I see that Premier Alward has a 61% approval rating among those with an opinion in the latest opinion poll. There is a lot of good will for the Conservatives right now but we don’t need to go back to ancient history to see that New Brunswickers provide this good will early in most mandates. I remember marvelling at the good will for former Premier Graham early in his mandate – before he did anything.
This, of course, is a double-edged sword because any difficult decisions in government will hit the polling numbers and Alward will not have the luxury of delaying the decisions.
I have to chuckle when Tory partisans – in the op/ed pages – talk about how Alward has ‘been there before’ and was part of a fiscally responsible government that made the ‘tough’ decisions.
More money poured into the government coffers (in real terms) under Premier Lord than any other Premier in history. The province was awash in tax dollars – the largest increases coming from federal transfers but there was also fairly strong increases in own source as well. The question for Lord and his Cabinet was where to allocate the 5% average annual increase in spending – and they ended up putting the vast majority into health care (and less so into education).
Federal transfers increased by almost $600 million from the 99-00 budget to the 05-06 budget – which is all the more remarkable given that population actually declined slightly in that period.
So Lisa Keenan’s partisanship aside (equally matched, I might add, by Britt Dysart on the Liberal side of the ledger), Premier Alward has not been anywhere close to this before. He can expect sluggish private sector economic growth (given that he will have to ratchet down public spending which his a huge impact on the private economy) and a tightening of the belt by Ottawa over the next few years.
If Alward wants a model, he will have to go back to McKenna in the early 1990s but as Don Drummond pointed out at the FutureNB summit, even McKenna benefitted from robust private economic growth during that period.
Back to good will. I think that it is a murky concept but it must have something to do with a comfort level by the public that the government is in good hands.
I also think that a clear vision for the future of NB is also beneficial to enhance good will. Most people don’t sit around thinking about the future of their communities or future generations – they are trying to build and maintain a good quality of life in the here and now but I think at some level they want to believe things are moving in the ‘right’ direction -whatever that is.
Three pieces of advice for the Premier:
1. Open up the books and be crystal clear with people about the fiscal problems and the options for solution. There are still a huge amount of NBers who think there is a thick layer of ‘fat’ in the public service that can be cut with minimal influence on front line service delivery. I don’t think this is the case but it is up to the government to prove this. As I have said before public financial accountability has gotten worse in recent years. I recently wanted to find out how much the government spends in payroll – just that simple number – and couldn’t find it anywhere – not the estimates, not the blue book, not the AG reports – nothing. I would publish clear data for people on the cost of government, overhead, benefits costs, back office vs. front line costs – just like a publicly traded company – this would help people support the ultimate decisions of government.
If the public thinks the choice is between cutting ‘fat’ and raising the HST which do you think they will support? If the public thinks the choice is between cutting doctors and raising the HST the calculus changes.
2. To any cost cutting and tax raising, I would add a clear third leg to the stool called economic development. We spend over $200 million a year on ‘economic development’ and I think we need to get a better ROI on that spending. In my view we could spend less but be more targeted on building the case for specific growth sectors. If people see a path to private sector growth, they will be less (certainly not completely) worried about the contraction on the public side.
3. People say they want to be consulted, I would consult. Between now and March I’d have town halls in every single city, town, village, hamlet, burb – I’d do Twitter, Facebook, RogersTV, CBC, newspapers, magazines, – I know this comes at a cost but the people have asked for it – they kept saying with the Graham reforms – post-secondary, French Immersion, health regions, NB Power, etc. that they were not consulted. Fair enough. Consult. Make it the goal to see that a majority of NBers felt they had some input or are comfortable with the process – they may still dislike the outcome but they won’t be able to say they weren’t consulted.