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Let's have a policy debate

Comments (10)
By Jacques Poitras

The weekend is here, giving us time to ponder some of the bigger, broader issues lurking in the background of this election campaign. I’d be interested in reader reaction to a pattern I’ve seen in the following Conservative policies and promises:

Gas price regulation and a cut in the gas tax. Presumably, someone who can afford to drive an enormous, gas-guzzling, carbon-dioxide-spewing Hummer can afford high gas prices, but they’ll benefit from this.

An HST rebate on home heating fuel. Besides helping low-income people, this will also make it cheaper for someone living in a $500,000 home to heat their two-car garage.

A tuition tax credit program (supported by the opposition Liberals) that’s conditional on graduates studying, staying and working in New Brunswick. The next generation of Irvings and McCains can look forward to the same $10,000 that you can if they go to school here and stay here to run their companies.

A new provincewide rural development fund to replace regional development funds for the Acadian Peninsula, Miramichi and Restigouche-Chaleur areas. This means those regions will now have to compete with more prosperous areas of the province for money designed to stimulate the economy.

The above comments are not a critique; I’m merely trying to spur a debate by putting the policies in the context of an age-old dilemma for governments – whether to make new programs universal, i.e., applying to everyone, or whether to target them at people who need them the most.

I’ll also point out that other Lord policies have been targeted, such as taking low-income New Brunswickers off the tax roll, or increasing the minimum wage. In each of the four cases listed above, though, Lord has opted for universality. The left may argue that the Conservatives are trying to help the wealthy, but there are sound arguments for universality: For one thing, it’s much easier (and less expensive) to administer a universal program, rather than one that requires assessing someone’s need. As well, universal programs meet the conventional, strict definitions of fairness and equality. (A cynic will point out they also appeal to a larger number of voters.)

A number of analysts have questioned this approach, however. Earlier this year, for example, a report by the Educational Policy Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan think-tank (read the PDF here), said that universal tuition tax credits are a bad idea, because they spread the benefit thinly among a large number of recipients. It would be better, the report argues, to target that same pool of money to low-income students who need it the most. The same logic could be applied to the other programs described above.

So what do you think: Is the Lord government right to adopt the universal approach, or would it be more effective to design programs to help those most in need? Please post your comments below. If this weekend policy debate generates enough interest, I’ll try another one next weekend.

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Comments (10)

Philip Gammon

I believe that many, if not most, programs should be universal! All too often government programs seem to descriminate against the middle class. Just because we went on to persue higher education and/or worked hard so that we get to live a comfortable life, does not mean we cannot use some support! Prices are constantly rising in every aspect of daily life and a universal approach is the only way to tackle this. Also, I don't know if anybody is paying attention to our demographics, but New Brunswick is not full of rich people who own 500,000 sq/ft homes and Hummers!

The only policy I am opposed to is the rural development policy. From a purely economic standpoint, I understand the underlying logic. In a perfect economic world, money should only be allocated to areas that are guaranteed to give the biggest cash return. However, from a socio-economic standpoint, this is not the best strategy. In a province with demographics like ours, we need to balance the economic and social benefits created by funding business initiatives. For example, creating jobs for 5 pleople in a rural area will have a greater socio-economic impact than creating 10 jobs in an region like Moncton. Also, businesses setting up in areas such as Moncton, Fredericton and Saint John have an easier time securing funding from banks and investors. Therefor, funding should be allocated on a regional basis with the preconception that money should be invested in viable initiatives that promote economic diversification (not call centres!!!). After all, without regional development agencies like ACOA, New Brunswick would be in much worse shape. Then, if funds are not exhausted in any one area, they should be redistributed to areas that can and will use them.

Posted August 30, 2006 11:23 AM

Roger Durepos

Moncton

I think that Stephen Downes commentary represents his opinion and is far from being factual. He should have pointed out that the Lord Government and New Brunswick had to deal with a very unfriendly government (probably too busy dealing with the sponsorship scandals and the RCMP) in Ottawa with Prime Minister Martin. The failure in the negotiations was not in Fredericton, but in Ottawa.

And today, we have the proof of what I’m saying here. There is a new Conservative Government in Ottawa with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and now, New Brunswick is getting its fair share. How many times PM Harper has been in New Brunswick? I would say more than three times, always bringing better news the people here.

