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Solutions without problems

With the Conservative Party of Canada’s leadership debates complete, it’s time to talk about one of the major challenges the party faces.

A student of public policy will probably tell you that one of the foundations of good policy is defining a problem that ought to be fixed. There are lots of policy wonks out there that actually miss this step. What happens when said people miss this step is that you tend to spew ideas about changes that should be made without telling people why the change is needed in the first place.

Have you ever been in a meeting where your boss or coach or parent decrees a new rule or procedure upon you? In many cases, you can see that the rule or procedure or protocol fixes a defined problem and you can accept it (sometimes begrudgingly). In other circumstances, you may be thinking ‘what problem is this supposed to solve?’ Maybe its a new expense policy or attendance policy or dress code. Often you can connect A to B, and life carries on. But, when you can’t connect A to B, you’re left asking yourself more questions than you have answers for and it leaves you puzzled. Think about a time that this has actually happened to you. I’m sure it has… it happens more than we think!

So, Rob, what does this have to do with policy? Well, the same principle applies. The next time you hear a politician say something like ‘let’s pull out of the Paris Accord,’ your response might be bewildered as to why. What problem is it trying to solve? See how this works?

The second part of defining a problem is that in order for there to be wide acceptance of the policy solution, a lot of people need to define the problem in the same way. If I were the boss of my neighborhood, and I wanted to propose that every lawn needs to be cut on Friday, the average homeowner might ask me why. I would answer by saying that having uneven grass across the neighborhood over the weekend depresses property values. I may have a why answer by identifying a problem, but if nobody else defines the problem like that, there would be no support for the policy to advance.

This is relevant when we talk about policy debates and ideas of yesteryear and revive them. So, if somebody comes in and proposes to defund the CBC, for example, how many among us really think that’s the problem we need to fix right now? (N.B., I am not saying we should keep it – I’m just saying not enough people think its a problem to talk about it).

The last thing to watch out for are instances where policy problem is defined but the proposed solution doesn’t fix the problem. As a parent, I might complain that the kids don’t pick their clothes off the floor. I might surmise that it must mean that the hamper in their room must be too small to fit all of their clothes, so I buy a bigger hamper and put it in their room. Bewildered, a week later, I walk into their room and the problem just hasn’t gone away. This is an example of the solution not fixing the problem.

Think about tax cuts. As a conservative, I’m prone to believe that tax cuts create jobs, and over the long run, this means that we’ll collect more in tax revenue. However, if people define the problem of budgetary balance, cutting revenue won’t get you there unless you slash spending even more. In other words, deficit financing tax cuts does not fix your balance budget problem.

To sum up the Conservatives’ problem: They’ve got solutions without problems to fix and/or solutions to things people don’t see as problems and/or solutions that don’t fix the defined problem.

Conservatives won’t get anywhere unless we fix this, and the person best able to match problems with solutions gets my vote.

Covid-19: Back to Blog Edition

I probably should get back to blogging. I’m already tired of Zoom, Teams, Google Meets, and whatever else is out there. I find myself starring at my computer all day. So, I’m firing this baby back up. Hope you keep coming back!

Conservatives need a new script on climate change

One of the most frustrating things to watch is how political mistakes keep repeating. The Scheer Conservatives badly lost an election (my hot take), and certainly there are a lot of disappointed people running about in conservative circles. Before I comment on the Scheer leadership question, I believe it is important for Conservatives to do a bit of introspection on policies and messages that need to change. I’ll be spending some time on this blog explaining where I see some of the need for major changes. There are more than just a few things to say on the environment, but I’m going to stick with climate change.

The Conservative response to climate in the last election was basically to come up with a loosely linked set of policies driven to regulate polluters. It was also to oppose the carbon tax. What did people hear? They heard that Conservatives didn’t have a climate change policy because they wouldn’t put a price on carbon. Those dinosaurs, they said, want to become extinct like the dinosaurs! What’s worse is the fact that Scheer’s social media ads are doubling down on this losing crusade.

Now, I get that the rational conservative voter can link a tax to their pocket book, but the rational voting public have identified a public policy problem and the Conservatives have failed to identify a solution to that problem to satisfy them. In effect, we abdicated our responsibility to develop practical public policy solutions to society’s challenges. This is most definitely an indictment on leadership. The lack of sincerity and attention to this area of public policy means that people think the party isn’t taking the problem seriously, if at all.

