Whose Manifesto?

Commentary, Public Sector, Frontier Centre

An election is in the air. The governing party has been in power for a long time, but it disagrees with the pundits who suggest the government has run out of steam. The dominant faction within the ruling party prefers to describe themselves as “modernizers” with a confident vision for the future. Their declared social aim is to create “a genuine meritocracy” which allows all people to achieve their full potential, whatever their backgrounds.

Are we talking about Paul Martin’s struggling Liberal minority government? Not a chance. No, it’s Tony Blair’s New Labour Party, which has just released its manifesto prior to Britain’s May 5th election. A public policy bonanza, the document leaves all of Canada’s political parties looking rather worse for wear.

The modernizing ideas in the manifesto have some common flavours. The overall theme it strikes has to do with putting the citizen and the users of public services “back in the driver’s seat.” The consumer must have a say in service delivery and the power of “choice.” Accordingly, we read bold statements about “patient power” in healthcare and “parent power” in schools.

Patient power, Blair’s party says, means building up the capacity of private and independent healthcare providers and a rapid erosion of the long entrenched government monopoly on delivery. The expansion of choices, the modernizers flatly state, will continue to rapidly reduce hospital waiting lists. It builds on seminal reforms already underway in Britain’s National Health Service, like contracting out of services and patient guarantees that will allow those denied timely services to seek them offshore, at government expense.

That ends the obvious conflict of interest that occurs when the same organization is responsible for funding its own services. In a self-funding monopoly, more money simply has the system paying itself more instead of innovating and becoming more efficient. Splitting the purchaser from the provider changes that. Funding now flows through the patient, who can choose from a variety of service providers all paid by the government. Facilities with long waiting lists simply lose their customers to competitors.

The manifesto talks of “modern means” and “progressive ends.” The first refers to competitive delivery while the latter means free service at the point of contact, funded by general taxation. The platform gift of choice and control for citizens extends as well to schools. Parents will gain the ability to bypass local school boards and call in a private company or faith organization to establish independent schools with control over curriculum, school year, timetable and teachers’ salaries. The final touch in an agenda which expands the private and voluntary sector’s role in healthcare and education promises more local input into police operations and city services.

In sum, New Labour has moved in the direction of bottom-up government and the end of public monopolies. It moves the welfare state from an entitlement culture, where governments are expected to provide adequate, rudimentary services, to an empowerment culture, where citizens have the power to choose between varied offerings that compete with individualized services. It is government as funder and facilitator, not the sole service provider. “You can have free healthcare, but you’ll have to wait in line at our convenience,” just won’t cut it anymore.

Radical stuff, wouldn’t you say? There’s election talk in Canada, too, but none of our three
traditional old-line parties is likely to offer anything as interesting.

The Liberals are behind a looming old-style monopoly daycare
model that will empower providers, not parents. They also signed off on a massive funding expansion of the public health monopoly and continue to run with the orthodoxy that expanding healthcare choices will raise costs.

Next the Conservatives, fresh from their recent convention. The resulting policy statement skirts around real health reform. No talk of empowerment or patient power here, but it does mention private and public provision “where appropriate” – whatever that means. We need a sixth principle in the Canada Health Act to entrench more funding, it says. Meanwhile, there is no mention of choice or competition. By Blair’s modernizing standards, it is low-powered, “safe” stuff.

What about Jack Layton’s NDP
? For this team, Tony Blair’s talk of more private sector involvement, public-private partnerships and its enlightened rethinking of a more sophisticated role for government belongs on the dark side of the moon. The NDP’s heavy connection to public sector monopoly unions guarantees no talk of an empowerment culture, modern means and progressive ends, consumer and citizen choice, or any such nonsense. It, too, is a party of the status quo.

In Canada, the policy paradigm is firmly stuck in a 1970s entitlement and spending mode, a philosophy in which patient power, parent power and a focus on ends instead of the means has no place. Our political classes lack imagination and a sense of adventure.

They should look across the Atlantic. Tony Blair and his modernizing New Labour government is expected to win by 110 seats. He’s my kind of socialist.