Political Patience Is Unnatural
Posted June 12, 2015
Gardeners know that you shouldn’t pull up the flowers to see if the roots are growing. Yet, this is a hard lesson for politicians to accept.
Government is a big, complex machine. Nova Scotia spends more than $1 million per hour on government activities. Governments feel accountable for how that money is spent—and rightly so. Opposition MLAs have a duty to raise questions about government choices.
The important decisions are about policy and direction, but the temptation is to call for interventions at the micro level.
Health care is the biggest expense, and a frequent political topic. On June 1st, NDP MLA Denise Peterson-Rafuse called for Health Minister Glavine to accelerate implementation of the Collaborative Emergency Centre at Fishermen’s Memorial in Lunenburg. Two days later, Progressive Conservative MLA for Kings North, John Lohr, called on the government to review mental health services in the Valley following an incident on the weekend.
Health Minister Glavine chose to respond to the first question, although largely by explaining steps that will be taken by the new Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) under CEO Janet Knox.
That may make sense while the NSHA gets its bearings but, in the fullness of time, it will have to be the place where these questions are being answered. The Health Minister will have to resist the temptation to answer for them. He did better this week in response to a PC call to tell hospitals what to do with retail operations, saying that the NSHA would decide.
Power rates are another political hot button. The cost of electricity depends on the amount of capital tied up in generation and transmission, the cost of fuel, the salaries and other costs for maintaining infrastructure, the level of interest rates, and the rate of return provided to the supplier, Nova Scotia Power (NSP).
This is arbitrated by the Utility and Review Board, which receives submissions from NSP as well as various well-informed advocates acting on behalf of customers. The prevailing level of fuel costs and interest rates are largely outside of the control of any of the players, although NSP’s wisdom in purchase choices is a legitimate target for debate, as are other costs and proposed new investments. It’s complicated.
This framework is not perfect, but may be the least bad way to manage the prices from a monopoly supplier. At a policy level, it might be reasonable for government to study opportunities to bring competition into parts of the system, or to facilitate experimentation with tidal power. It could, as the Progressive Conservatives have proposed, make part of NSP’s return subject to achieving reasonable service standards.
It could even intervene on the topic of rate of return, the proportion of new investments that need to be shareholder capital, or whether it would be cheaper for the province to be doing some of the borrowing, although any of the items would mean a change in mandate of the UARB.
None of this is very sexy or easy to explain to ratepayers. It is easier to make attractive-sounding promises that later, perhaps after the election, turn out to be unworkable. As noted in this space a month ago, the Liberals were unable to fulfill any of their three promises on power rates.
On May 28th, Progressive Conservative Energy critic Tim Houston called on the Liberals to rule out a power rate increase for 2016. It is quite likely that similar urgings are being heard within the government caucus.
That kind of political interference would throw the entire UARB process out the window. If interest rates or fuel costs go down, NSP might make unreasonably high profits. If they go up, there might be cuts to spending on preventive maintenance or necessary capital projects. It’s a bad idea.
Things seem to be working more appropriately on the economic development front. Government had previously announced the policy position that neither it nor Nova Scotia Business Inc. would engage in rescue missions for struggling businesses, nor would NSBI make any further equity investments.
So there was no question this month of bailing out Techlink or Origin BioMed, both of which were in difficulty, and both prior recipients of taxpayer money. Neither opposition party called for a rescue.
Operational accountability for the quality of public services is still necessary, but it should be at the level of the board, agency, or authority charged delivering with a particular service.
Government must provide a well-considered policy context, and ensure that the various organizations charged with implementing those policies have strong and effective leadership. But by interfering with the day-to-day operations of those organizations, ministers can undermine their authority and, in the process, diminish their accountability.
Like a garden, a government’s important choices take a long time to show results. The garden’s health will be judged by the blooms on its flowers. Government’s job is to establish strong roots, and to exercise patience.
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