This isn’t an issue motivated by pocket book concerns at this point in time. The far greater societal concern is that a collective effort is needed to solve this particular challenge. Conservatives that challenge the idea about whether human activity caused this particular problem and/or whether modifying human activity will fix this particular problem are fighting yesterday’s policy debates. They aren’t talking about the challenges today, no less about what Canada might look like in 2030 or 2040.

Here’s the thing: to fix this problem, things are going to become more expensive. Conservatives continue to rail against a carbon tax. Environmentalists continue to say that there isn’t a reasonable climate change plan that doesn’t put a price on carbon. People are believing the environmentalists, and its about time conservatives embrace it.

Here’s the dirty little secret: regulating polluters also makes the price of everything go up. Ssshhhhhhhh!

How long have conservatives been saying that red tape and regulations cost money? It’s because they do. So it’s about time that smart people in the conservative movement crunch some numbers and create a price on carbon that effectively makes polluting more expensive than not polluting.

No, you don’t need a carbon tax to fight climate change. What has worked in the past is the ‘legislate and regulate’ path. Creating a more robust and rebranded law and order environmental plan is precisely the counter argument to the carbon tax hysteria. Talk about how even with a carbon tax, a government still needs to put limits on emissions and regulate anyway. We can’t really tell if it is the carbon tax modifying behaviour or whether it is the imposed regulations that do . If you look at Ontario’s history over the past couple of decades, it has made enormous strides in reducing carbon emissions. Almost all of Ontario’s emission reductions came as a result of government policies that helped make it happen prior to a carbon tax, especially the policy of eliminating coal-fired electricity generation.

There is ample evidence to show that it works because it’s the only real proven thing to have worked. Governments are famous for guiding human behaviour by legislating right and wrong. Create that set of policies that precisely matches society’s expectations. Run some models to show its cost. Say it will make things more expensive, because this much is obvious (denying the obvious is trouble), and join the rest of the world in wanting to fix the problem.

Here’s the funny thing. Businesses everywhere are already catching on. Big oil has massive investments in green energy. Plastics companies are latching on to concepts like extended producer responsibility and creating more environmentally sustainable products. Businesses everywhere are doing this. Consumers are demanding it. Yet, conservatives aren’t getting the message. It’s frustratingly odd.

Running anti-carbon tax ads at this juncture, as the Scheer team are now doing, is incredibly tone deaf. It shows a lack of care and concern for what people and businesses are thinking, and how they are acting. A thoughtful response to the environment is exactly the kind of thing Scheer needs to do if he hopes to offer Conservatives a glimpse of how he might win in 2021 and beyond.

Rob Leone is an Associate Professor of Leadership and Public Policy at Niagara University.

The Astonishing Lack of Attention to Ontario Government and Politics

Many people have been asking me about my thoughts on the recent release of the Ford government’s line-by-line audit and the unbelievably high deficit and debt numbers released by the Tories.  It has been interesting to see the reaction to how this has all unfolded.  The reaction switches from disbelief, to telling us something we already knew, to doing what governments always do, which is to overstate how bad the last guys were at managing the province’s finances.

But here’s the truth.  A lot of the information flowing about the true state of public finances in Ontario has long been public knowledge.  The problem is that the people haven’t paid attention.  Some in the media have perpetuated the problem for a long time too.  All of what has come out in recent days has been out there for years.  All of it.  Yet, the previous government never once acknowledged it, and even tried to hide it.  And the media may have devoted a passing line in a story to it, but never gave it the rigorous reporting any scandal is usually afforded.

The feud between the previous government and the auditor-general has been years old.  It started with the government taking away powers from the A-G for screening government advertising, which they did by tucking it inside omnibus legislation without the adequate scrutiny such a change deserved.  The media reported it, sure, but so they also reported that this change was necessary because the A-G held up the release of government ads because she was careless and sloppy.  It then started getting worse from a transparency and accountability perspective.  The government and the A-G started exchanging bitter words on accounting treatments of various budgetary lines, and thus the A-G did not issue any clean audit reports for the past 3 years. This is pretty crazy stuff. Certainly, the government that reviews audits for any organization it levies a tax on could NEVER get away with it.  But, how many Ontarians know this to be true? Worse still, how many Ontarians cared to factor this particular point into their voting decisions rather than an overall negative sentiment about the government that had been in power for 15 years?

So when media reports and former Liberal cabinet ministers say something to the effect of the government isn’t telling us what we don’t already know, I sit back in sincere bewilderment.  If the government knew, but did nothing, it was negligent. If the media knew but did nothing to hold the government to account over it, then they are at fault too.

I want to expand on this point about the media here too.  For too long, Tories who espoused fiscal discipline were always cornered by the media for detailing the fiscal mess, and then continually being berated about what they were going to cut to balance the books.  If there was an honest treatment of the fiscal mess in Ontario, that question should have been asked by everyone to everyone.  But, no, that’s not what happened.  That’s not the story we got at all.  The story we got was that the Tories failed to fully cost their platform.  Never was the question asked on what numbers should those numbers be based.  Nobody trusted the government’s numbers anyway.  Not even the non-partisan A-G appointed on the recommendation of an all-party committee at Queen’s Park.  Put a different, the costed platform of the other parties were full of garbage too.

Now, the narrative is Doug Ford the bully, settling political battles through his supposedly mean-spirited and vindictive ways. Now with Toronto elections issues being settled, Ford is going to stick it to the Liberals with a vengeance.

If you ask me why this select committee is necessary, it isn’t to settle a political score.  It may be an official government line to highlight the incompetence of  the previous government.  But the bigger reason Ford has gone down the select committee path is because his government sets the communications agenda, and he’s hell bent to make sure every Ontarian knows who created the mess. The question will be how much coverage will this official proceeding manage to garner.  I’m sure when Bonnie Lysyk shows up, as I would expect, there will be some attention thrown her way as she details the fiscal mess in ways only she can.  It would be interesting to see who the Liberals and the NDP call up as witnesses.

Climbing out of the fiscal blackhole won’t be easy. Tough choices will need to be made.  The government is providing us with some pretty good hints as to what to expect in order to fix this mess.  One of my jobs at Earnscliffe is to help clients deal with the new reality.  So if this is you, please send me an email.

Rob Leone is Principal for Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Toronto.  The words expressed here are his personal views and opinions.

Sex-Ed Reform Presents a Perfect Chance to Show Tories are Ready to Govern

Not long ago, on this blog, I called for the Ontario PCs to change the nature of the conversation the party is having with Ontarians.  Some months later, the Tories super charged the rhetoric, won an election, and gave Ontarians its ‘government for the people.’  A populist revolt worked wonders during the election, and it did certainly fuel the desire for change.  In that blog, I argued for a kind of change in approach that would show a more intelligent side of our party.  And now that the party has formed an impressive majority government, its focus should be on sustaining and even growing its support. This is precisely why I see this sex-ed curriculum reform issue as a decisive one for what direction the PC government is going to take.

Let’s start by recognizing certain truths.  Kids in grade 5 or 6 can figure out how to film, edit, and post videos online with a few clicks and little effort.  We are becoming less acquainted with who are children are seeing and talking with.  Our kids are not only engaging in sexual activity at a younger age, but they don’t have the maturity to understand the possible consequences of the decisions they are making.  In addition, kids have access to all sorts of information, good and bad, the moment they have a smart phone or tablet.  Any conversations the have, they are keeping far away from parents.  Oh, and those chats on video games are priceless specimens of immature swearing and cussing and interacting with Lord knows who.   Most parents, I suspect, would be shocked to learn about what their kids are doing and at what age.  Many kids will be exposed to sexual things before they learn about it in their health class.  The government cannot ignore these truths, and we need to admit that parents don’t know half of what their kids are doing.

The other truth that cannot be ignored is that it will take a long time for the Ontario PCs to build trust among the voting public regarding education policy.  Right or wrong, the party has been tarnished by what is perceived to be neglect of an important file.   Nobody wants to trust a group of people to reform an education system that is in desperate need of reform when they think the party is out of touch with reality.  The sad thing is that there are legions of parents out there who need a party to speak to them on education, and these parents are counting on the PCs to be that party.  We cannot let them down.  These parents are concerned about things like protecting extracurricular activities, supervision on the school yard, and better parent-teacher communication, in addition to what and how kids are learning in the classroom.  Parents are concerned about Ontario students falling behind other countries in math, and they are even more concerned that their child is not going to be prepared for higher education once he or she gets to that age.  Parents are also tired of the fact that the previous government seemed to only pay attention to special interests in education to the detriment of their child’s academic progress.  The Tories can be the party that corrects the course on this one too. However, you cannot do so by replacing one special interest with another.  The Tories need to unapologetically be about student success rather than any other special interest, and they should choose issues that reinforce that message.  Sex ed reform can be “an” example, perhaps, that could have been used among a whole bunch of better ones, but it should never be “the” example of what reforms need to happen in education and how the Tories will tackle such reforms. The stars do not align for a passionate and forceful ‘for the students’ message on sex-ed.

Now that sex-ed is front and centre on the agenda, it’s hard to undo and retract.  However, the government still has hope to strike a better tone.  First, don’t get into the weeds on the content.  If somebody asks ‘will the new curriculum talk about cyber sexting’, the answer must always be ‘we will modernize health and physical education to meet 21st century realities.’  Instead of talking about content, speak in emotive terms.  Talk about the safety of kids.  Speak to a modernization that promotes inclusion and student success for every child.  Talk about how parents and teachers are concerned about cramming too many things into a school year, and one might well wonder what might not be taught in order for the health and physical education curriculum to be taught, given the limits of the instructional day in our schools and such.  We have a unique environment in Ontario where we add curriculum but reduce instructional time.  Start explaining this to people!  Use it to pivot to subjects where you actually want reform, such as math, that are better examples of a ‘for the students’ message.

There is a way to talk about these issues without getting into a debate about the appropriate time, if ever, to talk about sex in schools. Nobody will ever agree on the timing of when kids should learn about sex.  There has never been agreement, and that’s why the current/old curriculum hasn’t been changed in 20 years.  The risk of discussing the disagreement for any prolonged period of time is not getting the better ‘for the students’ message out, and that won’t help the party or government.

An era of ‘David Copperfield’ Budgeting

Ah, budgets don’t balance themselves, and it’s also true that budgets don’t deficit themselves either.  Both require choices.  And voters have to ask that, in a period of economic growth, why the heck are we ballooning our debts and deficits by so much?  If we can’t make the tough choices when times are reasonably good, we sure as heck won’t be able to make them when times are tough.  But that’s somebody else’s problem, right?

Here’s the truth: budgeting in Canada is an illusion to begin with.  Case in point: Ontario’s deficit is expected to be $6.7 billion this year, but our debt is rising by about $12 billion.  Why is that? It’s because governments long ago separated their capital spending from their operating spending, and really, showing debts and deficits in this way is a shell game.  If you want a better looking deficit, place more expenses on the capital budget ledger.  When Canadians hear about hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure spending over the next decade, they should know that this is hundreds of billions of dollars being added to the debt.

Then, there’s the BS of debt-to-GDP ratios as a measure of how strong a province’s fiscal management is.  In Ontario, the debt-to-GDP ratio as reported by the government is hovering around 37%.  That is the size of the debt relative to the size of our economy.  By most measures, a debt-to-GDP ratio under 40% isn’t horrible.  However, what’s so ridiculous about measuring fiscal management by this measure is that Ontario is a sub-national government.  That means that the Ontario economy not only needs to prop up it’s sub-national debt obligations, but also its portion of national debt obligations.  Combining the sub-national and Ontario’s portion of the national debt, the Ontario economy’s debt-t0-GDP ratio is getting closer to 70%.  This gets you in the territory of shaky European countries that are struggling.

As I write this, I’m reminded of an e-mail chain that was going through Ontario’s Ministry of Finance.  These bureaucrats were mocking the government’s fiscal prudence, but were ultimately tasked with providing advice on how to present the budget to Ontarians.  The emails show that the projections were a fabrication.  FAKE NEWS, if you will.  There were about a dozen recommendations presented to the Finance Minister.  The very last option was to not present medium to long term fiscal projections.  The option came with the recommendation that this option “would not be acceptable in the post-Drummond era.”  What did the government choose to do? It chose to not publish medium to long term fiscal projections.  For years, we were not privy to the government’s economic projections.  FAKE NEWS to hide the truth.  By the way, the Minister of Finance had to plea with our committee not to release these sensitive e-mails exposing this debauchery. Right. Transparency at its best.  Open government loses again.

