Archive for January, 2011

A change of roles

Friday, January 28th, 2011

One can never be sure what is going on behind the scenes but experience can often lead to accurate conjecture.
The Government of Manitoba has to pay about 14,000 staff who belong to the Manitoba Government Employees Union (MGEU). When the government set the budget last spring, they announced that there would be no pay increase for the first two years. A 2.75 per cent increase would kick in during year three and year four. Employees with 20 years service would get an additional two per cent in year three. The bonus for accepting this pay increase delay was that there would be no lay-offs. Seems that the MGEU membership has rejected that idea and wants the union management to go back to the bargaining table.
What this move does for the government is that it will almost certainly delay an agreement until after fiscal year end March 31, 2011. If that happens, they will have achieved part of their goal by default and that is to not have a pay increase in the budget for 2010-11. Even if government is forced to give an increase for 2010-11 it won’t be paid out until after March 31, 2011 and therefore it will not impact the budget.This government needs all the help they can get because the budget is in the tank for about $500 million, it seems at this point, without any pay increases.
That a government, regardless of political stripe, lets its employees go for almost a year without a wage agreement seems a bit mean spirited and shows poor planning. 
The problem facing our Manitoba government is that they need to cut back in some areas of spending. It has rarely happened. If one were to track decades of government budgets and even if adjustments were made for inflation, few  governments cut back in spending. There’s no incentive to do so. Politicians hate saying no, love saying yes and do so with a flourish. They love announcements and re-announcements, they love ribbon cuttings. Politicians have no real incentive to cut programs, staffing, expenses or taxes.
Civil servants similarly have no incentive to cut expenses. Department managers get paid more if they have more employees and more dollars to manage. Why would they cut back, they believe in what they are doing, they want to be successful and do more of what they love to do. It’s a tough thing to reduce government costs.
If governments and civil servants could bring their collective wisdom to bear on the problem of ever increasing government expenditures, it would be a good thing. They likely know best how to do things in a more efficient way. It’s just that there’s no real reward for being prudent or efficient. The problem is that if the government and civil servants don’t figure out how to be more prudent and efficient, then the taxpayers and voters will do it for them. Programs will be cut, people will be laid off and there will be much misery. Government can’t keep expanding as a percentage of our economic activity and remain sustainable. 
There are some lessons that might be applied to controlling government expenses. In a private corporation, it’s not uncommon for massive cuts to be implemented and implemented very quickly. That won’t work in government. People who work for the government just aren’t wired that way. Besides, when experienced people are let go, a lot of experience and knowledge walks out the door with them.
A different approach has to be taken and it requires leadership from the top.
First off, a premier or finance minster should announce there will be no lay-offs. There will be a re-jigging of government programs but everyone will have a job at their current pay level. It just might not be in the same department. Every department should be advised that they can expand their services to the public but it has to stay in their current budget. Any new money has to be in partnership with the private sector. Civil servants should play a regulator role rather than a provider role.
Just for example, we need more CT scanners and MRI machines. Let the public pay for that service, especially for elective health care, and have the civil servants play a regulatory role, enforcing standards and regulations. If we need more research in agriculture, or any other industry, encourage private sector investment and have the civil servants perform a review or regulatory role.
There are only so many taxpayer dollars that can be raised before we tip the scale and become a totally socialist state where the government does everything. If we can have the government defer to industry for growth and expansion and have government perform a proper regulatory role, we can hold taxes, grow the economy and have safe standards in every aspect of life from health to environment to education to agriculture to industry. 
If we don’t make the switch, we will stay stuck where we are or slip into being Cuba of the north.

