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LETTER: The time for visionary governance is now

There will likely be many familiar faces seated in the chairs of the House of Assembly after the next provincial general election.
The Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly after the next provincial general election. - SaltWire Network

Seventy years since confederation, and Newfoundland and Labrador needs governance renewal. With an upcoming election, we face a significant opportunity to lean in, make bold decisions, and allow visionary governance to guide fundamental and sustainable changes to provincial public policy.

If there is one thing Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have in abundance, it is vision. In business, think of Fortis trading on The New York Stock Exchange. In humanitarian philanthropy, think of Team Broken Earth treating patients in Haiti. In the arts, think of Opera on the Avalon commemorating the Beothuk genocide in a newly commissioned production. In innovation, think of the scope of research conducted at Memorial University. A Newfoundlander invented the gas mask for crying out loud! We are a visionary people! But historically, this vision has not translated to provincial governance. To address this, robust public discussions concerning what NL could look like in 25 to 50 years from now are crucial. It is up to all of us to ensure that provincial challenges and opportunities are debated publicly with increasing regularity and depth.

There are five broad policy areas in need of visionary governance that I would like to briefly address — structural governance reform, resource development and diversification, fiscal management, immigration, and culture.

Our governance system is not functioning as well is it should. How might we reform our governance structures to better deliver services across the province? How might we encourage more qualified people to run for public office? How might a greater diversity of backgrounds and experiences be represented in the House of Assembly? We must undertake these discussions to achieve a governance system conducive to the promotion of visionary ideas, and the development of policies consistent with our long-term interests.

With respect to resource development and diversification, we need a balanced, visionary approach. How can we use the wealth generated by our non-renewable resources to transform and sustain our economy for future generations? As a global shift away from fossil fuels accelerates, N.L. is positioned to be a leader in oil and gas production, but we must invest more robustly in renewable resources now. To apply a lesson harshly learned after the cod moratorium, a resource-diverse economy will be of paramount importance in the face of climate change.

As a province, we have failed at fiscal management. How do we align public spending with our ability to generate revenue over the long-term? Furthermore, how should we be saving for the future? When I think of Norway’s trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund, I am unabashedly envious. Should we invest a portion of our non-renewable resource revenues, particularly when commodity prices are high, in a sovereign wealth fund of our own?

Out migration of young people, especially from rural areas, coupled with low immigration numbers, poses a significant threat to our provincial culture and future prosperity. What should our population be in 50 years? What should the urban-rural ratio look like? Last year, N.L. welcomed substantially less immigrants than other provinces. Let’s find ways to make it easier for immigrants to build good lives in N.L. Investing in affordable housing, small businesses, and education is one way to start.

Finally, culture is the bedrock of our province. The creativity of our cultural industries forms the foundation on which our future rests. The UN has identified the creative economy as one of the world’s fastest-growing sectors for income generation, job creation, and export earnings, but funding for ArtsNL represents only 0.025 per cent of provincial expenditures.

I fully endorse recent calls for $5 million in funding by 2021. Governance of culture should not focus on public responsibility to artists, but rather, on contributions artists make to the economy, to stimulating tourism and immigration, and to strengthening provincial culture.

This piece is by no means a comprehensive discussion of our opportunities for growth as a province. These opportunities are numerous, complex, and intricately connected. I only hope my thoughts and questions here might be the focus of public discussions during the upcoming election, and influence fundamental, sustainable, and visionary policy changes thereafter.

This is a call to action for all to you reading this: openly discuss your vision for our province in 25 to 50 years from now. I have no doubt that our visions collectively will guide us forward in exciting ways.

Michael O’Keefe

Graduate student and Rhodes Scholar

University of Oxford

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