Monthly Archives: December 2013

Defining moments in Canada’s identity

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Some may quibble with their methods, means and policy agenda. Others may laud their no-nonsense approach to national governance and economic stewardship. But, as the days begin to set on 2013, all must agree that Canada’s Conservative leadership is not the laissez-faire bunch it once proudly billed itself to be. Far from it.

In fact, no federal government since the early 1960s has spent more time deliberately branding itself and, in the process, redefining what it means to be a Canuck – good or bad.

Even those among us who do not subscribe to such late-model Tory notions as patriotism, self-reliance and personal responsibility as social policy must admit that’s it’s never been easier to answer that perennially posed and quintessentially Canadian question: “Who am I?”

Under the Conservatives, Canada is a law-abiding, right-thinking nation of 33 million souls. Forget the Great White North of old: haven for draft dodgers and Liberal elites run amok. Ours is a nation teetering at the edge of chaos, but for our timely embrace of law and order. Or so says the Department of Justice.

“There were almost two million Criminal Code violations reported to police in 2011,” the web site declares. “There were more than 424,400 violent incidents reported to police in 2011. Violent crime accounted for about one-fifth of the offences reported to police in 2011. Although most types of violent crime decreased or remained stable in 2011, there was a 7 per cent increase in the rate of homicides.

“The total costs of crime have been estimated at $99.6B per year – the majority of which ($82.5B or 83%) was borne by victims: $14.3 billion is directly attributable to tangible costs such as medical attention, hospitalizations, lost wages, missed school days, stolen/damaged property. Productivity losses represent 47 per cent of the tangible costs borne by victims followed by stolen/damaged property (42.9 per cent) and health care costs (10.1 per cent). Total intangible costs (including pain and suffering and loss of life) is $68.2 billion.”

Under the Conservatives, Canada is a natural resources behemoth, ready to flood the world with its oil, natural gas and mineral wealth. Forget the people who once went out of their way to represent themselves as anything but hewers of wood and drawers of water. Or so says the Department of Natural Resources.

“Natural resources are an important part of the fabric of Canada’s economy,” declares the web site. “Natural resources are poised to play an even bigger role in our future. . It’s estimated that hundreds of major resource projects are currently underway in Canada or planned over the next 10 years, worth approximately $650 billion in investment. That $650 billion figure represents hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs in every sector of our economy, in every region of Canada.

“That’s why our Government has a plan to unleash Canada’s natural resource potential. We call it Responsible Resource Development. This plan is streamlining reviews of major projects by ensuring more predictable and timely reviews, reducing duplication, strengthening environmental protection, and enhancing consultations with Aboriginal peoples.”

Under the Conservatives, Canada is a proud country, clearly informed by its history. Forget any notion that ours is the only country in the world that was granted its independence after asking for it politely. Or so says Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the official War of 1812 web site:

“The War of 1812 was a seminal event in the making of our great country. On the occasion of its 200th anniversary, I invite all Canadians to share in our history and commemorate our proud and brave ancestors who fought and won against enormous odds. As we near our country’s 150th anniversary in 2017, Canadians have an opportunity to pay tribute to our founders, defining moments, and heroes who fought for Canada.

“The War helped establish our path toward becoming an independent and free country, united under the Crown with a respect for linguistic and ethnic diversity. The heroic efforts of Canadians then helped define who we are today, what side of the border we live on, and which flag we salute.”

Some may quibble with all of this. Under the Conservatives, however, none remain confused for long.

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2013: The year of treading water

U.S. economy may be heading for a hard, post-election landing

N.B. economy is heading for a repeat of 2013. . .only worse

New Brunswick enters the new year much as it did the outgoing one: Treading shark-infested waters, praying that the mighty predators will ignore it in favour of fatter, tastier castaways.

Under the grim circumstances, it’s a miracle that the government of David Alward was able to accomplish the little it did.

In 2013, population growth was at a standstill, general unemployment was among the worst in Canada (especially among what remains of the youthful labour force), the participation rate (those actively searching for work) was in a nose dive. About the only bright spot was low inflation and a relatively fixed consumer price index (measured in 2002 dollars).