So this is the major point.  What budgeting has become is an illusion of truth.  What governments are telling us is the best spin hoping we’ll be distracted by the goodies to not bother to look at the mess.  David Copperfield would be proud.  Governments are going to tell voters that not proceeding with all its new spending will be the end of life as we know it.  However, the truth of the matter is that government budgeting is in massive need of a correction.  It’s in a bubble, and it’s distorting what’s really happening in the economy.  Governments have become self-absorbed.  It is caring more about its own internal pet projects than the public it serves, and that leads to decisions that get us to a spot we are in right now.  Unchecked spending with no sign of relenting.

The sooner we get out of this mess, the better off we will be in the long run.

With Ford at the helm, Tories poised to win biggest majority ever!

I certainly suspect a fair number of pundits to write off Doug Ford’s prospects this June, but I won’t be one of them.  As I have been saying for some time now, Doug Ford is capable of winning a general election against Kathleen Wynne, but his path to victory would look a heck of a lot different than Christine Elliott’s.  The other thing I’ve been saying for some time now is that while Christine Elliott would be the sort of non-offensive leader that could sustain multiple Tory terms, Doug Ford would likely be the sort of high risk, high reward choice to win the largest majority government in Ontario’s history.

Why does this fair-minded professor say such a crazy thing?  Here’s why: Doug Ford is the embodiment of the kind of anger Ontarians have been feeling for years.  That anger is not partisan.  It’s an anger that speaks to the fact that some have won more than ‘others’ in this province, and those others now have their candidate.  Those ‘others’ are business owners who through red tape, regulation, higher hydro rates, and more, are being driven out of the province.  Those ‘others’ include all the men and women who have lost their jobs in manufacturing and can’t find a better replacement job.  Those ‘others’ include families living in substandard housing, in a province that has struggled to provide adequate affordable housing, let alone contain housing affordability.  Those ‘others’ include every hydro rate payer who is paying for handsome returns to a select few green energy power producers. Those ‘others’ include those that have stuck with the PCs throughout their time in opposition, but also those who have also voted for other parties, or haven’t voted in years.  Ford does not speak to right vs. left.  He speaks to those that haven’t had a voice, and we’ve seen right around the world how these popular uprisings can be electorally successful.

Ford is not a right-wing ideologue. He will be branded as a radical, but he is far from one.  Those that will affix such labels never intend to vote for the guy.  They aren’t ‘others’.  It won’t matter.

Doug Ford turns the Ontario electoral map completely upside down.  Ford will win Toronto area seats.  Ford will keep all the rural PC seats.  Ford will win in the North.  NDP seats will be in play as well as Liberal ones.  I mean, I can’t name a Tory who can draw 400 people to a Welland rally on 48 hours notice.   This thing is going to be interesting.  The only thing limiting Doug Ford in achieving this is time.

Ford’s key strength is often seen as his Achilles heel: His brand.  But that’s the thing about politics and leadership races.  Having a brand comes off well.  It makes you more authentic and believable.  He comes off as a straight shooter, rebel rouser, folksy leader. He sticks to his commitment to righting the wrongs, being devoted to the taxpayer, and speaking on behalf of the have-nots.  He covers most of the factions of the conservative movement – accept, perhaps for uber-educated, suburban living, Tory professionals who may cringe at the prospect of going to work on Monday.  This ‘blue-collar PhD’ may be the exception.  He delivers a clear message and looks you right in the eye.  He may not be the most sophisticated policy guy you’ll ever find, but he communicates what he knows with precision.  We haven’t had this since Mike Harris in 1995.  This is the reversed mix to what we’re used to; I used to joke that we have more policy people than communications people in the party, and the Liberals had more communications people than policy people.  Maybe the Tories are in for a correction.

Doug Ford carries the baggage of his brother, who most remember for his controversial behaviour and erratic governance.  But Rob Ford’s path to victory should be the lesson for Doug Ford’s path to victory.  If Rob Ford could win an election in the most progressive, and largest city in Ontario, imagine what Doug Ford can do in communities more in line with his brand!

Good luck, Doug! As Jason Kenny said… Let’s Get’er Done!