Monday, September 21, 2009

If cuts were 'hard decisions,' they would be made more competently

I can't really buy the "hard decisions" mantra the government us using to defend the cuts raining down all across public services.
There's a creepy paternalism to the claim, like the parent, about to spank a child, who says "this will hurt me more than it hurts you."
It won't. The mum or dad might feel terrible, but the child is getting hit, humiliated and made to feel powerless.
The Liberal cabinet ministers, as public concern about program cuts grows, have said they are facing an extraordinary global crisis. Extraordinarily harsh cuts are needed.
These are hard decisions that no one wants to make, the premier and his ministers say as one.
There are three problems with the claim.
First, no matter how much these choices matter to politicians, they matter more to the people affected by them. Government's mid-year decision to cut $130,000 for high school sports events hammers coaches, parents and kids. For politicians, it's a line item.
Second, in a past life I was a business guy. On a much smaller scale, I made "hard" decisions.
And they weren't all that difficult, in an office or conference room, looking at a spreadsheet. If the column of numbers didn't add up to the desired total, we came up with new numbers. Other managers then made the cuts happen. Jobs were lost or efforts abandoned.
Third, and by far most important factor, there is no evidence that the ministers treated these as hard or serious decisions.
The NDP asked Healthy Living and Sport Minister Ida Chong about a 43-per-cent cut to health promotion funding. Savings in travel, office expenses and administration, she said.
Which is goofy. No one would believe that more than 40 per cent of the spending on the health programs went for office expenses.
Within a couple of days, the Times Colonist reported on one of the real cuts. Chong's ministry killed a program aimed at increasing the health of pregnant women and their children. It had a special focus on reducing the number of children born with fetal alcohol syndrome. That's a great goal, economically and in terms or reducing suffering. The program was enthusiastically launched last September and lauded by Mary Polak, then the minister, as a "pillar" of the effort to improve infant health.
The cancellation came with no warning three months into the fiscal year. The B.C. Women's Hospital and the B.C. Centre of Excellence for Women's Health, which deliver the program, had already spent $100,000 of the promised $420,000 the project this year when they told they would get no money. They will now reduce spending on other areas of women's health to find the $100,000.
And the surprise cancellation meant the plan to assess the program's effectiveness had to be tossed out.
If these were hard decisions for cabinet ministers, they would have taken time to understand the implications.
Chong hadn't, judging by her answers in the legislature.
Not to single her out. If Gambling Minister Rich Coleman found it a hard decision to cut and eliminate gaming grants, he would have asked hard questions before they were made.
He didn't. The cuts included agencies that had received three-year funding commitments. Coleman and Premier Gordon Campbell both initially claimed the commitments weren't real, before having to retreat and restore the funding.
It's unlikely Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid would have thought it a good idea to halve support for parent advisory councils - even to schools that desperately needed the help - if it was treated as a hard and painful decision.
And in all these cases, the minister would have talked first to the people affected.
Hard decisions are only necessary when there are no options.
But the government has choices. Some cuts, like the $130,000 in support for school sports regional and provincial events, are foolishly small. The education ministry can find that money.
And the government could have decided to let the deficit, given the recession, to be a little larger in order to protect jobs and communities.
Hard decisions? It doesn't look like it.
Footnote: Expect to hear about the $130,000 cut to school sports events as often as you head about the fast ferries. Every time the government spends money in a dubious - like a $500,000 contribution a VANOC gala - the New Democrats will recall the sports cut.


DPL said...

We heard in question Period today that BC Hydro spent a ton of money for prime tickets to all the hocky games. according to the Minister of whatever, it is the best way to show the visitors to the curcus how energy efficient we are. Question Period is getting to be the best laugh of the day as Liberal MLA's slotted in as ministers make asses of themselves. Much better to watch than just read Hansard later.

Anonymous said...

A truly "tough decision" would be one that was made immediately prior to an election and then defended during the campaign. Then we would see which politicians had the courage of their convictions and were prepared to live with the consequences - the current government fails that test abysmally.

Anonymous said...

More 'good' news: Home support layoffs linked to budget cuts and service reductions -- B.C. government accepts federal apprenticeship funding, then cuts funding to agency -- BCGEU