Worse, perhaps, than any of this was the evident lack of new economic opportunities, without which the annual provincial deficit was fated to hover at $500 million on a structural, long-term debt of at least $11 billion in perpetuity. Theoretically, that meant that every New Brunswicker was on the hook for thousands of dollars.

The reality was that fewer public services were available to a dwindling number of people. And in the absence of any real vision for the future – any sense that timely sacrifices will ultimately yield durable boons – the province descended into caterwauling and complaining.

Some, of course, did their best to reverse the tide of bitterness and recrimination, while acknowledging the patently obvious.

“What we are facing in New Brunswick is a structural, secular decline,” former premier and current deputy chairman of T-D Bank Frank McKenna told me one wintery afternoon in his downtown Toronto office. “The problems we have don’t ebb and flow with the quality of our leadership. There is something more serious going on here. We face circumstances that combine to create a very negative outlook. The entire atmosphere is hugely challenging.”

In fact, he said, “the resource base that remains can be exploited with fewer workers and more mechanization, so it can’t support the number of workers that it once did. Yet, we remain a resource-based economy in a world where the Canadian dollar looks to be in a fairly constant state of parity with the U.S. dollar. So, this, too, is a peril.”

And yet, he said, “Even though I think our situation in New Brunswick is quite pessimistic, I don’t think that it is terminal. There are many places in the world that have faced dramatic challenges. In fact, adversity, itself, became the platform upon which they built sustainable economies. . . This isn’t just a problem of leadership in government. It’s also a problem of followership.

“Our citizens have to understand the full depth and breadth of the dilemma that we are facing, and they have to be prepared to face up to some inconvenient truths. It means that they have to become less reliant on government and more entrepreneurial. It means that they have to take responsibility for their own futures.”

For Mr. McKenna and, indeed, Mr. Alward, taking responsibility for the future means brining Alberta oil east for refining in Saint John – which would create thousands of construction jobs – and developing the province’s nascent shale gas industry.

“The way I look at it,” Mr. McKenna said, “the real win comes when we take our indigenous shale gas in the province and hook it into the Canaport liquified natural gas (LNG) facility in Saint John.”

His voice rose as his enthusiasm peaked. “We have in situ now, calculated by Corridor Resources Inc., 67 trillion cubic feet of gas. That’s bigger than western Canada. It’s a huge deposit. If ten per cent is exploitable, that’s enough to create a revenue source for New Brunswick for decades to come. All in, it would result in about $15-20 billion in investment and 150,000 person years of work. And for governments, it would result in between $7-9 billion worth of royalties and taxes.”

By and large, however, these were mere musings of a former public official. They did little to quell the outrage of a vocal minority of residents – people who firmly believed the provincial government had no business encouraging the development of an industry that they said would poison them.

Would it poison them? Was there, instead, a safe, environmentally responsible approach to the whole affair?

The issue will carry forward into 2014 and, like just about every other issue in New Brunswick, remain there unresolved, as the sharks keep circling.

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Where would 2013 be without its “Fordisms”?

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Without Toronto’s comfortably stout, malapropismatically challenged, temporarily reassigned mayor and chief magistrate, 2013 would have been a dull year, indeed, for professional scribblers like me.

Not a day has passed since May when Rob Ford hasn’t managed to either delight or outrage (oftentimes, both) the chattering classes with his peculiar brand of outburst. (We must now, all of us, seriously consider adding ‘Fordism’ to the lexicon of contemporary English).

As a report from CTV noted earlier this month, “Toronto Mayor Rob Ford responded to a U.S. sports radio show’s question about what he was getting his wife for Christmas by saying: ‘Just money, women love money.’ Ford made the comment Thursday during his regular phone-in chat onSports Junkies, on 106.7 The Fan, based in Washington, D.C.

