One council in northern Nova Scotia actually underwent a generational shift in one election, replacing mostly grandparents with mostly parents; the issue was the need for a new school and for recreational services for children.

I can't see either the provincial Liberals or the Progressive Conservatives being successful with a populist campaign: they have tried it too many times before and then never delivered. Remember Stephen MacNeil's first campaign? A folksy guy who learned his family values at his mother's knee? Nobody told us then that his family included every breathing Liberal and not another soul. His  first act in government was to put his personal friend and failed Liberal candidate in as Chief of the Protocol Office of the Province of NS. I wonder how she sleeps at night? 

If you have any interest in the true Progressive Conservative policy you just have to read Bill Black's columns in the Halifax Herald every other Saturday. He very nearly won the leadership of the PC Party in the last leadership contest.  Recently  Mr Black tells us that we rural folk should just suck up the fracking contamination of our lands and groundwater for the good of the province.

I don't know any but diehard NDP-ers who think that the provincial NDP has any credibility left after what the Dexter/Corbett government did for the working man at the expense of the paying man. I know too many people who will never ever ever vote NDP again in this lifetime.

But, you know, the Greens just might be able to pull it off. It would require a new bunch of folks in the party, and it would require a serious overhaul of their public perception: too often the leadership of the Greens is thought to be the folks on the barricades at public protests, and too often the candidates have difficult backgrounds, like being pot activists as well as environmental activists. But if the Greens could attract as members all of the serious, responsible, accomplished  people who want to make the Province a better place - folks with long track records as volunteers and participants in their communities - then there would be an impressive pool from which to draw candidates. New Greens could attract people with experience in municipal government, in public administration, and perhaps even disillusioned former MLA's from the other parties.

Suppose the New Greens developed a policy platform that included the following:

  • We will be socially progressive and fiscally conservative. We will not overspend.
  • We will value the traditional knowledge of, for example, inshore fishermen/fisherwomen, active woodlot owners, progressive farmers, successful small business people
  • We  will name and price the externalities of industry. Externalities are costs of a business that are not borne by the business, like air pollution, poorly treated wastewater, noise and dust, the degraded environment surrounding intensive livestock and finfish farms. Business will be expected to bear those costs themselves, through improved regulation and enforcement of existing regulations.
  • If municipalities are able to discharge bio-hazardous, foul brown sludge from wastewater treatment plants into rivers and harbours, and can defend themselves by saying that the sludge meets guidelines, then the guidelines must be changed.
  • We recognise that residential uses and quarries are generally  incompatible.
  • Clearcutting on Crown lands will be the last option, not the first. We will develop better harvesting practices and harvesting machinery province-wide through licensing policy for harvesting Crown lands.
  • Elementary-school-age children will be educated in schools in their communities wherever possible. Good two-room schools with strong community support are to be preferred over anonymous larger schools.
  • New Greens will partner with Doctors Nova Scotia to improve doctor recruitment and retention.
  • The Department of Environment will have a new mandate - to protect the environment on behalf of all Nova Scotians, rather than the current mandate to give cover to industry wishing to degrade our environment. It will become a great place to work.
  • The Department of Natural Resources will be split between two ministries - one to oversee the careful exploitation of our natural resources, and another to protect those natural resources. Tension between these two new ministries will be useful.


This list is far from comprehensive, but it was so easy to write. I didn't change the order, or edit. It just flows, because it represents remedies for all the ways that the Government of Nova Scotia makes my life difficult by favouring insiders and the well-connected, by pitting one industry against another.

The New Greens would have to show a lot of restraint. The pendulum has long ago swung to the side of pulp mills, quarries, open pit mines, finfish farms and other industries that casually dump their externalities costs on their neighbours, and the New Greens will have to ensure that  the pendulum does not swing too far the other way. Swing it into the middle, where the concerns of the citizens have the same weight as the profits of industry. Workers in those industries want a healthy world for their children, too.

I realise that all of this is a thought experiment, so here's the cherry on top. Can you imagine Bob Bancroft as Minister of Natural Resources?

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