Reach beyond status quo

John Risley In Their Own Words

EDITOR’S NOTE: John Risley, chairman of Clearwater Seafoods Partnership Ltd., spoke passionately about the future of the region during an Atlantic Provinces Economic Council meeting in Moncton on Sept. 28. Excerpts of his speech follow.

…We have a crisis in Atlantic Canada. That crisis is based on our acceptance of the status quo, on the acceptance of mediocrity as good enough and on our historic or traditional belief that innovative or bold new steps are best taken elsewhere before being introduced here at home.

There was a time during which this mindset or set of attitudes was tolerable, but it is no longer. We live in a region which has the nation’s highest provincial debt per capita. We have the worse public education system in the country, the least funding for our post-secondary education system and we are the most challenged in trying to keep our health-care system technologically competitive.

Around us the world is changing faster than in living memory and we are naturally change-resistant.

Labour-intensive industries are moving, fleeing to low-cost jurisdictions: eastern Europe, China, India. Our whole economic reason for being was based on cod some 300 years ago yet we, as a region, can no longer process cod here cost-effectively. We have been beaten at that game by the Chinese. Many other of our raw materials are sent to China for processing, only to be brought back into the North American markets as consumer products. The jobs associated with this sort of activity are lost to us forever.

So what is it that we are to do? Where do we turn and, having chosen a path, how do we embark upon it? How can we go from having the least effective public school system to the best, from the most challenged health-care system to one which is a model for the rest of the country, from having the highest rate of unemployment to the lowest?

The answers to those questions are resident within the quality and determination of our leadership. Not just our political leadership, it’s always all too easy to lay everything, all our troubles and criticisms, at the doorstep of our elected officials. In fact, leadership starts at the community level; it starts with an acceptance of the need for change, a realization of the consequences of failing to change and an appreciation for the rewards and opportunities resident in successful change. This creates a demand for new policies, a chorus of interest in reform. Political leadership not capable of joining and then leading such a chorus gets voted out of office, to be replaced by leadership sympathetic to the demands of the community.

We as a business community have no right to continue to do what we have done so often, plead for enterprising policy initiatives and then run for the hills in the face of public controversy once our political masters experiment with their implementation.

We need to use our perspective of the world and what can be good for Atlantic Canada’s future by standing up and being there when needed, by getting out in front and arguing openly and vigorously as to the nature of the problems and their potential cures. Leadership is not resident in being silent, it requires a tolerance for risk exposure, criticism, controversy and the realization leadership is a duty and a responsibility.

Now let me be specific as to what it is I think we can do.

Health care: It has the capacity in the absence of the right reforms to bankrupt the country, certainly this region. More money is not the answer. I worry the 18 or 19 billion dollars just committed in additional federal funds is going to disappear without producing any obvious benefits and if it does, it will only be by accident, not design, as we have no capacity to measure outcomes. Harrison McCain often said you cannot manage what you cannot measure. It is almost inconceivable we have no tools by which we can gauge the effectiveness of our system.

We simply have to begin to introduce measurement devices. Senator Michael Kirby’s report had some very useful and easily implementable suggestions in this regard. I quote “annual hospital budgets are based on historical aggregate spending patterns, rather than the volume and type of procedures they do in a given year.”

How bizarre is this, but how easy it would be to change to a service-based funding system, to start budgeting on the basis of services provided.
The question we should be asking ourselves is why do we have to let Alberta lead the way in health-care reform. Why can’t we initiate that process right here – imagine the benefits to the region.

Education: In many ways it faces the same sort of structural problems as does health care. A public-funded monopoly provider with no accountability. Imagine having two such huge employment groups in which it is unheard of for termination to accompany poor performance.

Well, why don’t we measure their performance? The good news is we are beginning to and the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies introduced such a relative tool two years ago in which inputs and outputs are considered and comparisons made. Its first report, posted on its website, produced 180,000 inquiries in the first month. Is this a good thing? Of course it is because its purpose is not to damn the poorly performing, it is to help them understand they need to do better, to introduce an element of competition, to give parents a measure by which they can demand more of the local school boards or congratulate them on their success.

If we are going to enjoy a higher standard of living, we are going to do so based on our success in the knowledge sector. It is not that our raw material or commodity industries are not important, indeed they are, but they are under enormous pressure and are not growth engines. The wealthiest country in the world is Luxembourg and it has no traditional smokestack industries or raw material exports. It exports knowledge and knowledge-based services. Value is going to be created in knowledge and the raw material input is the academic capability of our youth and their spirit and determination to do something with these skills.

I believe in Atlantic Canada, I want to be part of the process which sees us succeed as a region, which makes us proud of our initiative, and the extent to which we can show the rest of the country our future is based no longer on the success of our applications for support from the rest of the country but as a result of understanding our challenges, seizing the initiative and becoming change masters, not change-resistant.

The full text of John Risley’s speech is available online at: