Wednesday, April 20, 2016


Today, I am pleased to announce a disruptive innovation designed to enhance our client service experience, refocus our holistic approach upon mission-critical priorities, and resist the outdated modalities founded upon silo thinking.

The attitudinal shift inherent in our priority groups (founded upon a creative, collaborative, non-hierarchical, and  vertically-integrated community of thought leaders) flows in an ethics-centred, paradigm-shifting, results-oriented manner from our strategic review of promising practices, social licences, and deep-dive stakeholder engagements. 

We are not just reinventing, rebranding, repositioning, revisioning and returning to cornerstone values. We are outside the box, on the runway, and poised on the bleeding edge of organizational culture shifts. We have put our institutional blinders through a gender lens through a singular focus on crowdsourcing.  Our deliverables are now shareable, and we are delivering takeaways across multiple platforms.  We are inputting our outsourcing, overstating our understandings, at the on ramp of offshoring, and bringing cold fusion to hot markets (with the warmth so central to our competitive brand advantage).

By consciously uncoupling from singular exceptionalism, our new passionate, nimble, buzzword-compliant, future-oriented priority units will leverage our capacity to see beyond the low-hanging fruit, and challenge ourselves to benchmark new opportunities in emerging markets where aspirational startups can break barriers and conquer new frontiers. 

Of course this will only happen if New Brunswickers are, like us, fully engaged in this singular moment to seize the initiative and win the future. We can provide transformational leadership, but only if citizens are prepared to push the envelope and join us in a new normal of differentiated instruction, multiple intelligences, higher-order thinking, embedded synergies and digital literacy, but as we unpack our mission, we believe that you are. 

By focusing on our shared, universal desires for wellness, innovation, security, sustainability, opportunity and excellence, we can create a win-win future with our holistic new approach. 

Also, we bought a shipyard. Think of it as an exit strategy with upside. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


Two folks who read the previous blog post, Matthew Hayes and Nathan Hanscom, took issue with the limits in one of the assumptions I made around the 3000 or so students who already got the maximum bursary and thus, had free tuition already. 

My working assumption was (and is) that people who get a small federal bursary, then borrow $11,000, and then still have enough need for the $4,000 bursary very likely do so because they need the money that year to afford to pay bills and go to school.  While they may appreciate the non-repay ability down the road, the driving factor is that they need the cash. Therefore, the fact that the new bursary comes before the loan won't matter to them, because it's the same total award. 

Nathan and Matthew make the point that now students at least have the option of taking the bursary money and then not even asking for a loan. You don't have to borrow money to fill out a form and get your tuition bursary. Matt further makes the point that this may keep students from working two jobs and cutting corners on learning.  We share the experience of teaching at STU and we both agree that would be a good thing.

I admit that I am unconvinced. In my time (admittedly ten years ago) as an administrator at STU who handled student emergency assistance and financial advising, my experience was that most students who work and borrow do so because of financial need at the time. There were a few who worked only to reduce their reliance on student loans, but most students borrowed and worked because even after paying tuition they had to pay rent, food, transportation and yes, some of the small joys of socializing and going to movies. The debt that accumulated was worrying to them and reducing it would make them happy, but the behaviour was driven by short-term need. 

Changes to family contribution rules would allow more access to the bursaries that are still on the back end and help these students. I'm just unconvinced until I see it that the student who needed to max out their loan won't still need to do to pay eight months of living expenses. 

But time will tell, and Matthew and Nathan brought a scenario to my attention that is worth more consideration than I originally gave it. I hope lots of students who can afford to take the bursary and no more do so. And I love the feedback and hearing angles I may have missed...that is the fun part of writing these analyses so keep it up.

Monday, April 18, 2016


So, after a few hours of shared celebration, the government’s new tuition proposal has become controversial. You know the basics by now.  The government announced it would be providing free tuition for those whose family income is $60,000 or less. Then, as news came out more slowly of other programs cut to pay for it, a debate arose over whether or not it was worth it.

There's nothing I enjoy than a good policy argument. And, like Sheldon Cooper says, I'd like to do the math. So I reviewed the government’s plan and found the real numbers – and a few surprises.  To help the debate over the good and the bad, let me share some numbers with you.

All the education, just one calorie of debt? Let's do the math on the TAB.

One important thing to note is that this is a little more complicated than the government simply paying tuition for everyone whose income is under $60,000. The tell is this – the government estimated that 7,200 New Brunswick students would get the Tuition Access Bursary, or “TAB”.. Since the median tuition fee is just under $6,000, that would be a $42Million program. Yet the government costing is $25million for the program.  So, what explains the difference?

There are two wrinkles here.

1. To provide “free” tuition, the government will first claw back the federal bursary for low and middle income students.  Because they fund only the difference, it is not quite a full tuition bursary. 
2. Hundreds of low income New Brunswickers already had “free tuition” by the definition of the program, and so there is no new money spent on them.

