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Saskatchewan Party

Tough Year Ahead for Wall?

Trouble ahead for Brad Wall and the Saskatchewan Party?

In early December, the government issue a list of economic highlights for 2013: population growth, up 100,000 in six years; economic growth of 3.6 per cent, second-highest in Canada; unemployment rate of 3.6 per cent, lowest in Canada; employment up 17,000, “an all-time record;” and record crop production of 34.2 million tonnes (later increased to 38.4 million tonnes).

But recent economic forecasts have been more subdued. suggesting that the province’s economy may be due for a slowdown next year. Earlier this month, RBC downgraded Saskatchewan’s forecasted economic growth from 2.7 per cent to 2.1 per cent in 2014, which put us squarely in the middle of the pack among the provinces.

Part of that downgrade is just a return to a normal crop from the record harvest in 2013. But part of it is plummeting potash prices, plunging production and reduced capital spending.

Similarly, two commodity price reports this week pointed to weakness, not just in potash, but uranium, oil and agricultural commodities, like wheat and canola.

Oil prices are falling, thanks to widening differentials between western Canadian heavy oil and benchmark West Texas Intermediate, which are now pushing $40 US a barrel. Even Canadian light crude prices are $20 US a barrel lower than comparable U.S. crudes due to growing supplies of light oil production from North Dakota’s Bakken play and a chronic shortage of pipeline capacity.

Potash prices have fallen below $300 US per tonne, thanks to the collapse of the BPC cartel, while uranium prices are at a “low ebb” at $34.50 US per pound due to the fallout from the Fukushima tsunami in 2012 and the subsequent idling of 50 Japanese nuclear reactors.

Even agricultural commodity prices have been under pressure lately due to the “monster-sized crops” in the U.S. and Canada and are sitting nearly 12 per cent below levels one year ago.

Analysts forecast commodity prices “bottoming’’ in 2014 before returning to the “bull’’ market in 2015 and beyond.

The point is, Wall is right to be cautious about the province’s economic fortunes in 2014, despite the record performances posted in 2013. But that’s not Wall’s only problem.

He knows that the province’s fiscal position is far more tenuous than the rosy picture painted by Finance Minister Ken Krawetz in his midterm financial statement, which shows the province sitting on a $22.8-million surplus in the general revenue fund. This is the same general revenue fund that the provincial auditor’s report said was nearly $600 million in the hole at the end of the 2012-13 fiscal year, instead of the $58 million surplus reported by the finance ministry.

The same provincial auditor issued an “adverse’’ opinion on the province’s books, saying the financial statements do not provide a fair and accurate accounting of the province’s fiscal position.

So Wall finds himself between a rock and hard place, largely of his own making. Happy New Year will have a whole new meaning for the premier in 2014.

Don’t count the Premier down quite yet.  He enjoys considerable trust from the people of Saskatchewan and as Alan Blakeney once said, “It’s easier to govern duing adversity than prosperity.”  That being said, winning a third election is much tougher than winning the second.

Where to give this Christmas

This morning I was listening to the radio when I heard the Lighthouse ask for donations of personal care items this Christmas.  I wasn’t surprised but disappointed.  When I was there a contract was finalized with the Ministry of Social Services that paid the Lighthouse very well to house people in its shelters at a going rate of $67.50 a night (that’s been the rate for the last couple of years).  Over a month, it is over $2400 a bed a month to house someone (which is why housing first programs are so important).  It is a constant rate across the province.  Unlike other shelters, the LH gets stable funding for those beds.

When the housing rates were increased, I was invited to the announcement and the government made it really clear that the increase of rates was designed to ensure that not only room and board are taken care of but also things like shampoo and hygiene products.  It was to provide a quality level of care.  It actually a higher rate than other agencies get to provide the same kind of services.  So why if an agency is getting around $2k a bed for room and board, can it not purchase shampoo, tampons, and soap?  Especially when there are extremely cheap institutional suppliers that sell this stuff for pennies a package (I know because I used to order it).  Even expensive things (like lockers, new beds, and linen) were a cost of doing business and orgs budgeted the money for it.

Even for long term clients, they are not being housed at a loss (going rate is $820 a month, some agencies like the LH get $910 a month from Social Services)  Not only that but with the leadership of Premier Wall and the Saskatchewan Party (see, I can give credit where credit is due), the SAID program is giving more money than ever before to ensure clients are comfortable and can have their needs meant.  It has been an increase of hundreds of dollars a month.  No NGOs are providing services at a loss to the provincial government.  So why do so many agencies use this season to ask for money for programs that are clearly fully funded by taxpayers.  So we pay our taxes to pay for it and then that money isn’t spent because people will donate as well.  It has never made any sense to me.  In the end, some non profits are using the cold, the season, and year end generosity to manipulate people into giving more and that sucks.

Even for people who Social Services would not fund (it happens), the cost of housing someone was so low that it never impacted the bottom line on the budget.  You were left with laundry costs, water for a shower, and breakfast (which was made anyways).  When I was at the Salvation Army, we stopped charging clients for things because they were so cheap to provide for free (like laundry soap) and improved client life.  There was always enough money.

A friend of mine was once the national treasurer of a national charitable organization.  He told Wendy and I over dinner that we should never give to his organization as it has millions of dollars in surplus every single year and yet it kept going out all over the country and getting more.  Those are facts that were never made public but instead the appeal for more or dire consequences would come would be repeated.  You know what, Canadians would “answer the call” and give thinking they are needed to keep essential services going.  In the end, the programs are totally funded by governments and often more than one level.

I was sitting down with another leader of a large non-profit who was talking about how they make their communications confusing about their finances confusing as accurate information may discourage donors.  In other words he didn’t want people to know who much government funding his organization received which helped his appeals for support to individuals and business.  I’m sorry but how is that manipulative at best and fraudulent at worst?

Dishonesty and fund raising go part and parcel.  Like I said shelters run a profit (or at least the ones I ran did) in excess of six figures per annum some years.  Yet what was featured in appeals for help?  Shelters.  I know people wanted to give but not a single dime of that money ever went to shelter services because it was never needed.  Non-profit fundraising is big business even in Saskatchewan.  A Regina shelter’s American fundraising firm wasn’t taking Saskatoon clients because their Regina client is fund raising here (with them taking a large portion of what is raised).  The firm is quite impressive and is using micro targeted mailing lists to target Saskatoon households and blocks.  Oddly enough while the parse up Saskatoon by the street according to income, they fail to understand that we are in Saskatoon and their client serves Regina. It’s not my money.