I have doubt about Mr. Downes capacity to write an accurate comment but no doubt whatsoever about Premier Lord’s capacity to lead a strong government.

Posted August 28, 2006 01:06 PM

David Campbell

Moncton

I think universality is code for 'broadest possible group of voters'. Increasingly as any Premier's mandate drags on (we are in year 8) there is more focus on just the process of getting re-elected. Take the HST rebate on electricity. I have a 100 year old home that, although I have a efficient heat pump and four fireplaces, uses a lot of electricity. I should 'save' $300/year from the HST rebate. Actually, I won't save this at all as the power rates have gone up by roughly the same amount. But getting in my power bill a reminder to send in my form for my HST rebate is a powerful little trick in political terms.

This was great politics - but bad policy. Giving middle class David Campbell a $300/year HST cut to mask an large increase in power rates doesn't make much policy sense. But, it's a bit like the $100 cheque I got from Stephen Harper for my youngest daughter.

Anyway, back on topic, it seems that everyone of the universal programs you list above should garner more votes (in theory) than highly restrictive programs.

Richard Hatfield hung on for 17 years. McKenna probably could've lastest another seven as he left just as the coffers started filling up again. New Brunswickers don't like change (the ones that do have left) and for politicians this means if you stay out of trouble and dole out goodies at election time you should be able to stay around for a long time.

Posted August 27, 2006 06:08 PM

Charles LeBlanc

Fredericton

I would love to know which leader of the Liberal or the NDP Party are going to speak up on Ritalin or the issue of VLT'S?

We know Bernard Lord views on these important issues.

http://oldmaison.blogspot.com/

Posted August 27, 2006 12:00 AM

Scott Mackay

sorrycentrist.blogspot.com/

There is no question that universality is the best and proper approach to take in a province where the demographics clearly show more individuals living in lower to middle income rather than in a state of poverty or upper class. In other words, policies that are specifically driven towards the so-called "Tim Hortons" crowd rather than the "Starbucks" crew are bound to be more successful for the economy in the long run because a healthy "middle class" is what makes the economy fire on all cylinders. Over taxation or targeting your policies to benefit just the lower class will drag down the middle class, thus discriminating against your most reliable tax bracket.

For instance, I am not in favour of the PC's gas regulation policy as it is easy for the global market to fluctuate up or down in the matter of days [i.e. the Middle East]; However, I do understand that given the circumstances and economic reality of New Brunswick, this may have been the only short-term approach that could be adopted to suit the situation at hand.

A note to all bloggers: There is a great discussion going on over at "Spink about it" regarding this very issue: (http://spinkaboutit.blogspot.com/)", so if you're inclined to an opinion and like to rant endlessly anout an issue, don't be afraid to wander on over to his blog and let him know.

Posted August 26, 2006 04:48 PM

Stephen Downes

Moncton

This is a very common characteristic of the Lord government. It is passive. The feds have to come to him. It's not up to the government to initiate funding programs, or tourist programs, or development programs. Which means that the worthwhile programs - the ones that take some effort - escape, while the New Breunswick government ends up funding things that would be done anyways.

I could continue with this comment - there's no shoratge of examples, but you get the point. There is no need to fish for an issue in this election. the issue should, very clearly, be a question of competence. But no media outlet in this province is going to touch this. because, on this issue, Lord is swept out of office.

Stephen Downes
http://www.downes.ca
halfanhour.blogspot.com

Posted August 26, 2006 10:39 AM

Stephen Downes

Moncton

Lord did attempt to obtain funding for a nuclear plant. However, he was unable to reach a deal with the federal government, and then blamed the federal government for the failure, despite the fact that no similar deal exists with any other province.

Lord, meanwhile, was a strong supporter of Harper's pre-election plan to address 'fiscal imbalance'. He should have checked the plan, however, since he apparently failed to realize that the plan would mean less money for New Breunswick, not more. It turns out that Ontario and New Brunswick have very different views on what constitutes fiscal imbalance.