Free Tuition – A Little Surprise

Just so we are clear, we already had free tuition for low-income New Brunswickers.  Many other provinces do to, if we use the definition in this program. 

Of course, tuition is not free in New Brunswick for anyone. Students pay their tuition fees as always. What the government defines as free tuition is that students now receive a non-repayable grant (or bursary, if you like) which is worth what they have to pay in tuition.

Calling this free tuition is not a problem, in my book.  It isn't free tuition the way Bernie Sanders means it, where PSE is like the K-12 system, where we all enrol without user fees and pay for it through taxes. But if Brian Gallant told me to go buy a car and he'd send me a cheque for the cost, and I didn't have to pay him back, I'd let him claim he gave me a free car. 

However, if what we mean by free tuition is government grants equal or greater to tuition, we had that. 

Here's why. 

Each year many students qualify for maximum student aid. The government operates student aid this way. They figure out how much money you need to pay tuition and live during the school year they figure out how much money you should have between your earnings and the money you should get from family. Then they give you the difference. They first give you loans -- $350 per week of study, or $12,600 for a 36 week programme. If after you've borrowed the maximum, you still have need, there's a New Brunswick Bursary of $130 per week, or another $4,680 that you don't have to pay back. 

There's also a federal bursary if you are low or middle income by their standards (which is based on the size of your family, but generally the cutoff is between $40,000 and $85,000 of pretax income. If you are in that group, there will be between $1,000 and $2,500 of bursary from the federal government as well. 

That's how it worked before the New Brunswick government made their announcement. Did you catch why we already have free tuition?

As you can see, if you maxed out your student aid because you had high need and little money, you already get $6,700 of bursaries.  Unless you go to Mount Allison, tuition fees at colleges and universities are less than that. So low-income students already had bursaries equal to their tuition fees. That's what we are now calling free tuition, so we need to note that it existed already.

The number of students who already had free tuition is not inconsiderable. Studies show 18% of New Brunswick’s roughly 13,800 student aid recipients maxed out their bursary and still had some unmet need, so that means 2,760 students. Of the remainder, a number of others still got bursaries, and if this larger group averages $687 of bursary, that likely means the lowest-income among them got most or all of their bursary. Therefore, in a typical year, about 3,000 New Brunswickers were already getting free tuition. 

That is important, because of the cuts to other programs are meant to target resources to the lowest-income New Brunswickers, there is a logical contradiction here. The lowest income borrowers share equally in the cuts, and so if they didn't gain anything the only change is a negative one. 

For the highest-need (and presumably lowest income) students, they gained nothing with government’s announcement.  After all, the fact that the Tuition Access Bursary (as they are calling it) is targeted at low-income New Brunswickers means little, because the people receiving full bursaries were by definition low income. For them, their bursary got a new name. They may even lose a bit, because the tax credits that got cut to pay for it were universal, and at the very low end, it's unclear if the Tuition Access Bursary has replaced their slightly-more-lucrative New Brunswick Bursaries. As well (and this is important), the New Brunswick government is not giving them a bursary for the amount of tuition, but for the difference between the federal bursaries and tuition.  So, the New Brunswick government does claw back your federal bursary in order to pay for your “free” tuition. 

(This group will include a few more “partial” winners, because a slightly smaller cohort would have received some bursary award to meet their need, but less than the full amount.  Because the new Tuition Access Bursary appears to be all-or-nothing, in that it covers you to your tuition fee if you're covered, they will get a smaller boost. Judging by the costing, this doesn't greatly alter the framework of this analysis, but I should note their presence).

In fact, we've had even more far-reaching free tuition programs before. The Millenium Bursaries and Timely Completion Grants of the Graham government, given tuition fees at the time, were also free tuition grants by the Gallant government’s definition. And yes, Tories can argue that the cancelled Tuition Tax Credits were free tuition programming as well.  If you maxed out your bursary while in school and claimed all your tax credits after, you would have had more money from government than you paid in tuition. They don't keep numbers on how often those two things overlap, so we can't tell how many people got free tuition, but some likely exist. 

By the new definition, meet the first premier to deliver free tuition. Surprised me too.

So, to summarize, for 3,000 low-income New Brunswickers, this is a new name on the same help—and tuition was already free. 

So, What Changed?

That isn't to say that nothing happened last week.  Some students will definitely benefit from what government did. The government estimates that 7,200 students will benefit from the new Tuition Access Bursary. That's likely true, and here's who they are. 

There were a number of students who have family incomes below $60,000 but did not get a bursary. For them, after summer jobs and family contributions, their financial needs could be met by that $350/week of loans they could borrow, and under the old rules, you don't get a New Brunswick bursary until you max out your loans. 