There are some programs that desperately need help but it’s hard to figure out which ones.  One agency I know of proudly states they get no government funding when in reality, about 90% of their revenue comes from the Ministry of Social Services.  I don’t know how they reconcile that but that is the line they give to donors and the media.  It makes no sense to me. 

My point is that you may want to look hard at who you donate to this season and ask some really hard questions about how that money is being spent and why they need money for it.  For some orgs, they may be working in an area where the governments don’t really care like food security (Friendship Inn and Saskatoon Food Bank).  Food programs almost never get government funding and are almost entirely dependent on donations.   That may be a good place to start.

Another thing to consider is why are some agencies asking for money for things when others are not?  If the government funding is there, why do some keep asking for donations to help the same group of clients that several other types of housing providers are not.  It’s awkward to ask those questions and my experience and seeing those financials is that answer is often unpleasant.  Tim Richter, the head of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness talks of the homeless industrial complex and he is right.  I saw it up close for 8 years.  It can be really self-serving.

Personally my giving tends to be attached to areas where the government doesn’t like to participate in or does a really bad job of working in.  I also put my money where my mouth is and I give money directly to a couple of people who need the help.  I have written about the benefits of giving money directly to people before and it’s benefits and it is something that I believe in.

Those are my thoughts.  I am sorry if I hurt anyone by these thoughts.  I hate to say it but if I have, I may not have a lot of respect for what your org is doing anyways.

Saskatchewan Connected

I have to admit I was disappointed to see this announced.

A free wireless Internet service in Saskatchewan is being shut down six years after it was introduced.

SaskTel has announced that the “Saskatchewan! Connected” initiative is being terminated across the province due to lack of use.

The service was launched by the provincial government, providing a basic level of Internet service throughout the certain businesses districts and post-secondary campuses in Regina, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, and Prince Albert.

At the time government ministers insisted it would “build on Saskatchewan’s reputation for innovation and being in the forefront of technology advancement.”

It was used by a lot of homeless men and women at The Lighthouse who had wifi capable cell phones but could not afford the extremely high data rates to stay connected to others.  Since The Lighthouse had the worst network I have ever seen, I found myself having to use Saskatchewan Connected on more than one occasion but found it was unusable after mid-morning which suggested to me that it was being used a lot.

It’s a short sighted decision by the Saskatchewan Party that hurts those without internet access tremendously.

This is why I can’t take politicians seriously

Speaker's Party

The Speaker of the Legislature, Dan D’Autremont had a party to unveil his office renovations which I am told feature a lot of dead African animals.  He didn’t just have a regular party but a dress-up party featuring MLAs.  It’s like we have elected a group of 12 year olds to run the province.  Thanks to Murray Mandryk for sharing this.

Shelter only place for recovering senior

This isn’t an isolated incident.  Even in Saskatoon.

An 84-year-old La Ronge woman suffering from cancer says she had to recuperate from a broken foot in a shelter for battered women because there was no acute or long-term care space for her in the area.

Barbara Blyth was recovering at home with the help of home care until her furnace quit. While waiting several days for parts to get it fixed, she couldn’t stay at home — and she ended up in the women’s shelter because there was no bed for her in acute or long-term care, she said.

Both home care staff and workers at the shelter treated her very well, Blyth emphasized. The problem is that there aren’t enough long-term care beds in her part of the province, she continued.

“People have lobbied the government for a very long time, but nothing happens,” Blyth said. “I’m displeased — it’s overall a total negation of responsibility for the north.”

Blyth, a retired professional librarian, has remained active in her community, although she’s dealing with cancer now for the third time. Her cancer is incurable, she said.

“People in the north don’t want to have to go south in order to die,” Blyth said. “They want to die with their friends and family.”

The Opposition NDP raised Blyth’s case in the legislature Wednesday. Health Minister Dustin Duncan said he would look into it.

“We’re going to follow up,” he told reporters after question period. “There may be some additional options that may be available to her outside of long-term care.

“But we do know that much like the rest of the province, in northern Saskatchewan the long-term care beds that are available aren’t always where we need them to be,” Duncan added.

He noted the number of beds in the north on the west side of the province exceeds the national average, but the number is low on the east side.

Top Conservative Fundraising Firm Lays Off Staff

This is interesting

The company behind the Conservative Party’s powerful fundraising and voter-identification machine has been laying off staff and borrowing millions of dollars at high interest rates as it faces an “extremely challenging” cash crunch.

The Toronto-based iMarketing Solutions Group Inc. (iMSGI) last week issued layoff notices to an unspecified number of telephone workers in its call centres across the country.

The company posted a net loss of $3.9 million in the quarter ended last September, citing a downturn in its U.S. business and a “significant decrease” in its Canadian political fundraising and direct voter-contact work.

Under the name Responsive Marketing Group (RMG), the company performed the Conservatives’ voter-contact operations during the last election and was also hired to make calls for the campaigns of 90 Conservative candidates. RMG continues to work as the party’s telemarketing fundraiser.

The Tories have excelled at fundraising through the dexterous use of databases of known and likely supporters willing to make small donations when contacted by phone by RMG.

RMG has provided similar services to the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, the Wildrose Party in Alberta, the Saskatchewan Party and the B.C. Liberal Party.

But iMSGI is now cutting back on cold-calling to raise money for its roster of mostly conservative political clients, instead focussing on higher-yield calls to likely donors, according to a letter obtained by the Ottawa Citizen.

The letter from iMSGI’s human resources director Stephanie Hornby to laid off staff members said that “circumstances relating to economic pressures has resulted in iMarketing Solutions Group Inc. (iMSGI) to (sic) make the decision to temporarily cease new donor acquisition calling and focus resources on retention calling and high value house-calling.”

Calls soliciting new donors are less profitable for call centres than “retention” calls to people who have given money in the past.