Lord claims to have accomplished a lot. He boasted in a recent speech, for example, to have spent more money on roads than ever before. New Brunswickers would be wondering where this money went - he appears to have paved only a few kilometers of highway. Fredericton residents are familiar with the never-ending construction of the link to highway two. Moncton residents are still waiting for their new bridge to be connected to a major road. Dieppe residents are still waiting for a bridge. In seven years, Lord has not managed to connect the highway system with either Maine or Quebec.

Residents of New Brunswick are also wondering about Lord's health care management plan. Not simply the $25 million announced this month for a health care records system, again missing for the preceeding seven years. But also the closure of hospitals and the plan to develop 'regional specializations', busing patients from (say) Moncton to Saint John (or to Halifax) for treatment.

Posted August 26, 2006 10:39 AM

Stephen Downes

Moncton

Both the insurance and the gas price regulations were fiascos, for example. Not simply did they favour Lord's patrons, they were launched in a confused and unclear fashion, with changes and announcements being made at the last minute.

Even the current election was launched in this ad hoc style, with Lord being unable to pick a day and organize an election-launch rally on time.

Lord's planning process produced a document, the 'five in five' plan, giving his government the distinction of taking seven years to produce a five year plan.

The orimulsion fiasco has received only limited coverage in the press. For those who have forgotten, Lord's government committed $800 million to build an orimulsion plant without first having signed a contract for delivery with the only orimulsion producers in the world, thew Venezuelans.

The Conservatives do not, in fact, have a long term plan for energy sustainability. So far as any observer can judge, the plan is to essentially have Irving import oil and gas from the world market.

Posted August 26, 2006 10:38 AM

Stephen Downes

Moncton

This year, oil companies (and especially irving) are gouging New Brunswick drivers. Despite paying the same world price as other jurisdictions, and despite similar taxation rates, New brunswick oil companies have charged much more than their counterparts in Ontario (and consistently more than their counterparts in regulated PEI). Lord brought in regulation, but in such a way that his patrons would not be impacted. Hence, while small wholesalers are squeezed out, Irving chugs along, untouched.

If we look at what Lord promises and what he does, it's a similar pattern. He wants to appear to be a populist. For example, after hearing requests for years, he has finally promised $250 million to refurbish schools. Critics will point out (correctly) that he has ignored this infrastructure for seven years. The $250 million will disappear after the election, just as his promised health care expenses disappeared after the last election. Why? His patrons disapprove of expenditures on health and education - they would much rather see these systems privatized. Well, Lord can't do that - but he can run them into the ground in the interim, in the hopes that enough New Brunswickers will plead for private services, anything, to replace the mess they must endure.

The real issue in this election - or, what would be the real issue, were the media not almost completely controlled by Lord's patrons - is the general incompetence of the Lord administration, its inability to do anything in the way of proactive governance of the province. This is why Lord attacks Graham on his qualifications. because, were the spotlight pointed the other way, Lord would be seen as incompetent.

Posted August 26, 2006 10:38 AM

Stephen Downes

Moncton

(Note: this blog has a 2000 character limitation for comments, a silly and inconvenient rule. So my response has been split up. Or you can find it as a single post at http://halfanhour.blogspot.com )

If the Conservative policies have favoured universal programs recently, that's only an accident. Certainly, it would be odd to paint them with the 'uiniversalist' lable. And in this case, it would probably be incorrect. Better to paint them with a lable that is probably more accurate (at least in intent): populist.

What Bernard Lord is trying to do is to reads the mood of New Brunswick voters and then to deliver what they want. or, more accurately, to look like he's delivering what they want, so long as it doesn't offend his well heeled patrons.

Auto insurance, for example, was the big issue in the last election. Insurance companies were gouging the public. Lord promised to regulate the companies. After being elected, he first ignored that promise, and then when the noise became loud enough, he brought in a watered-down version. This, in combination with voluntary premiums reductions, was enough to abate the criticism (New Brunswickwers, it appears, are not able en masse to look at insurance rates in, say, Manitoba).

Posted August 26, 2006 10:37 AM

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About the Author

Jacques PoitrasJacques Poitras is CBC Radio's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick. He has reported on the province's politics for The Current, The House, Don Newman's Politics, and other CBC and Radio-Canada programs. He is also the author of The Right Fight: Bernard Lord and the Conservative Dilemma, published by Goose Lane Editions.

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