Manitoba is being cheated big time

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

It’s tempting to use a stronger word than cheated but that word would be deemed offensive. So, as a word choice, cheated will have to do.
It’s no secret that our Manitoba government is largely controlled by unions. Be it public sector unions like the Manitoba Government Employees or the Canadian Union of Public Employees or industry based unions, the government is pretty much dependent on the support of Manitoba’s unions. Many people are too young to remember that the NDP party was an amalgamation (in 1961) of the CCF (Canadian Commonwealth Federation) and the lobbying efforts of the Canadian Labour Congress. The old CCF was born out of frustration during the Great Depression of the 1930s and can trace its roots to Regina and, in fact, to the Communist Manifesto. That’s a little tidbit that the NDP don’t like to bring up in polite company. That, and the fact their most successful provincial and federal leader, Tommy Douglas, believed that poverty was hereditary and that “poor people” and “mentally defective” people should be sterilized so they didn’t reproduce more of the same. They also don’t mention that Douglas didn’t invent medicare, he simply adopted it some 20 years after it was in place at the municipal level in Saskatchewan.
With that bit of history in mind, we fast forward to the current era and we see that all that nastiness has been “cleansed” from the NDP record and everything is done in a nice democratic fashion. The unions elect delegates, control federal, provincial, municipal and school board elections in Winnipeg as well as Regina, Edmonton and Vancouver. In Manitoba, the unions provide the cash through their members, the bulk of the election workers, and just about everything else, to the NDP party. It’s a great arrangement. So what do the unions get in return? They get an iron clad agreement that no change in government policy will ever reduce the number of union jobs
The problem with unions is that while they start out championing the cause of the little guy, protecting the worker and all those admirable things, the union quickly becomes a self-serving entity. Almost inevitably the union loses sight of the original purpose. It has to have more union members and more union dues in order to grow or sustain itself.  The newly acquired purpose becomes keeping union jobs, not so much for the sake of the workers but for the sake of the collection of revenue, namely union dues.
Thus in Manitoba, we were recently faced with yet another situation where a non-union private company could have brought help to the health care stress in which we find ourselves. A company in Saskatchewan has contracted with that government to provide diagnostic services. Cheaper than the government, faster than the government and apparently at the same or better quality, this company has signed a contract with the government. Not allowed in Manitoba. Never mind we are way behind, that we have wait lists, that we have people desperate for diagnosis. Not going to happen. And this isn’t even diagnostics paid by a private individual, the Saskatchewan contract is still paid by the government.
The NDP have not only turned down this public pay model, they have always turned down a private pay model. It doesn’t matter how bad you want or need a CT scan or MRI in Manitoba, you can’t buy one out of your own pocket. You can in Alberta, you can in Minnesota or North Dakota, but not in Manitoba. Why? Because the unions won’t let the government do it, as to do so might mean less union jobs which in turn means fewer union dues. Fewer union dues means less people actually working for the union and that will never do. If the unions were smart and if they actually cared for the health and well being of Manitobans, they would embrace every good initiative that came along. That would require some change and God knows, change isn’t a big part of the union thought process.
Am I hard on unions? You bet I am. I would be the biggest promoter of unions this province had ever known, if they would truly help their members and all Manitobans. If they were innovative, if they were realistic, if they kept up with the needs of Manitobans, then I would be supportive. I feel sorry for the innovators and the progressive people in the union movement, they must be almost as frustrated as I am. They have many reasons to be frustrated because Manitobans are being cheated. Cheated of progress, cheated of the best services, cheated of innovation. Cheated, that’s the most polite word that I can print but there are others that better describe the situation.

Best options?

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Since the 1970s in Manitoba, there has been an increasingly oppressive force coming against our people. It’s called Autopac. In 1969, Manitoba elected an NDP government under the leadership of Ed Schreyer. Schreyer was a populist, a talented man, an excellent speaker. He gave Manitoba it’s very own Pierre Trudeau. He was different from the politicians of the 50s and 60s. He was less formal, younger than most, spoke well and was full of ideas. His time had come it seemed, and into government he swept a number of ideas that people seemed hungry for. Compulsory auto insurance was however met with mixed emotions and emotional it was. There were demonstrations, rancorous debate and hard feelings that linger to this day. Compulsory auto insurance provided by a single government crown corporation came into place. The big argument was that the “mean old insurance companies” were allegedly gouging the public. Auto insurance was needed and it was deemed that the Crown Corp with  a monopoly was the only way to get it.
The same path was followed in B.C. and Saskatchewan.
In the intervening years, Autopac, or Manitoba Public Insurance Corporation, has moved into an ever tightening grip position on the Manitoba scene. Not only do they handle almost all the vehicle insurance in Manitoba, the only exceptions being some optional “extra” coverages, they control the disposal of the salvage vehicles.
In a market as small as Manitoba, it’s doubtful if Autopac will ever be really challenged for its monopoly, but it could happen. Certainly phone and TV rates are now commonly accepted as a competitive market. Auto insurance has that certain third party liability aspect to it that makes it more difficult to open it up for competition. Put another way, it probably doesn’t matter much to anyone else if a person owns a cheap phone or any phone at all. If a car accident happens, it may be very important to a third party that the insurance is properly in place. 
But aside from that argument about private versus public, like all monopolies, Autopac has stretched its tentacles into areas that are actually none of its business. Case in point, Autopac will not allow an older car that has been in an accident to be re-built. Doesn’t matter if it’s rare, valuable, or has personal sentimental attachment. It doesn’t matter, Autopac says no way. And it’s not about the actual car or the safety of the car. It’s about being “green”. The Government of Manitoba has decided that old cars are “bad”, that new cars are “good” so every chance they have to zap an old car, it goes to the auction and it’s sold for parts only or scrap. That VIN, or Vehicle Identification Number, can never ride the road again.
You see the government has decided that even an older car with a good motor, well tuned, etc. isn’t good for the environment, so off the road it goes. Doesn’t matter that it may not be true. Doesn’t matter that an older car may be all that a working poor person or a student can afford. Doesn’t matter.An arbitrary decision has been made.
There are several things wrong with that thinking. First is that some older cars are quite fuel efficient, higher even than some new ones. Some older cars may have special attachment for people and they may in fact be willing, able and wanting to restore them. Some people may only be able to afford a $1,000 car, if they can afford  a car at all. Outside of Winnipeg and Brandon, very few Manitobans have access to public transit so that oft-promoted option isn’t available as good as the government tries try to make it sound.
The biggest problem is even deeper. Should Autopac be a tool of government environmental policy? If smoke belching cars are bad, should not government regulate those specific cars rather than just all old cars that they happen to have control over? The other aspect is that even if a car’s emissions are a bit higher than some arbitrary ideal, government has not even come close to figuring out how much environmental “damage” is done by building a new car. Considering all that impact, the old car would have to belch for a long time to come even close to the impact of building a new car.
It’s ironic that the government will reward builders at public expense, who use old barn beams or clean up masonry salvage in new buildings but don’t even give people a chance to save old cars at their own expense. Governments will smile proudly about an old barn beam in the fireplace mantle of the Country Meadows Care Home at Neepawa and how the project received design “credits” for doing so but if Grandma wants to keep her 1988 Chevy, she gets slammed.
One can argue that Autopac may be the best insurance option in Manitoba and there will be lots of opposition to that premise. No one can argue that Autopac should be so overbearing in what cars we choose to drive or not drive. The monopoly has gone too far and it’s time it was reined in.