“The nature of our business often necessitates ramping work up and down based on business requirements,” Chief Executive Officer Andrew Langhorne said in an email on Friday.

While some of Twitter are gloating over a Conservative firm’s demise, I am assuming they had to ramp up and expand to deal with the federal and provincial elections in the last two years and now are in an electoral down cycle with far less business coming in from Canada and the rather quiet American election cycle.  To be honest, fundraising for the B.C. Liberal Party doesn’t seem like a lot of fun right now.

It does give you an idea of how political fundraising works and how hard it is to sustain it.  Some might find it interesting that the Saskatchewan Party hires outside the province fundraisers.  So much for a “Made in Saskatchewan” solution for the party.

NDP Leadership Race Polls

While the LeaderPost published a poll of voter intentions in the province for the provincial NDP leader, I was curious when I heard about some internal polling done by the candidates themselves.  Over the last couple of weeks the Broten, Meili, and Wotherspoon campaigns have all done some polling.  Interestingly enough, the buzz is that both the Wotherspoon campaign has commissioned two polls right after the other.  If you don’t like the results of the first poll, maybe you just keep polling?

The Broten campaign has been the only one talking about the results which if accurate, makes sense.  It is bad news for both Ryan Meili and Trent Wotherspoon.  I know Nate Silver says to not believe campaign polling but it’s all we have.  Until the Wotherspoon and Meili camps post their numbers, I only have the Broten numbers to go on and here they are.  

When I looked at the poll, it was done by Public Polling Inc which is a polling company out of Toronto (there is a Saskatchewan Party attack ad in there someplace).  It was a large poll with a margin of error is only +/- 2.2%.   The poll asked two basic questions — (1) “If you were to vote for the new NDP leader today, who would be your first choice?” and (2) “Who would be your second choice for the new NDP Leader?”  The results of the poll show the following breakdown of first ballot support among decided voters throughout the entire province:

If the poll is correct, it looks like a 3rd ballot victory for Cam Broten and he would become the next leader of the opposition.  Trent Wotherspoon has either lost his support or pundits have really overestimated his support in the first place.  Maybe that is why he is polling so much.  According to the poll, Broten is the second choice of most of the people surveyed.  With the NDP at about 11,000 members and with the vast majority of them casting a ballot; I can’t see the convention floor delegates having enough votes to change the outcome but I have been wrong many times before.

The end result is that a) it’s going to be a boring convention b) Cam Broten will become the next leader of the opposition c) the Saskatchewan Party is probably already cutting the attack ads on Broten as I post this.

It also means that 2015 is going to be an interesting election. 

Update: I immediately was emailed as asked if who I was voting for.  I am not a member of any political party and therefore won’t be casting a ballot in this race.  I am just looking at it from the outside.

A vision for Canada

Speaking of Liberals, here is a video of Ignatieff that I really enjoyed back in the day.

Too bad that the vision in the video never was able to get into the public consciousness.  Whether that Ignatieff or the Liberal Party’s fault, we all know the results.  Speaking of political videos, let me remind you of this video by Brian Topp.

Of course the right can put out some spectacular videos as well.  This one comes from the Saskatchewan Party.

For street people of all ages, mental health a critical issue

From the Montreal Gazette

Dans la rue’s six counsellors and two staff psychologists do what they can to help young people who are hurting. For some that’s not enough.

“We have some cases that are scary,” said Tchitacov. “The person is going to hang themselves or they are going to kill somebody. They are completely disconnected. So we go to a judge and get (a temporary committal order).”

In most cases, within 48 hours, those kids are back on the streets.

That happens in Saskatchewan but often times the order is ignored by an emergency room doctor and the patient never even sees a psychiatrist.  I have seen people sent to RUH on orders only to have them back in 40 minutes because they “presented well”.

“We’ve had people at crisis centres ask my staff, ‘Well, how serious is the crisis?’ You stop and say, ‘What do you mean? Are you a crisis centre? Your mandate is to help people in crisis. Are there degrees of crisis?’ ”

Still, Tchitacov understands their motivation.

“Everybody is scared. Everybody is so overwhelmed that they are reluctant to open their doors to more difficult cases. They know this is going to be a handful, and they try to find ways not to take it in,” he said.

“Imagine the poor kid. It’s a whole other thing to get somebody to the stage of actually coming to you and saying I need help now. You start working like the devil on the phone and you aren’t getting anywhere.”

There are some encouraging signs attitudes and access to programs are changing. Corbin is Dans la rue’s delegate to the Learning Community, a national coalition seeking ways to raise public awareness and break down the stigmas associated with mental illness. And she said the centre for street youth will soon begin a welcome partnership with the psychiatry department at Notre Dame hospital to assist young people experiencing their first psychosis.

But Corbin said there’s another big challenge: getting young people, especially the males who make up 60 per cent of Dans la rue’s clientele, to admit they may need help.

“There’s the whole machismo thing. ‘I’m the one that’s in charge.’ … The whole invincibility of life comes crashing down and you don’t know what to do anymore. So you end up in panic mode,” Corbin said.

“It is hard to break the taboo of a mental illness and see it as an illness and not as a weakness. Someone has a broken leg, you go and get it treated. Well, if you have depression or anxiety or schizophrenia, you go and get it treated.”

It’s difficult enough for many adults to face up to mental illness.

“Add to that the whole ‘I have to be strong’ and all the rest of it when you are young,” she said.

In Saskatoon you have the race aspect as well.  I have listened to more than one mental health professional tell me that those who are aboriginal and from the west side of Saskatoon get far worse mental health care than those that are white and from the suburbs.  It’s really frustrating because there isn’t anything we can do about it. 

I have listened to members on both sides of the Legislative Assembly admit to the problems in the mental health system in Saskatchewan.  While there has been progress (and mistakes) made by both the NDP and now the Saskatchewan Party, there is a long way to go.  If there was one bit of advice that I could give Premier Brad Wall and the future NDP leader, it would be to form a bi-partisan committee to fix and monitor mental healthcare in Saskatchewan.  Take it out of the realm of partisan politics and just fix it.  They are Saskatchewan’s most vulnerable people, they use up a lot of the health budget, use a disproportionate amount of resources for housing and social services but it is also something that as a province we can fix. 