The new Tuition Access Bursary goes on the front end, and since this group wasn't qualifying for maximum aid before, we can assume many will be getting the smaller middle-class federal bursary.  They still have to contribute their modest federal bursary, but if their family income is under $60,000 , they probably get about $5,000  in bursary that used to be a loan, and that will make you happy. (If you go to Mount A, that's over $6,000 in bursary. If you're the person who eats only crab legs and prime rib on the buffet because you want to make the house pay, consider Sackville).

One reason I suspect this is the cohort the government has in mind is that if the program helps 7200 students, there were 3,000 who already got the same help, so there's no new money there. Giving 4,200  students bursary help of roughly $5,000  gets you to a number pretty close to the $20-25million government says they'll spend. 

So, there are your winners in last weeks announcement. If you want numbers, roughly 4,200 of New Brunswick’s 29,000 students have a new bursary of between $4,500 and $5,500. That's about 16% of students. 

But this premier brought in free tuition too.  They have that in common. 

Who Loses?

It has to be said that the net result of moving all this money around is that government is spending less to support students than was the case under the Alward government. In their first budget, the cancellation of the Tuition Tax Credit cut $22 million from student debt reduction. And the cancellation of the Education and Tuition Tax Credits takes another $11 million away. Government has alternately said each program was cut to fund more targeted assistance. Assuming this is it, they didn't return all the money. 

To quantify, each student (including low income students) lost about $560 with the loss of the federal Tuition and Education Non-Refundable Tax Credits. The slightly less-valuable provincial version is likely about a $400 hit to each student. That's 30,000 small losses.

The Tuition Tax Credit was worth up to $2,000 per year, but only students who stayed in New Brunswick benefitted. How many was that?  The Canada Student Loan annual report generally shows about 11,000 students still in student loan repayment in New Brunswick. Extrapolating that time period to tax credit eligibility (about half of the student loan repayers would be in that window, and about half of graduates have loans to repay) would land you pretty close to government’s estimated cost of $22million to offer the credit, or 11,000 people losing out on $2,000.

So, let's sum up who is up and who is down. 

About 11% of students, the very lowest income, get the same bursary they had before but lose a tax credit. They may or may not have also lost the value of their federal bursary, depending on the answer to this question -- has the New Brunswick Bursary been rolled into the TAB, or does it still exist after student has been awarded the TAB and a full student loan?

Another 16% of students lose a small tax credit and gain a bursary 10 times larger, which is a definite win, and a significant number of students. 

The other 73% of students lose a $400 tax credit and get no new help.

Of the 84% of students who don't get new help from this announcement, about 60% of them will lose a tax credit after graduation worth $2,000 per year. 

Is It Worth It?

Cynics will say that the government has rebranded an existing bursary as “free tuition” and added a few new recipients to help the bigger cuts slide by.  And, I'm sure, this public relations advantage was discussed. 

However, the new program isn't just a triumph of political branding. Studies have shown lower income students tend to be more affected by risk and uncertainty when deciding whether or not to go to school. The old programmes were less certain and, as the New Brunswick Student Alliance correctly notes, often only offered rewards in a longer window than when students are actually deciding to attend school. Making a simple pitch –if you're income is this, you get this help—has a positive public policy component to it that can't be dismissed just because it is somewhat helpful to the political messaging too. 

STU's scholarship guarantee is now widely imitated. Because certainty matters in PSE.

On the flip side, the sum total is to favour new students over recent graduates. The Tuition Tax Credit was a retention tool to help keep young families in New Brunswick even if our wages are lower. High debt loads push people out of the province.  If the graduates of 2020 leave on large numbers, we may have punished young workers who chose to stay in order to train a new crop of grads who will work elsewhere. The best-case scenario is that students who study here to get the new bursary have roots here that help -- it is too soon to tell. 

The government also needs to provide more concrete answers about its new Education and New Economy Fund, which is the fund that provides funding for the new TAB. This is unusual, because instead of building the money into the budget of the Department that administers student aid, the funding is coming from this new Fund which only has three years of funding commitments. Because the cuts to other programs were permanent, this is a curious decision which is hard to evaluate because basic questions of the ENE Fund governance are still unanswered. At the very least, students embarking on a four year degree should be told if the funding is only guaranteed for three.

The loss of the tax credit does impact mid-career and part-time students who try to upgrade their skills. Whether the financial impact is enough to matter, or whether it is mitigated by new programmes, is still unknown. 

In the end, government asked 41,000 New Brunswickers to take a cut of between $400 and $2,400, so that 4,200 New Brunswickers can get a new $5,000 bursary. Where they used to get a $5,000 loan.  The debate will now go on over whether that trade off is fair, and if it will improve access. 

But I will bet if they phrased it that way, it wouldn't have gotten as much traction as suggesting it is a new “free tuition” program. Now, with the right numbers behind the labels, let the debate proceed. 

