Dear Mr. Ford,
Once again I find myself writing to a politician in circumstances where “How’s it going?” would be tactless. Which is normally when I write to them, not because I’m a vulture but because of a wise saying from my friend Danny Hozack out in Alberta: “When someone tells you what you want to hear, they’re trying to help themselves. When they tell you what you need to hear, they’re trying to help you.” And right now, Mr. Premier, I’m going to tell you some things you need to hear.
As you may recall, before last year’s election I and some colleagues including Danny were in touch with ideas about how to fix government in the early 21st century. The principles of good government haven’t changed, of course. But the specific problems have, especially the manner in which modern governments consistently operate at such high cost with such disappointing results.
That disappointment is not explicitly conservative. In some ways it is those on the left who hold high expectations of government who are particularly dismayed, and baffled, that it’s currently working so badly. Nevertheless the nub of my gist here is conservatism.
I know you’re one of those bluff, hearty man-of-the-people types who disdains ideology for common sense, and thinks if you are ill-mannered, especially in response to political correctness, you must be right-wing in some undefined but desirable way. But whatever its merits on the stump in 2018, that populist approach isn’t working in government, either in policy or public relations terms. As we would have told you a year ago given the chance.
We were in touch last spring because you needed a plan that would work. And we’d just held an Economic Education Association of Alberta “Freedom School” conference in Calgary on “Stemming the Tide of Red Ink” about fixing the kinds of problems a modern provincial government has, particularly after being run for a long time by people who have little doubt that government can do great things in almost every area, more spending is always better, and there are very few practical problems that do not yield to virtuous attitudes.
You may object that Alberta only had the NDP in power for one term while Ontario had the Liberals for a decade and a half. But the Progressive Conservatives in Alberta were far more progressive than conservative beneath those misleading Stetsons. And while your party is formally also a Progressive Conservative one, I doubt you or many of your colleagues think of yourselves as Progressives.
The real issue is whether you think of yourselves as conservatives. And why you should think as conservatives.
One important aspect of conservatism is the insistence that incentives matter. Thus phrased it is liable to be treated as trite. But it stands in opposition to the believe that intentions matter. And conservatism emphasizes the tried and true precisely because it believes that good intentions without sound methods have failed so often, spectacularly and dismally that we really need to study those methods that have shown an ability to deliver the results we think we want. I do not think your approach to fixing government has relied on either of these notions. But it’s not too late.
Among our speakers in 2018 was Peter Holle of the Frontier Centre in Winnipeg, who has spent decades studying efficient government and stands ready to explain to you what has actually worked, in New Zealand and elsewhere. Things like separating procurement from delivery of services, which eliminates counterproductive incentives to overspend and underperform.
We had another conference in Calgary this year on “Things that Matter: An Agenda for Alberta”. But most of what we discussed was not specific to that province. Rather, it covered the kinds of problems you face, and featured outstanding presentations on taxes by the University of Calgary’s Jack Mintz, on debts and deficits by Carleton’s Ian Lee, and talks by a host of other speakers (including Peter Holle again) with expertise on fixing government when it’s not working.
I’ll be quite frank. Yours isn’t. And when we contacted you back in 2018 you seemed receptive. But you were in glad-handing election mode and after you’d won we couldn’t get our calls returned. People in politics, especially progressives, have a regrettable habit of thinking that simply by virtue of having won the election they have solved all the real problems, because their intentions are noble and their characters pure. And there seems to have been a certain complacency, even smugness, in your attitude after the election.
I trust it is gone now. You’re in trouble and you need help and we have some to offer. You thought cleaning up the budget mess would be easy. And instead it turned out that the reason so many people have rushed into that task with a smile and staggered out with a frown is that it’s not. You cut a bunch of little things in a piecemeal fashion, giving opposition time to organize, and wound up looking mean and petty since the total you might have saved was trivial and (drum roll please) there didn’t seem to be any coherent rationale for it.
Had you been prepared to say that government was in trouble because it was doing far too much as well as doing it badly, and you were going to get government out of the tasks for which it was ill-suited and reorganize it in the areas where it was needed, you’d have had a much better PR strategy, in part because you had a better policy approach. And a key component of that approach would have been to meet criticisms of cuts to, say, tree planting by saying Ontarians love the environment and calling on citizens and corporations to step up and do it. That message is inspirational whereas your message, when you had one, was surly instead.
Ah well. A year has gone by and gone by badly and nobody can get it back. But you’ve still got time, if you decide that common sense means adopting a coherent, conservative approach. If so, give me a call. We still have all those experts and we’re even posting most of their talks online. And if you look and listen and act, I can assure you of one thing.
Next year at this time, it will be going a lot better. In which case I’ll probably stop writing to you. But you won’t mind, will you?
Photo Credit: Jeff Burney, Loonie Politics
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