The flipside of it is that if we don’t do something about it, it becomes a problem that can grow out of hand as other jurisdictions have experienced.

The State of the Debate on Housing Right Now in Saskatchewan

This comes from a December 14, 2011 Question Period in the Legislature.  Direct from Hansard

Ms. Chartier

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, Social Services has been housing many people in hotels like the Coachman, the Sunrise and the Quality Inn in Regina. There’s been one man who’s had to call the Coachman home for seven months, Mr. Speaker. He was housed in the Coachman for seven months at approximately $2,676 a month, or about $90 a day. He asked for an increase in his shelter allowance and was denied. The government has made the choice to house people in hotels rather than work with them to find affordable and appropriate housing.

To the minister: why is this government choosing to pay huge hotel bills instead of addressing inadequate shelter allowances?

The Speaker

I recognize the Minister of Social Services.

Hon. Ms. Draude

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I don’t know specifically the case the member is talking about. But I can tell you that we have raised emergency shelter rates by 85 per cent, and we’ve increased the number of spaces by 130 since we became government. Mr. Speaker, we have new spaces in Saskatoon in the Salvation Army Mumford House. And we know that there is more work to be done in this area, Mr. Speaker. And we also know that our hotel usage has decreased considerably in the last year. In February 2010, we were using an average of 427 rooms a night, and last year it was 30.

Mr. Speaker, we know there’s more work to be done to ensure that people have a safe place to go in the evenings and at night. But we also know that every individual, their cases are looked at to find out why they are still in a hotel, and there’s always answers and reasons behind that.

The Speaker

I recognize the member for Saskatoon Riversdale.

Ms. Chartier

Mr. Speaker, being housed in a hotel for seven months isn’t emergency shelter and it becomes someone’s home. And a hotel is not a home, Mr. Speaker.

We heard yesterday that Regina has the lowest vacancy rate in Canada, point six per cent. The average one-bedroom apartment in Regina costs $790 a month. Shelter allowance for a single, unemployable person is $459. Even if someone is eligible for the maximum rental supplement over and above this, this still puts them below the average one bedroom, if they can even find one, Mr. Speaker. While the core issue certainly is a lack of affordable rental units, the immediate issue is inadequate shelter allowances.

To the minister: both people, renters and taxpayers, are paying for the failure to address people’s pressing housing needs. When will the minister recognize shelter allowances fail to match the reality of today’s tight rental market?

The Speaker

I recognize the Minister of Social Services.

Hon. Ms. Draude

Mr. Speaker, we know that the vacancy rates right now are about the same as they were last year at this time. And we know that there’s an increase in the number of people in this province, so we are managing to keep up or get ahead of that pace.

But, Mr. Speaker, we do know that there are people that are in shelters right now and there’s more work to be done. Some of the work that we’ve done in the last while is making sure that we have more affordable units on the market, more people that are buying into the idea of having the rental incentive program and affordable housing program. Right now we have 960 units that have been built since we became government; another 950 are on the way. Places like Regina have got applications for 900 rental incentive units.

Mr. Speaker, there’s more work to be done. We know that, but we feel confident that working with the communities and the developers right around the province, we can address this issue that is part of one of the great parts of about a booming province.

The Speaker

I recognize the member for Saskatoon Riversdale.

Ms. Chartier

Just to recap, Mr. Speaker, so the vacancy rate is at point six per cent in Regina. The average one-bedroom apartment is $790 a month, shelter allowance for a single person is $459. Again, even if someone is eligible for the maximum rental supplement, this still puts him or her — their total housing allowance — $69 below the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment, if they can even find one.

The additional money that people pay to have a decent apartment comes out of their very limited living allowance, which means less food on the table or having to choose which prescription to fill.

To the minister: taking everything into account — the low vacancy rate, the fact that the shelter allowances are not enough — is she prepared to immediately increase the shelter allowances so people can find adequate and affordable housing now?

The Speaker

I recognize the Minister of Social Services.

Hon. Ms. Draude

Mr. Speaker, Mr. Speaker, knowing that people are living in a hotel or in a shelter isn’t something that anybody wants to hear about. But doing this is not something that happened because we became government. The same thing was happening under the NDP. The only difference is we increased the amount of money that we’ve given to people in shelters. We’ve increased the amount of shelter spaces there are, and we’re working on making sure that there are more units for people.

Mr. Speaker, we know that we can’t do those alone, and that’s why we have about 200 non-government organizations that are working with us to ensure that we have places, and not only is it a home but a support for people. Mr. Speaker, the community-based organizations are working with our government, and together we’re going to make a difference to everyone in this province.

The Speaker

I recognize the member for Saskatoon Riversdale.

Ms. Chartier

Mr. Speaker, the government is currently paying for people to live in hotels. It costs about four times as much as they are willing to spend on shelter allowances. To the minister: she gave us some numbers, but how much is it costing us to house our citizens in hotels?

The Speaker

I recognize the Minister of Social Services.

Hon. Ms. Draude

Mr. Speaker, I know that the member opposite cares about this issue, as do all of us on this side of the House. That’s why we’re working extremely hard. That’s why we’ve got 5,700 units that are being prepared to be constructed in the next while. That’s why we’ve invested $309 million in housing.

Mr. Speaker, the vacancy rate that was talked about yesterday, there’s another part of it that makes everybody understand that there is work being done. They’re saying, "On the bright side," and I’m quoting from the Leader-Post today:

On the bright side, we’re seeing the market respond. On the condominium side, we’ve seen a two-fold increase (from 2010). We’ve also noticed an increase in rental-designated starts, not just in Regina but right across Saskatchewan.

That’s close to 3,000 multi-unit buildings we’ve built in this province, a 44 per cent increase from last year.

Mr. Speaker, we know that the shelter rates are something that have to be addressed, but in the long run we ought to make sure that there are affordable units for people, that there are places for people to go at night and to look at their individual needs. Mr. Speaker, we will continue to work with the people in the province to make sure they’re pleased to call Saskatchewan home.

The Speaker

I recognize the member for Saskatoon Centre.

Housing

Mr. Forbes

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday the Minister of Housing was unable to provide a good explanation to reporters between the difference between social housing and affordable housing. To the minister: does she now understand the difference, and is she able to explain it?