“Ford is on the show to talk sports and make NFL picks, but when one of the hosts asked Ford about his holiday gift-giving plans for his wife Renata, he replied: ‘Just money. Women love money. Give them a couple of thousand bucks and they’re happy. Get some treats on the side obviously for her,’ he said. ‘At the end of the day, she wants her cash. So I give her a nice cheque and we’re all happy. When asked what he hoped to get from his wife, Ford said: ‘She always surprises me. I have a fantastic wife.’

The comments come a day after Ford apologized for the second time to Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale, who had threatened to sue the mayor for comments he made on a television interview earlier this month for former media baron Conrad Black.”

Those comments intimated that Mr. Dale may harbour an unseemly interest in young children, a postulation that prompted a libel notice. And Mr. Ford’s response?

“I wholly retract my statements and apologize to Mr. Dale without reservation for what I said,” his mea culpa declared. “There is absolutely no basis for the statement I made about Daniel Dale taking pictures of children or any insinuations I made.”

The apology was an order of magnitude stronger than his initial ‘oops’ in which he said that he didn’t believe that “Mr. Dale is a pedophile”. Nor did he “intend to suggest that in (his) comments. I wish to sincerely apologize again to Mr. Dale if my actual words have caused him any harm or personal offence.”

By now, Mr. Ford’s ‘I’m sorry’ routine is famous. Thanks to an excellent account assembled by the CBC, we know that Mr. Ford apologizes a lot:

“Dec. 17: Reluctantly apologized for suggesting members of council were ‘corrupt.’ He initially said he withdrew his comments, but speaker Frances Nunziata said he needed to apologize. ‘How about, I am so sorry,’ Ford said sarcastically. ‘Is that as good as I apologize? Or, ‘So sorry?’ Which one do you want, Madam Speaker? Like, ‘Super, super, super, super, super, super, super sorry? So sorry?’

“Nov. 18: Apologizes for running into Coun. Pam McConnelland knocking her over during a council meeting to strip the mayor of most of his powers. ‘It was a complete accident,’ Ford said. ‘I do sincerely apologize to you, Coun. McConnell.’

“Nov. 14: Apologizes for crude remarks he made earlier that day in which he denied offering a former female staffer oral sex, saying he had ‘more than enough to eat at home.’ Later that day, Ford said: ‘I want to apologize for my graphic remarks this morning.’

“Nov. 8: Appears ashamed while delivering a statement in response to a video that surfaced of a rambling, enraged Ford in a profanity-laced tirade in which he threatens to kill someone. ‘Obviously, I was extremely, extremely inebriated,’ he said. ‘I’ve made mistakes. I don’t know what to say.’

“Nov. 5: Apologizes after admitting he had indeed smoked crack cocaine, likely in one of his drunken stupors. ‘I know what I did was wrong and admitting it was the most difficult and embarrassing thing I have ever had to do,’ he said. ‘To the residents of Toronto, I know I have let you down. And I can’t do anything else but apologize, and apologize.’

“May 27: Apologizes to reporters for calling them a ‘bunch of maggots’ during his radio show. “I’m sure you understand this has been a very stressful week for myself and my family, but that doesn’t justify using the terminology I did in describing the media. I sincerely apologize to each and every one of you.’”

Don’t mention it, Mr. Ford.

God bless your outbursts, every one.

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Looking for some late arriving holiday cheer

Bah, humbug. . .to creeping incivilities

Bah, humbug. . .to creeping incivilities

Perhaps it’s the ludicrously hard start (even for Canada) of winter this year. Or maybe it’s the fact that my wife and I will not be enjoying the company of our kids and grandkids for Christmas dinner (it’s the in-laws turns). But my mood, though not yet churlish, has become unusually susceptible to the creeping incivilities of others.

I have mused awhile about Canada’s Industry Minister James Moore, who told a journalist earlier this month that the federal government is not responsible for helping hungry kids. His exact words were: “Certainly, we want to make sure that kids go to school full-bellied, but is that always the government’s job to be there to serve people their breakfast? Is it my job to feed my neighbour’s child? I don’t think so.”