Author's Edit: My friend Alex Usher of Higher Education Associates, weighed in yesterday with a number of points of agreement but one challenge to my use of "lowest income" to describe those who were already maxing out their bursaries and thus, already getting "free tuition". He notes that while being very low income is one way to have far fewer resources than needs and thus get a maximum award, these students are (in his considerable research) more likely to live at home and thus have lower assessed need. He suggests that these students may be "independent students"...those who meet the definition of having been out of high school for four years and thus free from parental contribution requirements. 

Now, this speaks to the identity of that group and not the fact that "free tuition" was a reality for them. And it then raises the question of whether a 22 year old with a low income but from a better off family should be called "low income" (since they still may have more in common with groups who traditionally have high participation rates). It doesn't change the points here of the size of groups who benefit or don't. But it is an important dimension to debating the policy outcome, and with thanks to Alex I note it here. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

A CALL TO NEW DEMOCRATS: Let Us Reason Together

It should be made clear that the NDP has decided to look before they leap.  The LEAP Manifesto, a vision document launched by a who’s who of Canadian celebrity activists, has been forwarded on to the party grassroots for debate and discussion.  The authors and supporters of the Manifesto are to be congratulated for this, and it showed confidence in their ideas that they did not press their convention floor advantage to end the debate.  

The LEAP Manifesto certainly tries to live up to the parting words of Tom Mulcair that the NDP will dream no small dreams.  It imagines a completely clean economy by 2050, spurred on by a screeching halt to subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and a carbon tax where polluters pay more.  The Manifesto challenges the Liberals’ acceptance of further trade agreements and calls for greater emphasis on building local economies and agriculture.  It calls out the price of austerity agendas and calls for a living wage and guaranteed annual income for Canadians, with public sector job growth in caregiving, zero-emission jobs like teaching, child care and social work and an ambitious retraining agenda to aid workers through the economic shifts.

Politically, this document would give the NDP a clear identity, although the breadth of its appeal is open to debate. It would give Canadian progressives their own version of the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders showdown, except in a two-party structure rather than the internecine battle the U.S. Democrats are waging.  Winning progressive parties, it must said, manage to speak to both of those strains of believers, and therein lies the challenge. 

It would also mark the end of one era in progressive politics and begin a new one.  In that, it will bring a close to the three decades of a progressive approach that ranges from Bill Clinton’s breakthrough to the final victories of Barack Obama and Jack Layton.

There is a tendency, in this debate, to view the past outside of its historical context.  To understand the very real merits of what is happening in the LEAP Manifesto and its international equivalents, it is worth understanding why the Third Way was ascendant in the first place.

When the 1980’s wound down, the political right was having an extended moment.  Ronald Reagan retired undefeated and was able to bequeath power to his Vice-President.  Brian Mulroney had overcome massive personal unpopularity to not only win, but ratify a free trade agreement that was anathema to the left.  Margaret Thatcher declared there was no such thing as society and started a war over islands, and was winning majorities.  Jacques Chirac and Helmut Kohl won comfortable victories.

The left wasn’t just losing power.  We were losing ground.  These wins by the right led to massive tax cuts for the wealthy, the loss of social programs and universal benefits, and draconian approaches to crime that destroyed families.

The climate that allowed these policies to win had been sowed by what came before.  In the 1970’s, left-wing parties were governing.  The New Deal era and very real victories had given way to an economic recession that shook faith in government.  Governments were finding that there were limits to how regularly governments could run deficits and raise taxes, and families got hurt.  Interest rates, driven up by the demand government borrowing placed upon the money supply, exceeded 20%. (To imagine what that’s like, imagine having to put your mortgage on your credit card).  Investment and risk-taking dried up and jobs were lost, and inflation began to cycle.  

At the same time, new technology, communications and efficient transportation expanded the ability of companies to move outside of national economies and regulations.  If the 1950”s and 60’s had seen governments make regulation national to keep companies from leveraging local governments, by the dawn of the 1980’s companies were threatening international moves to leverage national governments.

For conservatives like Reagan and Thatcher, this was a perfect storm.  The working class, unionized households that had bolstered the left through the New Deal and Equal Opportunity eras were hurting, and they were ready to vote for change.  Reagan and Thatcher and Mulroney essentially argued that the problem was not that big business was exploiting the new international game, but that incompetent leftists were trying to resist and cling to higher taxes, environmental regulations and unionized work.  Play the game, they urged, let companies benefit and the benefits will trickle down to all of us.

The gambit worked beautifully, and in some ways, the excesses of the left in ignoring economic reality let them get away with it.  Taxing and borrowing with ease had led to an ability to avoid some basic issues of public management and our own excesses created the conditions for a counteraction.