The Speaker

I recognize the Minister of Social Services.

Hon. Ms. Draude

Yes, Mr. Speaker, there’s a number of people in this province who know all about affordable units and social units, and I’m one of them.

Mr. Speaker, the affordable units are 90 per cent of the average market rent and social is geared to income. But, Mr. Speaker, 95 per cent of the seniors’ units in this province are social housing units, and these are the kind of units that didn’t see increases that were talked about yesterday.

Mr. Speaker, we are building more units. That’s a part of our goal as the government is to make sure that there are units for people in the province. And not only that, we’ve indexed them through the cost of inflation seven times since we became government. Mr. Speaker, there is more work to be done, but when it comes to housing, our government puts this challenge at the front.

The Speaker

I recognize the member for Saskatoon Centre.

Mr. Forbes

Mr. Speaker, to the hundreds if not thousands of people in affordable housing today, that’s cold comfort as they’re thinking about what to do. But here’s a quote from the minister’s scrum yesterday: "Right now we cannot have people staying in places that are below market value and just staying there."

To the minister: what is the purpose of affordable housing, if not to be below market value?

The Speaker

I recognize the Minister of Social Services.

Hon. Ms. Draude

We know that the affordable housing markets are 90 per cent of the average market rate. We know that. Social housing is geared to income.

But, Mr. Speaker, all of a sudden after being out of government for a number of years, the NDP now has a real concern about it. I wonder why they didn’t have a concern about it when they did not increase the benefits to seniors between 1992 and 2007, despite during that time having a 40 per cent increase in inflation. And the NDP did not increase shelter rates for 13 out of 16 of their years when they were in government, and at that time there was an inflation of over 30 per cent.

Mr. Speaker, during that time when they were in government it didn’t look important to them to increase the shelter rates. Mr. Speaker, we know as government we have to increase them. We did it seven times in the last four years. There’s more work to be done, and it’s something that’s part of our policy as government. I assure you, Mr. Speaker, this issue is very important to us.

The Speaker

I recognize the member for Saskatoon Centre.

Mr. Forbes

Well, Mr. Speaker, yesterday the Minister of Housing was not only confused about social housing and affordable housing, she was also very confused about who’s eligible for the rental supplement. Today I ask the minister does she now understand the difference about who is eligible and who’s not? Can she explain this to the House?

The Speaker

I recognize the Minister of Social Services.

Hon. Ms. Draude

Mr. Speaker, I’ve explained to the member opposite a number of times, and I’ll say it again. With social housing, the rent is geared to income and affordable housing, it’s 90 per cent of the average market rent. Mr. Speaker, that is the premise we’ve been working on. It hasn’t changed since they’ve become government. And we know that there are a number of units, like 10,500 senior units in this province that are under social housing. The rest of them are under affordable housing.

Mr. Speaker, when it comes to affordability and what we are doing as government, we have decreased the number of people that are paying taxes by 114,000. We’ve decreased the debt. We’ve put money back into the pockets of people. Mr. Speaker, single, low-income seniors in our province right now have saved $1,200 per year in their pockets because of the taxes and the benefit changes. And if you’re a couple, it’s $2,000 per year. Mr. Speaker, there’s more work to be done. I know there is. But, Mr. Speaker, this is the work that we’re doing at this time.

The Speaker

I recognize the member for Saskatoon Centre.

Mr. Forbes

Mr. Speaker, my question was specifically about the rent supplement and who is eligible for the rent supplement. Would she please answer the question

The Speaker

I recognize the Minister of Social Services.

Hon. Ms. Draude

People that are eligible for the rent supplement are families, Mr. Speaker, or people with a disability are eligible for our rental housing supplement. I think the member opposite should know that. We have about 5,900 people right now that are benefitting from the supplement, and it’s something that we look at and we index. It wasn’t done under the previous government, and it’s the type of thing that we continue to look at. It’s an important part of our budgetary process as we go ahead.

The Speaker

I recognize the member for Saskatoon Centre.

Mr. Forbes

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday in the media scrum, the Minister of Housing was asked what is the advantage of Sask Housing if rents are going to simply keep pace with the market. The minister responded with this, and I quote: "Because there are still some that are going to be able to have the supplements as well."

To the minister: is it really her view that the advantage of Sask Housing, that people there can live there, can still receive supplements?

The Speaker

I recognize the Minister of Social Services.

Hon. Ms. Draude

Mr. Speaker, I think again that the member opposite knows that in certain circumstances the rental supplements are available to people, Sask Housing tenants. For example, a single mother whose income fluctuates is often eligible for a top-up from both the rental supplement program and from the Saskatchewan employment supplement. Our income assistance divisions and housing authorities work together on these issues.

Mr. Speaker, I know that the members opposite would like to just talk about what happened yesterday. I’d like to talk about what their concern was a number of years ago when we had people who were living in homes that were not kept up. There was no investment into the affordable housing. In fact the last year that they were government, they built 58 units. In the first four years we were in government, we built 968 units, Mr. Speaker. Let’s talk about who cares about people who are needing help from our government.

[14:15]

: —

The Speaker

I recognize the member for Saskatoon Centre.

Mr. Forbes

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. We’re very proud of the fact that we introduced the rent supplement. But the issue today is about the rents are increasing in Sask Housing. The tenants are very upset, so that’s where we’re focusing on this issue today. And that minister should be aware of it and not be talking about last year or the year before, or in the out years.

I just want to ask her a question though. The minister repeated several times yesterday that if the rent in the government’s affordable housing units is not close to rent in the private market, there would be no incentive for people to move out. To the minister: has she changed the mandate of Sask Housing, or is it still to provide safe and secure housing to those who cannot afford other options?

The Speaker

I recognize the Minister of Social Services.

Hon. Ms. Draude

Mr. Speaker, the policies that we have in Sask Housing are ones that are always being reviewed because we’ve got to make sure that the homes we own as government, that the people of this province own, are geared to people who most need them, Mr. Speaker. And you know, what we are doing at the same time is making sure that people have more money in their pockets and making sure that people are in those housing units that belong to the government, if they have an opportunity to move forward because they’ve earned more money, let’s look at it, Mr. Speaker.