Quite right, Mr. Moore. In other, more famous, words the sentiment persists: “Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses; are they still in operation? Those who are badly off must go there. If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

To be fair to Mr. Moore, he did apologize (then again, so did Scrooge, after a fashion). The industry minister allowed that he chose his words poorly and that he deeply regretted his insensitivity. Indeed, he said, “all levels of government, all members of our society, have a responsibility to be compassionate and care for those in need. While more work is needed, I know the cause of fighting poverty is not helped by comments like those I made.”

Still, the question at the base of this unfortunate fracas has found expression in other venues. Specifically, “How obliged are the authorities to save us from ourselves?”

Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente (who makes a productive habit of ticking off her readers) really wants to know. The question, she wrote last week, “is at the heart of many public policy debates, including the new one over whether to expand the CPP. If you are a semi-upper-middle-class person who hasn’t saved for your retirement, then you’re in for a shock. The question is whether the government should cushion that shock by forcing you (and everyone else) to save more. My personal view is no – especially because it would mean extra taxes on the young, who’ve already been screwed enough. The government has a duty to save you from outright poverty, but after that, you’re on your own.”

So, that’s the choice? Penury or plentitude? No middle ground for a middle class that hasn’t been able to save for its retirement thanks at least partly to government fiscal mismanagement? Nope, because as Ms. Wente declares, “Sadly, minimalism in government has gone out of fashion. Today, it’s the maternalists who rule. They believe that people are like children who, if left unattended, will spend all their allowance and leave the spinach on their plate. Since the people can’t be trusted to act in their own best interests, the authorities must nag and nudge and regulate us into doing so.”

Authorities, presumably, like Canada’s Justice Minister Peter MacKay who insists that judges across Canada stop screwing around with the victim surcharge process during sentencing.

Currently, convicted parties must pay $100 for each summary offence and $200 for each indictable one. According to a CTV item last week, “Ontario Court Justice Colin Westman does not believe courts should impose the ‘victim services surcharge’ on impoverished or mentally ill criminals. ‘It’s unrealistic,’ Justice Westman says. ‘So if it’s not unrealistic, aren’t you bringing disrespect on this court by imposing things that either aren’t going to be enforced or can’t be enforced?”

Maybe, but Mr. MacKay – playing his “father knows best” routine – says do it anyway. “Judges cannot ignore the role of the Crown in passing legislation in our democratically elected Parliament of Canada,” he told the Globe and Mail. “Therefore, they are there like everybody else to respect the law, not flout it. . .A $100 or $200 surcharge is out of proportion to the rehabilitation and the respect that needs to occur in a justice system? I just fundamentally disagree with that. We believe as a government that giving victims a real role and respect within our justice system includes the victim fine surcharge.”

What can a victim of a crime can do with an extra hundred bucks-or-so? Save it for a rainy day. Increasingly, it looks like he (and the rest of us) will need it.

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Sweetening the CPP is long overdue

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It’s always disheartening, though lamentably predictable, when politicians, who ought to know better, adopt the talking points of a vested interest to justify the clearly unjustifiable.

So, when Canada’s Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says that “now is not the time for CPP payroll tax increases”, as he did earlier this month following a meeting with his provincial counterparts in Meech Lake, P.Q., he is merely lifting a line from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) playbook, to wit:

“CPP/QPP increases would mean a significant premium hike for working Canadians and even more serious impacts for the economy. . .Higher labour costs, with no increase in productivity, would lead to job losses or reduced hours for many workers over the first ten years of a CPP increase, and wages would go down by 1.5 per cent. Many Canadians would go without work for years. Some might escape unscathed, but everyone would be at risk.”

This dire warning appears on the organization’s web site, where “research” clearly indicates that most Canadians don’t want to pay higher premiums because, simply, they can’t afford the ones they are facing right now.

Instead, an Angus Reid Global survey says “they believe that government should control spending and reduce taxes to allow more savings. Moreover, many feel that new incentives and voluntary measures to save through existing and new retirement savings tools including the CPP/QPP are the next most effective solutions. Immediate CPP/QPP mandatory increases impose adverse effects: about half of working Canadians express that such increases would reduce their ability to spend on essential goods and services such as food and housing while close to three in four business owners would face increased pressure to freeze or cut workers’ salaries.”