Of course, the right quickly began to give in to its own excesses.  After a burst of good times gained by rolling back the most excessive taxes and regulations, the flaws of conservatism showed.  Tax cuts did not, in fact, pay for themselves with economic growth and so deficits ballooned.  As deficits ballooned, public services like health and education were cut back with disastrous effects upon families and the economy.  The expansion of free trade without any safeguards for local economies decimated communities.  When the situation grew desperate, the right fell back on blaming the victims of economic change, creating draconian laws to deal with alleged career criminals and welfare cheats.  This probably reached its nadir in the cruel last days of the Mike Harris government, where one pregnant woman died of heat exhaustion while under house arrest for a minor case of welfare fraud, and the overstretched and underregulated local government in Walkerton poisoned its residents with tainted water, killing seniors and children.

As the right lost lots claim to good governance, they won a few final elections by scaring people about the still-remembered folly of the left.  Figures such as Ed Broadbent, Neil Kinnock and Mike Dukakis saw their window of opportunity close with vicious campaigns focused on the issues where we did not yet have voters’ trust – taxes, crime and trade.

Which led to the rise of the Third Way.  Left-wing parties would stop denying the reality of the economic change that had occurred.  There were limits on taxing, spending and borrowing, they would say, and they could be trusted to manage these new realities more gently and kindly than the right-wingers who cruelly embraced them.  They would focus on responsibility and community to make collective social goals possible, they would focus on smaller regulations such as family leave and small minimum wage hikes, they would live with the need to reduce tax bills but would focus the benefits more on the middle class and less on the plutocrats.  Where they would push for large new social investment, it would be in areas where many businesses would see a competitive benefit to the expense – education, training, R&D and infrastructure.

By accepting some limits on their left flank, progressives like Clinton, Blair, Schroeder and Chretien won elections and did indeed roll back the worst excesses of the right.  It must also be acknowledged that, for a while, the result was economic growth.  The right had surely underfunded important economic services like education and infrastructure, they had sidelined too many potential workers through poverty and illiteracy, their deficits caused by reckless tax cuts had made capital too expensive.  The balanced budgets, community-minded left did create a boom of jobs, investment and start-ups by re-embracing the role of government in the economy.  In fact, Al Gore did fight for funding for an obscure DND project called the internet, which needed public money in its incubator until the private sector saw a way to make money off of it.  He did take the lead in the invention of the Internet, even if the awkward phrasing would haunt him.

It is highly dubious that an ideological approach that sought to return to the tax rates and borrowing of the 1970s would have worked.  I recall in 1993, squeezed by the Liberals, the NDP ran an angry black-and-white ad raging about free trade and austerity.  We won 9 seats, while the avuncular Chretien and his red book marginalized the NDP for a decade.

Today, as many rush to embrace the insurgencies of Sanders, Corbyn and the LEAP Manifesto, they see only the modern limitations of the Third Way. They forget, or never knew, the context of its rise – that there was a very real need to accept the excesses of the 1970’s in order to beat the right and stop the damage of the Reagan/Thatcher/Mulroney years.  This is why many of us who fancy ourselves genuine progressives have a softer view of the Clinton/Blair/Chretien years – because we remember what came before and why it beat us.

The difference here may be less about the politics, more about the possible.

If that sounds like a set up to trash the LEAP Manifesto, I am about to surprise you.  Like the Sanders insurgence, I think it is a positive development and worthy of good faith discussion by all Canadian progressives.  That is not to say very troubling questions -- about affordability, about the narrowness of its vision, about its regionally narrow view in a big, diverse country -- should be ignored. If LEAP fans are to be party builders and not iconoclasts, they will have to see questions like these as opportunities rather than hostilities. But for all that, there are aims here that resonate with many willing to work for the NDP, and that must also be heard. 

The Third Way gambit was worthy because, if we were honest, there was no real plan to combat the global movement of companies and capital.  Even if we accepted the moral critique of what was happening, there was not a good answer for the fear that excesses in taxation and regulation would drive companies away.  History tells us that there is always a lag time between big business’ ability to move beyond government’s ability to regulate, and government’s reaction.  Companies used to threaten local and governments with moving to other cities, driving down taxes and leaving many small centers with substandard schools, hospitals and social programs.  The New Deal/Equal Opportunity era saw government began to work provincially and nationally to rein in these excesses.  The occasional proposal like the Tobin Tax aside, government had not yet figured out how to react to the fact that business could move internationally and government could only act nationally.

Of course, the first step to an international arena where government insists on fair trade, living wages and decent social programs starts with a consensus among national governments.  In a way that was unimaginable when I watched Bill Clinton get nominated in 1992, there is some hope for international standards and collaboration.  If the Third Way was an acceptance of the best idea we had at the time, the LEAP Manifesto appears just when there is hope of something better.  That is the best reason of all to start a new era.

The LEAP Manifesto envisions a Canada where the Liberal Party pursues progressive goals within the same system, where free trade, mobile capital and hedge fund managers operate with minimal government oversight, while New Democrats question and challenge the limits of the system itself. 