Federal government needs to review role

Friday, January 7th, 2011

I have read with interest that there will be six provincial elections in the fall of 2011. Apparently, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario, PEI, Newfoundland and Labrador and the Northwest Territories are planning elections.
That pretty much eliminates the idea of having a federal election next fall. The opening that remains is a spring or early summer election. Prime Minister Harper has said he won’t trigger an election, but Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has said he will try to defeat the government on the upcoming budget. He’s had few opportunities to do that before but has always backed off under the pretense that “the country doesn’t want an election”.
The country rarely wants an election, but elections are good for the newspaper business. We’d like one every year, but reality is elections are expensive and, to the average person, annoying. The person who should always want an election is the opposition party leader. He or she should, theoretically, be ready to govern at any time. The truth of the matter is that the Liberal party hasn’t really been ready to govern for many years. Certainly, since Chretien stepped down and Paul Martin became the leader, the Liberal party has been in no position to call itself a strong government.
If one looks at the political picture since 1993, when Chretien took over as prime minister, the Liberal party has only been in government by default. Had it not been for the fact that the PC party of Canada fell apart into the Reform Party and the Bloc Quebecois, the Liberals would not have been able to form government. Even when the PC party was reduced to just two seats in 1993, moves could have been made to hold the Liberals to one term in office. In 1993, I phoned Jean Charest. No surprise that I didn’t get to speak to him but I was assured by a pleasant man that the PC party had 17-18 per cent of the vote and that they were a power to be reckoned with in Canada. On the contrary, I suggested that Charest should have  a chat with Elsie Wayne, the other PC MP, and immediately enter into talks with Preston Manning of the Reform Party. That didn’t happen and the stubborn PCs ran in the next election and the next, assuring that Chretien would be a three term prime minister.
Within a short time, Charest went to the Liberal Party of Quebec and to this day serves as premier of Quebec. Elsie Wayne eventually pitched her tent with the Reform/Alliance/Conservative merger.
Had the parties merged in 1993, we might have had a conservative government in place since 1997. A breakdown of the voting patterns would certainly show that. Instead, by not creating the kinds of alliances that made sense and  reflected the wishes of the voters, we got Liberal governments supported by  a minority of the voters.
With four parties in Ottawa, we have a government that more people voted against than who voted for it. Having several parties is not the best thing for a country or a province. Having two parties with clear platforms would be much better. Multiple parties is a nice theory and has worked in some countries but it hasn’t worked often or very well.
Two parties, with clearly stated goals and policies, would make for a better and stronger country.
That the Reform Party came on the scene was a good thing, but the merger took way too long. In the past, new parties came long, such as CCF (1930s) which was inherited by the NDP party, the Progressives (1920s) who were inherited by both the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives. Many people don’t remember that the Liberals used to be called the Liberal-Progressive party. Establishing third parties is a good thing but, historically, they have stalled out and merged. The mergers have all taken too long and as a result, the opposition parties benefit. That’s been an unintentional benefit handed to the opposing parties.
Canada needs a Conservative majority government in the next election. We need to strengthen our judicial system, re-equip our military and address our infrastructure issues. The first two won’t happen in a minority parliament. The third will be piece meal, at best, as a minority government tries to appease all the other parties.
If Canada is to grow and strengthen we need to have the federal government look after the three above areas. That also means that they need to get out of aboriginal education, get out of health care except for a Health Canada regulatory role. The federal government should only provide national services that provinces or businesses can’t supply.


kwaddell@kenwaddell.ca This is a Sunrize Group internet solution (204)226-2247