I am not prepared to concede that “most Canadians” actually feel this way, but even if they do, this doesn’t mean that they are right.

As a Globe and Mail editorial, entitled “Flaherty to savers: You’re on your own with CPP as it stands”, admirably pointed out a couple of weeks ago, “The CPP is not a welfare program, or an income-redistribution program. It’s not paid for by taxes. It’s a defined-benefit pension plan, and how much you get out of the program is based on how much you put in. It’s actuarially sound, independently run and low-cost. It’s one of the world’s best-run retirement safety nets. But the maximum pension for a lifetime of contributions is just $12,000.”

Clearly, that is not enough for most working Canadians. By “most”, I am not referring to the rich or lucky few who stand to pull one of those gilded public pensions that assorted bargaining units have been loathe to see watered down.

Nor am I talking about the impoverished, who must subsist on various forms state-supplied handouts and subsidies.

I am looking straight into the worried eyes of those who populate the once sturdy middle class in this country.

The sad fact is Canadians with steady incomes don’t save enough for their retirements. They haven’t in some time. Pundits of quasi-Libertarian bent and their right-wing fellow travelers in political office adoring placing the blame for this conditions squarely at the feet of the non-savers. They’re spendthrifts or layabouts or, simply, poorly advised about their options .

The truth, however, is complex, involving many factors that are out of an individual’s control, not the least of which was the disastrous implosion of financial markets a few years back – a calamity that destroyed trillions of dollars in personal assets, including those held in retirement portfolios, all over the world.

Nothing, of course, will rebuild these funds. But even a small expansion of the CPP – which is a far less risky savings instrument than just about every other option –  will buffer the financial shock of a lower living standard in retirement.

What’s more, it will cost far less now to sweeten the CPP than it will to prop up droves of aging Canadians who will fall into poverty and endure all of its associated evils: ill health, hunger homelessness.

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Enough already with Night Before Christmas!

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‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse

Though Pete van Loan was seen making the scene

The smile on his face, supremely serene

“This year I bring you wishes and tidings so dear”

Said the government House Leader, reeking of cheer

“Parliament works wondrously well” he croaked

“There’s no need to fix it, if it ain’t broked”

“Broked”? Hmmm.

Okay, dear reader, that’s all you get. I am officially hanging up my weathered beret and shoving the quill I reserve for penning pretentious verse in the drawer where I keep other mementos of the writing life. And good riddance.

Poor, old, dead Clement Clarke Moore – the guy who composed the original “‘Twas the Night before Christmas” back in 1823 – must be rolling in his stony grave, what with all the wretched adaptations of his poem (shall we call it iconic?) he has had to endure, lo these many decades since he shuffled off this mortal coil.

What is it about this rhyming trifle that sends politicians into paroxysms of parody at this jolly time of the year?

Witness New Brunswick Tory MLA Kirk MacDonald’s effort to skewer his federal colleagues a la Moore:

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house

Not a creature was, not even a mouse

Dominic hid by the chimney with glee

In hopes he could turn more Grits NDP

Now witness New Brunswick Liberal Deputy Leader Victor Boudreau, not to be outdone, deliver a slam in doggerel to his provincial rivals:

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and the House was still sitting

The premier was struggling, to stick to his knitting

His caucus was fighting, the ship it was sinking

The mood was so bad, even Betts might start drinking.

Ah yes, what true poet laureates New Brunswick has in its elected officials. Perhaps we can sell their words on the open market to help pay down the $500-million deficit and $11-billion long-term debt they’ve managed to accumulate for us over the past five years, or so.

After all, Americans love their various adaptations of Mr. Moore’s abiding claim to fame. Mostly, at any rate.

A correspondent on the social networking site, Tumblr entreats, “Stop Using ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”, suggesting that “Maybe the Advertising World Has Used This Poem Enough”. He or she then proceeds to prove his or her point by assembling a virtual cornucopia of advertising campaigns based on the ditty.