Dotage, my ass. That was the speech of the year. 

This is not a bad thing.  Stephen Lewis’s critique of Justin Trudeau resonated because it was fair – while Trudeau has mastered the symbolism of a break from Harper by embracing Syrian refugees, transgender rights and marijuana legalization, he has not really broken from Harper when it comes to actually transferring money from haves to have nots.  The lack of hard action on child care funding, First Nations programs, environmental regulation and foreign aid matters more than all the Twitter #BecauseIts2015 mentions will.  His willingness to run deficits may prove less progressive if it is spent on politically driven road projects and corporate bailouts and does not leave behind a stronger, renewed social safety net.

The LEAP Manifesto clearly goes beyond hashtag activism, and deserves credit for focusing our discussions on goals like First Nations rights, environmental sustainability, income inequality and a guaranteed national income.  As millennials face life in the Uber economy, renewal of the social safety net is an essential discussion of we are not all to be standby labour for big business.  A call for universal early childhood education is simply a recognition of what the science of human development has been telling us for 20 years – because it’s 2015, indeed.

If any of this is to matter, the debate must keep our coalition together, the coalition that Jack Layton built.  And that will require discipline from all sides.

For those who were supporters of Layton and Mulcair for their centrist appeals, we must keep an open mind that maybe the Overton window has opened for a more activist state, and not let the caution of battles past close our minds to the growing expressions of willingness to address some of the structural problems in the economy that are still leaving too many families behind and goals unfulfilled.

For those who have already signed on to the LEAP manifesto, I can only encourage them to continue to invite debate and to accept thoughtful critiques on the journey to their goals.  Do not dismiss those voices that fought in different eras, but seek to address them.  When Naomi Klein tweeted that the motion to accept the Manifesto was a victory of “hope over fear”, I admit I recoiled.  Using the same language that described the defeat of Stephen Harper to summarize a debate among friends is dangerous indeed.

Political advice, Ms. Klein: don't attack your friends with the words you aim at your enemies.

Jack Layton and Tom Mulcair (and for that matter, Darrel Dexter and Rachel Notley) grew their coalitions by reaching a large group of progressive swing voters, those who choose between Liberals and New Democrats (I will claim to understand these voters, for reasons that are clear).  These voters often choose the Liberals when they find the NDP too fixated on complaints and not enough upon solutions.  They will return to the NDP when the Liberals’ pragmatism veers too close to entitlement and political calculation.  If we use our renewal process to find solutions together, we will win.

Reading the LEAP Manifesto, legitimate questions come to mind.  

1. The authors call for jobs in approved sectors such as caregiving, education and the arts.  As a philosophy major and educator, I have no doubt that these are legitimate economic drivers.  Yet surely people can aspire to be engineers, programmers, entrepreneurs, pipe fitters, investors, and many other things too.  And surely, to grow these public sector drivers will require some economic activity where taxes are not just a percentage of a public salary.  We cannot create cronyism of good intentions, where we narrow our focus of job creation to a point we ignore the dreams of many Canadians.

2. As an Atlantic Canadian, I felt uneasy at what sounded like a too-flippant tone to the displacement of workers in economic shifts.  Our emotional rejection of the Harper Conservatives flows in part from a sense that they always saw Atlantic Canada as little more than a source of surplus labour for the oil patch if we could be pushed to move.  There is a need to understand that, for many small towns with their own community institutions and local economies, retraining and public transit alone will not answer the fear and unease that comes from being torn apart by grand economic shifts.  We cannot simply treat Alberta the way Harper treated, say, Cape Breton.  We are better than that.

3. The need for income security has never been greater.  The LEAP Manifesto has the right instincts in addressing living wages and guaranteed annual incomes.  However, it falls back into an outdated false dichotomy that suggests we are all workers or corporations.  In fact, entrepreneurs and investors are increasingly those who need income security so that they can take risks and grow the economy.  Simply adding money to old programs may not be as effective as asking what income security means in a new economy.  This debate can be an opportunity for our party if we come to grips with it – because local entrepreneurship increasingly stands as an antidote to multinational dominance.  In other words, small businesses and startups should be part of our coalition.

These can be seen as critiques, or opportunities to collaborate on new ideas.  I challenge my NDP colleagues to see them as the latter. In his eulogy for Rob Ford, his former chief of staff Mark Towhey reminded us all of Torontonians whose hearts don't flutter at public art installations or the shifting of paradigms, but simply work too long for too little money and want their calls returned, potholes filled, and streets safe. Ford won because he remembered them. Because our ideas are better, we only lose to the right when we forget them. I can introduce you to voters who want plans, not manifestos. Jack reached them. We still can. 

Forty-four seats doesn't get you the sugar it used to.

As Tom Mulcair once said, the ceiling is now the floor for the NDP.  Not long ago, a leader winning 44 seats would have been a conquering hero.  Our expectations have grown, and that is a good thing.  But with big goals must come big tents.  The NDP kept this growing coalition together through two leaders; Jack Layton through force of personality and Tom Mulcair through the prospect of power.  Now, both leaders are gone.  Coming out of this weekend, we can either shrink or grow in their absence.  Each of us has the potential to be a leader in keeping our coalition together.

In the weeks ahead, the media will likely remind us of the risks – the 52/48 leadership vote, the Trudeau honeymoon, and the loss of Stornoway.  If we insist upon seeing ourselves as two camps, if we buy their paradigm, we will risk seeing our coalition return to the pre-Layton days.  

But if we truly open our hearts and minds to each other, if we accept that we all are prepared to dream big dreams, then this weekend may be the start of a new era rather than the end of our quest to govern.  To mix icons of both sides of this vital debate, ‘tis truly not too late to make a better world if we have the courage to reason together.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016


Is democracy still a sexy issue?

There was a theory, popular among the most cynical members of the political establishment, which says that voters don’t care about process.  When Stephen Harper was proroguing Parliament, blocking independent officers’ inquiries, stuffing omnibus bills through Parliament, many jaded journos yawned and said that it wouldn’t really matter because nobody cares.

Yet, when Justin Trudeau won, there was a general sense in the land that maybe people did care, that Harper’s cynicism and manipulation wore out his welcome and made Trudeau’s open spirit seem even more refreshing when it arrived.  Maybe people really do care about making sure that politicians respect the ground rules of democracy, transparency and decency.

All right, New Brunswick.  It’s your turn to weigh in.

Because if Bill 27, introduced by the Gallant government this week, doesn’t make you mad enough to fight back once you know what’s in there, not much will.

If you don’t get mad when your government guts the Auditor-General’s office, you’ll prove the cynics right.

If you don’t get mad when the Ombudsman and Child Advocate, with their proud history of raising issues of how government can hurt those without power, get silenced, you’ll fire up all the ‘told-you-so’s’ of the cynics.

If you watch your government become the only one in Canada to throw the Inquiries Act out the door so they don’t have to tell anyone the truth in real time, and you decide it’s fine as long as the roads get paved, you will not have a government fear your power of protest again.

If they can get away with this, governments will know they can get away with anything.

Here’s what is happening in Bill 27.

For years, through successive administrations, governments have lived with the idea that there are offices that hold them and their officials to account.  The Auditor-General can ask departments if they are delivering results with the millions we give them, and followed the rules when spending our money.  The Ombudsman can ask if citizens got treated fairly.  The Child and Youth Advocate can ask uncomfortable questions when young offenders die in custody or children don’t learn in school.

It’s no fun when one of these independent voices says you could have done better.  I know.  I got slammed hard by one, once, when I was a minister.  But I accepted it, like Frank McKenna, and Bernard Lord, and Shawn Graham, and David Alward did.  Because in a democracy, people have a right to let the facts come out so they can question you.  Because in a democracy, you do better when you know you’ll have to explain yourself.  It pushes you to do better.

Here are the facts about this Bill 27.

It practically shuts down the ability of the Auditor-General to do performance audits.  Each year, the A-G puts out a report detailing what happened when she showed up and asked departments if programs were actually delivering what they were supposed to.  She could ask for any document, demand an interview with anyone, and make you answer.

Not anymore.  The government has taken away her powers under the Inquiries Act – the law that lets investigators and officers get documents and interviews when they feel it is necessary.  Her powers to enforce a summons (Section 5), to require answers (Section 6), run meetings (Section 7), gather evidence (Section 8) – those are gone.  

In particular, the elimination of Section 8 is a big loss.  Before, if the A-G thought something might be necessary to get at the truth, she was entitled to it.  The onus was on government to show there was some exception, like privacy rights, that applied.  Now, the A-G only gets documents if they would be admissible in court to you and I.  The onus is on her to go to Court and get the documents, and she has to prove admissibility even if she hasn’t seen them.  She doesn’t even have the disclosure process of an ordinary citizen to know what to ask for.  It is, essentially, a bill that creates a maze of delay for the A-G to ask even basic questions.

As well, Section 13 of this Bill limits the few powers they leave her – to request documents and take it to court if she doesn’t get them – to “audits”, which the Definitions section limits to those following accounting principles.  What that means is, if the A-G is not reviewing balance sheets and accounting, she has no power to get information. Her ability to do “performance audits” – to ask about loans gone bad, programs that don’t work, contracts given without tender, patronage gone mad – that is effectively gone.

When you hear a government spokesperson reply that the A-G can still go to Court and get documents, remember two things.  First, they’ve changed those rules.  Second, the Minister hiding the information gets represented by the lawyers in the Attorney-General’s office.  The Auditor-General doesn’t have a lawyer unless she hires one out of her office budget.  And the people who decide if she gets a budget to hire lawyers are….the Cabinet.