But at the same time, Mr. Speaker, I would think the members opposite should be pleased that our province is going ahead, that there are more people that are off the income tax rolls, that there are more people working, that our unemployment rate is one of the lowest in Canada. And together we are making sure that Saskatchewan is going ahead.

The Speaker

I recognize the member for Saskatoon Centre.

Mr. Forbes

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday the minister was asked the following question, and I quote, "Where would you find a better deal than social housing?" Her answer was this: "Well if we raise the rents and the rent is higher than you can get in the private market, they probably would move out."

To the minister: is that the Sask Party’s plan, to raise rent in affordable housing units so it is higher than the rent in the private market?

The Speaker

I recognize the Minister of Social Services.

Hon. Ms. Draude

Mr. Speaker, I don’t know whether the member opposite is running out of questions or what he’s doing because right now what we’re talking about is making sure that it stays 90 per cent of the average rent. Mr. Speaker, that hasn’t changed.

But we also do know that there is more work to be done in this area. Mr. Speaker, we’re building affordable units, not just in Saskatoon and Regina and Prince Albert but right across the province. In fact our five point housing strategy talks about involving community partners, involving developers, involving builders, and making sure that right across a growing province there are units for people to be living in.

Mr. Speaker, I know the members opposite are focusing on affordability because they don’t believe that there’s a bright future in this province. In fact they probably are the only nine people left in the province who don’t because the rest of them are on this side of the House.

The Speaker

I recognize the member for Saskatoon Centre.

Mr. Forbes

Mr. Speaker, of course we’re focusing on affordability, and it is the right thing to do. People are talking about that right across the province. So forgive us if we’re doing our job asking about affordable issues.

Well, Mr. Speaker, it was abundantly clear that as of yesterday the Minister of Housing had no understanding about the purpose of Sask Housing’s affordable housing units and when she chose to increase the rents. To the minister: now that she’s got her head around this, about what affordable housing’s supposed to be, will she do the right thing and cancel the rent increases? Thank you.

The Speaker

I recognize the Minister of Social Services.

Hon. Ms. Draude

Mr. Speaker, out of the 10,500 senior units that are operated by Sask Housing, these are the social housing. None of these units are subject to increase. Out of the remaining, which is 3 per cent of the seniors’ units, they have an increase to their affordable housing. We’ve looked at why, what we can to do to make sure that it’s affordable. And, Mr. Speaker, I’ve told the member opposite that there’s another $1,200 in the pockets of single seniors and there’s $2,000 more in the pockets of couples. Mr. Speaker, the members opposite didn’t look at this issue when they were in government because they didn’t increase seniors’ income benefits between 1992 and 2007.

Mr. Speaker, what is it . . . the people that they have right now, their seniors are important to the people of this province, and making sure that we have double the seniors, the number of people on seniors’ income plan. And after this year’s election three times increased, they have tripled the amount of people under the seniors’ income plan, Mr. Speaker, three times of the amount of money under those people.

To be honest, I wasn’t really all that thrilled with either side of the debate which may be partly the nature of Question Period but still it gives you an idea of where the Saskatchewan Party and the NDP stand in the area of housing.

No Social Services Checks before Christmas

From Joe Couture of The StarPhoenix

A Saskatchewan Party government decision to change the date January social assistance cheques are released to after Christmas from before has come under fire from the NDP Opposition.

As of 2011, Social Services changed the date cheques were issued and direct deposits paid to Dec. 29 from Dec. 23.

“Our goal is to make sure people have money for not only Christmas, but for January as well,” Social Services Minister June Draude told reporters. “We want to make sure that there’s consistency and that people are able to budget.”

As the money is intended for food, shelter and other bills, recipients should look to other options for holiday celebrations, Draude said.

“We really count on places like the (community-based organizations) that work really hard with the ministry to ensure the extras for Christmas are available to our recipients,” Draude said.

I am not sure what I think about this decision.  The NDP are right that people need the freedom to spend Social Assistance money like they choose but after years of seeing how busy agencies like the Salvation Army, the Saskatoon Food Bank, and The Friendship Inn are in January because the January check was spent on Christmas cheer (in whatever form it came in), I understand what the Saskatchewan Party is getting at. Of course the other thing I wrestle with is are CBO’s are the ones that need to be counted on to provide Christmas cheer because the government of Saskatchewan doesn’t want to mail our checks earlier.

I know this would get no political traction at all but why not give those deemed unemployable a $50 or $100 Christmas bonus check?  You could even do as New York City has done and link it to performance markers like their annual review, maintaining housing, or making sure children get inoculations and shots.

It’s a tough season for those living under the poverty line, making it harder on those that have no other options doesn’t seem right at all.  In a province showing gains all over the economic spectrum, there is no need for government to have a heart three sizes too small.

Column: Act to ensure your voice is heard

My column in The StarPhoenix

When I write about politics, some co-workers and friends tell me they don’t read it as they have "no time for politics." Well, I hope today is the exception and they head out and vote.

I don’t expect much drama and tension, and I don’t think it will surprise any of us if Premier Brad Wall is still the premier on Tuesday, with a slightly larger caucus. Apparently, the vaunted orange wave loses steam somewhere this side of Winnipeg.

While the results of the election may not be in doubt, what is in doubt is the quality of government it will provide and what kind of MLAs we will be electing.

What’s interesting is that those factors are partially determined by us, the voters, not just tonight but tomorrow, as well.

Citizens tend to be more engaged at a municipal level. We all have the ability to connect and engage politically. If you send an email to a councillor or the mayor, you know they will get it. An increasing number of them are on Twitter, making it easier to connect with them.

If you need to talk to councillors in person, the city has a time where you can address council each meeting.

If that isn’t your cup of tea, try one of the ward town hall meetings hosted by Mayor Don Atchison and your ward councillor. The mayor isn’t there alone; he brings along a cadre of senior civic administrators. Coun. Darren Hill has been tweeting during some of the town hall meetings.

It’s not about city hall talking to voters as it is the city wanting to listen to what we, the citizens, have to say.

Despite the effort the city puts into town hall meetings, attendance has been quite low, with only 20 to 30 people at many of the meetings. We complain that civic leaders don’t listen, but we don’t go when they show up to listen.