There’s WestJet and Build-a-Bear. There’s Target and ESPN and Pier One. There’s Best Buy, Old Navy and Golden Circle Ford. Come Toys R Us, come MYPackage, and Keyless Lock. Come Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen – as long as you have the goods, of course, we have the money.

Naturally, no pious objection to any of this moves the immoveable object that is retail capitalism at Christmastime.

Witness the Marriott Hotel chain’s Holiday specials, presented faithfully under the rubric “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas is all winter long, available November 15, 2013 to January 5, 2014.”

Indeed, dear reader, “enjoy the following winter salon treatments that all include our sweet coconut Sugar Scrub and other invigorating winter scents like vanilla and ginger coconut. . .Gingerbread manicure, 25 minutes, $55. . .Treat your hands to the ultimate in hydration. . .Warm up those tootsies with this seasonal pedicure featuring a vanilla spice soak, coconut sugar scrub and coconut body butter with ginger essential oil. . .Come in from the cold this winter and enjoy a hand conditioning treatment. Nails are filed and shine buffed, coconut milk is applied to hands and forearms,  followed by a coconut ginger sugar scrub, nourishing coconut ginger body butter, and completed with a hot paraffin treatment. . .Feet retreat, 30 minutes, $65.”

Or, perhaps, merely drop in on yuksrus.com to view the ultimate post-modern insult (funny, though it is):

‘Twas the night before Christmas and poor Clement Moore

Had his poem being copied by many a bore

His “Night Before Christmas” is perfect in rhyme

His rhythm and cadence are wonderfully fine.

 

But then come the wise guys, with Internet cool

Who use Clement’s rhyme as sort of a tool

They pick up the style from this poem of “that night”

And they hitch up their sled to whatever’s their gripe.

 

Thanks for that, L. Daniel Quinn. You kind of make my point.

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New Brunswick gets it right on drug plan

 

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Three years ago, David Alward made catastrophic drug coverage one of the linchpins of his election campaign. The other was capping the Harmonized Sales Tax at 13 per cent. Thus began, perhaps, the premier’s complicated relationship with what economists term “inputs and outputs.”

Specifically, one actually needs to raise revenue before one increases spending or one tends to go broke pretty darn quickly.

Most householders in New Brunswick get this simple arithmetic. A $500-million annual deficit and a $11-billion long-term debt against the province’s accounts suggest that our elected lawmakers are not as perspicacious as the people they represent.

Still, every so often, a case can be made for a spending program in the absence of a new and ready source of revenue to cover its costs – especially when the administration of such a program will likely prevent the state’s extensive financial hemorrhaging in the future.

Indeed, such a case can be made for the Tory government’s comprehensive drug plan, announced last week, and its specific codicils for catastrophic prescription coverage. Apart from opposition Liberals in the legislature, most interested groups in the province seem sanguine about what they observe in the fine print, which splits the cost of the $50-million (per annum) plan almost evenly between consumers and the Province.

“We’re pleased to see this happening – it’s a moment in history for New Brunswick health care,” Anne McTiernan, CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society in New Brunswick, told the Telegraph-Journal last week. “It will make a huge difference on a go-forward basis for New Brunswickers. It will address both the financial barriers for people accessing important drugs.”

Added Barbara MacKinnon, president and CEO of the New Brunswick Lung Association, for the same piece: “This is an excellent plan. Although it is going to cost, it is really going to keep people out of the hospital. . .If you can get the right diagnosis, the right prescription drug plan, then you are not going to have a stroke.”

In fact, this plan is not likely to financially hobble anyone – not the province which is, arguably, already on skid row, or individuals whose premiums have been scaled to their incomes.

According to the Department of Health, “For individuals earning a gross income of $26,360 or less and families earning a gross income of $49,389 or less, the premium will be approximately $67 per month per adult ($800 per year). For individuals earning a gross income between $26,361 and $50,000 and families earning a gross income of between $49,390 and $75,000, the premium will be approximately $117 per month per adult ($1,400 per year). For individuals earning a gross income between $50,001 and $75,000 and families earning a gross income of between $75,001 and $100,000, the premium will be $133 per month per adult ($1,600 per year). For individuals earning a gross income of more than $75,001 and families earning a gross income of more than $100,001, the premium will be $167 per month per adult ($2,000 per year).”