That should slow down the pace of documents going to the Auditor-General, no?

We may need a new slogan.

To sum up.  The Auditor-General can’t enforce her right to get documents and answers without going to Court.  And they’ve changed the rules for going to Court.  And she can’t have a lawyer to help her go to Court unless the guy hiding the information agrees.

It gets better.

If you read the rest of Bill 27, you will find that almost every other independent watchdog has had their powers limited to get documents.  The Ombudsman.  The Consumer Advocate.  The Child and Youth Advocate. Even the Appeal Board that reviews things if the Minister of Education pulls a teacher’s licence, and tribunals that review treatment of mental health payments.  

Of interest, they’ve specifically limited the powers of the Ombudsman to get documents on Section 33.2 complaints under the Civil Service Act -- the part where complaints can be made that government bypassed the hiring process.  That area of focus for a government is intriguing, at least.

In most cases, the only applicable parts of the Inquiries Act are now limited to Sections 13, 14, and 17 of the Inquiries Act. Now, things get extra sneaky.

Because those sections don’t restore all the powers that existed before. Hearings, publication, the old Section 8 evidence rules are still circumscribed.  Most importantly, their enforcement powers are still gone, reliant upon court intervention where the onus and expense is on them, and your tax dollars will be supporting the lawyers defending the government's right to secrecy. So the powers of independent officers and tribunals are limited to sections that confer no powers of enforcement, and no legislative guarantee of resources to enforce. 

It's also worth noting that the new Inquiries Act is ambiguous about whether a Court can order the government to hand over the information. With the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, there is explicit language making the head of a public body subject to a court order to hand over a document. The new inquiries Act doesn't explicitly say that.  Our independent officers appear to be left to tangle with government as any private litigant.  Against private citizens, they can get orders and contempt findings. Often, these remedies are not available against the government, or Crown.  You can get a declaration that they are breaking the law, and that has moral weight, but an order can't happen. The new Act seems to leave it open for government to argue these points, which will let government slow things down at best, ignore them at worst. After all, if we let them pass this bill, why would they think we would get mad if they ignore a court finding?

Why bother amending their powers to sections they cannot enforce? Why send disputes back to a court system already underresourced? Was there an outbreak of Ombudspeople and Auditor-Generals, dragging documents out of people cruelly and capriciously? There is no reason for this other than to deceive.  The Attorney-General has introduced a Bill that is deliberately drafted to hide its true intent – the repeal of the broader Inquiries Act powers and the termination of independent government oversight by independent officers and tribunals.

If Bill 27 passes, it will be unprecedented in Canada.  No government has dared to be this brazen in simply shutting down oversight by people they cannot control.

The Gallant government has only been in office 18 months, roughly.  In that time, we have now seen the following steps:

  • The gutting of the Legislative Assembly rules to limit sitting days, Question Periods, and Opposition Motions to a statutory minimum of nine days plus time needed for second reading of bills

  • The use of Omnibus bills (stuffing many unrelated bills together to limit debate time) to reduce legislature days – the very practice the federal Liberals say is “undemocratic” and “limits study”

  • The presence in that Omnibus bill of clauses that allow ministers to bypass committees that review qualifications when making appointments, and that change the reporting of government loans and grants from monthly to annually

  • The granting of power to government to interfere with where judges live, which has led to concerns about judicial independence from the Chief Justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench

  • The expressed concern from the press gallery about access to the Premier

  • Now, the limiting of inquiries by the Auditor-General and other parliamentary officers on government’s day-to-day operations

Had Bill 27 been in place before, those who locked up Ashley Smith could have sent the Child Advocate away.  The death of children in care would have remained beyond the powers of Bernard Richard to study.  The Auditor-General could not have asked questions about the safety of daycares, the oversight of health inspections, or the result of loans and grants to business.  The Ombudsman could not have required statistics on the sorry state of child services provided in First Nation communities.

You'd have heard less from this guy.

These things all happened.  They held people accountable.  They made people uncomfortable.  They changed behaviour and they let people know that government is never above having to answer.  And elected governments of the day accepted that as the accountability that comes with power.

Now, the question is put to us, as citizens.  Did past governments accept this only because they were good people, and we were lucky that they acted decently?  Or was there also a safeguard that citizens would demand that governments behave decently, openly and democratically?  Were we always ready to defend our democracy, or simply at the mercy of the first premier who would be brazen enough to change the rules to benefit himself?  Will we demand that opposition parties commit to roll these changes back before trusting them with power? Can Liberals of good conscience challenge their premier to live up to the best traditions of his party and not the worst impulses of his character?

We will know soon enough.  The government has introduced a Charter of Rights for Cabinet Ministers, with a right to secrecy for themselves.  Will we care?