Our provincial legislature does not have similar accommodations for citizen feedback. While all councillors have a say in the legislative process in the city, provincially the power is concentrated in cabinet. You can’t address the legislature without an invitation, and the location of government itself limits access for much of the province.

Individual MLAs have roles on committee, but they have a party whip who tells them how to vote in most situations. It’s a system designed to be controlled from the premier’s office rather than by the public, but even that is changing.

There was much written about the last federal vote being the first social media election. In the end that proved hyperbolic, as most candidates just tweeted about how great their leader was and how well everything was going. Pretty boring stuff, as they used tweets as a broadcast medium.

Time will tell if our new MLAs want to actually listen or just talk, but the technology exists for those who want to connect; and it even works after the election. Two of the best listeners were New Democrats Cam Broten and Pat Atkinson, whose use of Twitter raised the bar for how accessible an MLA could be.

Broten has directed me and others to answers to questions we hadn’t even got around to asking him yet.

Atkinson was part question period commentator, part historian, and was possibly the biggest Sheepdogs cheerleader as the band ascended to the cover of Rolling Stone. I hope the Saskatchewan Party MLAs will follow their lead.

Every election, some people get into office who don’t deserve our vote. It’s how democracy works and, if we are lucky, their party will keep them a long way away from power and then toss them out in the next nomination meeting. We also send MLAs to Regina who are going as true public servants, who want to connect and want us to be part of the process for the next four years.

While the electoral process ends tonight, governance starts tomorrow and it’s something that we have an opportunity to play a role in. At a time when voter turnout is declining, we forget that our ability to participate in government is increasing.

How you do that is up to you. Our parliamentary system has one party in power and one in Opposition to provide a check and balance. Both rely on feedback, input and participation from their constituents. Plug in on either side, for debate is needed, but don’t just send MLAs to Regina and forget them.

Our voice matters today and especially tomorrow.

jordon@jordoncooper.com

Ridings to Watch

CBC offers up their ridings to watch and it seemed like a pretty odd list so here are my ridings to watch tonight.

  • Saskatoon Meewasin.  The Sask Party threw a ton of resources in an attempt to unseat Frank Quennell.  If they Quennell wins, it means that the NDP still has some life in the cities, the Saskatchewan Party wins, it means that no NDP seats are safe moving forward. Prediction: Roger Parent wins
  • Saskatoon Fairview: Will voters be unhappy that their city councilor and MLA reside in the same household.  I don’t think Andy Iwanchuk will lose but it could cost him some votes and make a race close in a riding that Jennifer Campeau is running hard to win. Prediction: Andy Iwanchuk wins
  • Saskatoon Nutana: Long a safe NDP seat, I heard rumors that the campaign isn’t going that well (no NDP scrutineers in the advance polls).  Interesting to see if the seat flips or not.  Prediction: Very narrow win for Cathy Sproule
  • Saskatoon Eastview:  I wrote about this before but I am still trying to figure out why Judy Junor is using a downtown campaign office to run on the eastside.  I think this could be a victim of the green wave.  Prediction: Corey Tochor wins
  • Battlefords: I hear from Sask Party people that Ryan Bater is under 20% but I also hear that he is winning the sign war.  It’s going to come down to vote splits but let’s go out on a limb and call it for Bater.  If he doesn’t win, the Liberals won’t be a political party provincially by the next election.

Updates:

  • I was correct about Saskatoon Meewasin
  • I was wrong about Saskatoon Fairview, Jennifer Campeau won in a shocking upset.
  • I was kind of right about Nutana, Cathy Sproule won a tight race but I was DM’d by former MLA Pat Atkinson who told me that the NDP were very well organized.   She was right, I was wrong.  Partly because I missed the changes in advance poll scrutineers.
  • I was right in Saskatoon Eastview.
  • I was right about Ryan Bater in Battlefords.  He was beaten badly and I don’t know what the future of the Saskatchewan Liberal Party is except that Ralph Goodale lost in 1982 before winning in 1986.

Column: SAID Expansion Offers Hope

My column in The StarPhoenix

The vast majority of the men who I see at the shelter where I work come and go as their situation in life changes.

Some decide that it will be their home, and become like family. The shelter is not an assisted living facility, but we do have longerterm rooms and provide a level of care that matches what these men need.

A combination of aging and deteriorating health means that eventually some have to move from our facility into a care home.

It’s a hard day for both them and the staff. Losing one’s independence is a traumatic thing to deal with, no matter where you are at in life.

The Saskatchewan government announced back in 2009 a program called the Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability. The SAID program did three things: It moved people from the Saskatchewan Assistance Program, it streamlined the process of getting disability benefits and it paid out benefits on a green cheque.

A new cheque, but no new money. It didn’t feel like much progress was made. When it was first announced, I thought it was more about manipulating Social Services statistics than anything else.

When Premier Brad Wall on Oct. 17 made the SAID program the Saskatchewan Party’s largest election promise, I was surprised.

He expanded the program to include the estimated 7,000 persons with significant and ongoing disabilities who are living independently, from the current 3,000 people who are assessed as needing Level 2 care and living in residential care homes.

There is new money for both groups. For those who live in a care facility and have their needs met by the facility, there will be more money for personal needs.

For those who live independently, funding will eventually increase to a maximum of $350 a month if you are single, and $400 for couples.

The money does two things. For those living independently, it allows them to maintain their freedom and frees up beds and resources for those who need the help. It also gives them a measure of freedom and dignity that is hard to achieve at current Social Services rates.

But the program isn’t perfect. While there is $4 million for autism, even Wall admits there is more work to be done to realize his goal of making Saskatchewan the best place to live in Canada for people with disabilities. The funding is a good start, but the list of what needs to be done is long.

There are too few mental health group homes, it can be difficult to access services needed by those living independently, and there is the issue of concurrent disorders. To address them all will take time.

The process to create SAID started in 2006, and it’s been five years to the announcement date. While the timeline can be discouraging, the emergence of a strategy to tackle complex social issues is encouraging.

While expanding SAID is a good policy, it was a yawner as a campaign promise. As of Wednesday, a YouTube video of the announcement had a total of eight views. Even the NDP liked the announcement.

Dwain Lingenfelter told the Regina Leader-Post: "I think anything we can do to help families who have a member with disabilities is a good thing. We’ll want to look at it and compare the system we have in place to what has been announced and what we’re proposing."

Beyond an awkward reference to it by Wall during the leaders’ debate, the promise has been barely been mentioned since the announcement.

While the announcement may have been boring politics, Wall’s statement that he wants Saskatchewan to be the best place for people with disabilities gives some hope that his government is ready to tackle some of the social issues we face as a province head on, rather than just manage them. The promised $33.3 million in the fourth year of the program isn’t a lot of money, but it provides a significant upgrade in quality of life for more than 10,000 Saskatchewan residents with disabilities.

The policy will also provide a framework for the Wall government to deal with other social ills, whose symptoms are expressed in such things as higher food bank usage and an increasing number of homeless in our cities.

As SAID has shown, targeting spending at a defined problem can make a big difference in people’s lives without having to spend a lot of money. Let’s hope the government uses the same approach in tackling other social issues.

The list is long, but it looks like Wall will have another four years to work on it.

jordon@jordoncooper.com

What went wrong for the Saskatchewan NDP?

The view from Calgary (and the Toronto Star)

“The NDP grassroots won’t even go door knocking anymore . . . the party only appeals to the mushy middle,” says Mitch Diamantopoulos, head of the journalism school at the University of Regina, a longtime activist and observer of Saskatchewan politics.

For Diamantopoulos, the problems began in the 1990s when then premier Roy Romanow swung the party to the right. “Saskatchewan shifted away from a cooperative, public enterprise approach and as a result a lot of longtime NDPers lost their enthusiasm for the party.”

At the same time, farmers were giving up on agriculture and moving to Saskatoon or Regina. As the province became urbanized, the NDP lost its traditional rural base.

In many ways, 62-year-old Lingenfelter personifies the confusion about what the party really stands for. He grew up in southwestern Saskatchewan on a large family farm. First elected as an NDP MLA in 1978, Lingenfelter managed to survive the near sweep by the Progressive Conservatives in 1982 and served as opposition house leader.

When the NDP was returned to power, he became a cabinet minister and eventually deputy premier and was seen as a likely successor to Romanow.

But in 2000 Lingenfelter abruptly resigned and accepted a senior position with an oilpatch heavyweight, Calgary-based Nexen Inc.

Not surprisingly, Lingenfelter became something of a trophy head in corporate Calgary — the former NDP cabinet minister who had joined the fold. So much so that in 2002 when a group of Calgary businessmen and politicians organized a fundraiser for the Saskatchewan Party at the Petroleum Club, Lingenfelter attended on behalf of Nexen and when introduced was given a special round of applause.

There are four things that I see going on in this election.  I am not an NDP insider or supporter although I have a good working relationship with many of them.  The first is Brad Wall.  He just hasn’t screwed up that many things.  If the old line is true that governments are so much elected but rather defeat themselves, the Saskatchewan Party haven’t made that many mistakes which makes it really hard to gain any traction against them.  Along with that is that I think the NDP elected Lingenfelter because they thought Wall would be a one term wonder and they would be back in power this election.  The choice of Lingenfelter as leader was an odd one because it was a return to the past, a past that Saskatchewan voters had just soundly rejected in 2007.

Next up is that I don’t think the NDP are any good in raising money.  NDP candidates are sharing campaign offices in ridings they should be competitive in the cities.  During the drive out to Arlington Beach, we drive through Watrous, Nokomis, and then from there we went to Regina through Craven and Lumsden.  We only saw one NDP sign the entire three hour drive.  One sign.  Even if they were not getting any traction with voters, you would have expected to see signs in the ditches and other public spaces.  There were none.  Meanwhile there was a lot of Saskatchewan Party signs (all on public land) but even in traditional NDP ridings in Regina.  What does it mean?  Signs cost money and I don’t see any of that in rural ridings.  I am assuming that the reason that Judy Junor is using office space downtown rather than in our her (hotly contested) riding is money as well.  This isn’t a couple of blocks outside her riding but is across the river from her riding.  C’mon.

You can blame that on the leader but raising money is also backend process that involves cultivating thousands of relationships and then understanding what buttons to push to get them to cough up $20 or $100 when you need it.  The federal Conservatives are masters of this and have been going back to the PC Canada Fund.  Whether it is direct mail or email, the NDP need to find a better way to cultivate, understand, and benefit from those relationships because the Saskatchewan Party can outspend them anytime in the election cycle.

Thirdly, the NDP are terrible users of new media.  Look at the video the Saskatchewan Party has produced versus the media the NDP are putting out.  Look at how Brad Wall is using Twitter vs. how Dwain Lingenfelter uses Twitter.  Why do I care how Link uses Twitter?  Social media allows voters to connect to a leader and if you are just posting links to some photos posted to Facebook and never send an @ reply, you aren’t connecting.  Wall understands that, Link doesn’t.  Not connecting to voters isn’t always fatal (like Stephen Harper) but it normally is (Elwin Hermanson, Michael Ignatieff, Stephane Dion).  Link didn’t connect to anyone online.

Finally, as much as Ryan Bater needs to win his seat in North Battleford, the NDP need him to win even more.  The NDP don’t do well against the unified right in Saskatchewan, they never have.  Brad Wall, Grant Devine, Ross Thatcher… when a third party (whether it be the PCs or the Libs) get 15% of the vote, the NDP win.  When they don’t, the NDP lose.  Their votes doesn’t grow enough to beat back the centre right challenger (for a contemporary example see Frank Quennel who is about to lose to Roger Parent in Saskatoon Meewasin).  It is why I was so surprised that the NDP didn’t want Ryan Bater in the debate.  A collapse in the Liberal vote benefits the Saskatchewan Party and no one else.  If I am the NDP I am hoping and praying that Bater wins, even at the expense of their own seat for the long term prospects of the party.

I don’t believe that the NDP are staying home and off the doorsteps because of what Roy Romanow did, I think there are elections that you win and some that you lose and this is one that the NDP are going to lose.   Wall’s performance is out of their control but if they don’t get the other three things solved, they are facing an uphill battle no matter what happens and no matter who the leader is.