Meanwhile, “Children 18 and younger will not pay premiums but a parent will have to be enrolled in the plan.  All plan members will be required to pay a 30-per-cent co-pay at the pharmacy up to $30 per prescription.”

There’s even a bone or two tossed to the approximately 80 per cent of New Brusnwickers who hold private drug coverage, to wit: “From May 1, 2014, to March 31, 2015, some New Brunswickers who have private drug plans but still incur high drug costs or need access to a drug covered under the new plan but not through their private plan may join the New Brunswick Drug Plan.”

After that, the province mandates that all private group drug plans “must be at least as comprehensive as the New Brunswick Drug Plan.” That means they must provide comparable coverage in terms of prescriptions and costs.

It has taken three years to craft a program that make sense. But, as Health Minister Hugh Flemming points out, if it’s the right plan, it’s worth the wait.

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The political art of fomenting depression

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What’s perplexing about the David Alward government’s decision to spend a few thousand taxpayer bucks on TV ads showing New Brunswickers mourning the state of their province’s economy is not that it reflects poorly on our lawmakers’ vision of the future.

What’s perplexing is that our lawmakers seem to believe it reflects well on their own political fortunes.

Less than a year before the general election, the Tories are bringing up the rear in popular opinion. Poll after poll suggests that if the ballot were held today, they’d lose to Brian Gallant’s Liberals by a wide margin.

This somehow impels the big brains who occupy the small offices reserved for government communications to remind New Brunswickers in convincing fashion, and just before the holidays, that the past three-plus years in office have been an unmitigated disaster for the Progressive Conservatives.

The ads show various men and women, who are presumably en route to the oil-black and money-green pastures of western Canada, hanging out on tarmacks and in airport departure lounges, their brows appropriately furrowed.

“I’ve been going for four years,” says one.

“We haven’t got enough opportunities here, we have to go do it out west,” says another.

Finally, up pops the kicker, accompanied by a stern-sounding VoiceOver: “This message is brought to you by the Government of New Brunswick.”

Now, we witness the game, if untried, Mr. Gallant mumbling under his breath and, indeed, over it: “Thank you, Mr. Alward, you just made my day.”

Of course, in the local media, he sounds more like this:

“New Brunswickers don’t need an ad to tell them that there aren’t enough jobs in New Brunswick. This is an ad that is virtually discouraging people to stay and invest in New Brunswick. It’s even demoralizing.”

To which, Premier Alward retorts, “Every day there are families that are living with separation and we believe there are good options long term to see our economy be stronger, our province be stronger, and our people be able to decide to be here and build their communities here. . .It’s a message to all New Brunswickers that we need to be saying yes to allow development to take place.”

Well. . .no, actually.

It is a message to all New Brunswickers that they are at death’s doorstep, and that their only salvation is via the kool aid of shale gas development, which may or not be true. (It’s too early to know anything with certainty).

What I do know, from my years in the marketing communications and advertising industry (I call them my “lucrative” epoch), is that scaring the bejesus out of people is guaranteed to produce only one, durable response: shoot the messenger.

Again, Mr. Alward, Mr. Gallant thanks you.

What’s intriguing about all of this is just how unnecessary it is.

The Alward government holds all the cards in the shale gas industry deck. Its regulations for development are, purportedly, the toughest in North America. It has the benefit of knowing all the best and worst practices. It even has a scientific panel, convened to guide its decisions (though only The Almighty knows when this efficacious advice will be forthcoming).

What’s more, its foes on this file are, though vocal, largely in the minority.

If it truly wants to win the hearts and minds of the majority, why doesn’t it produce ads that speak directly to the issue – spots that fight the fictions swirling around shale gas with facts?

Why not emphasize the positive attributes of an industry that, properly regulated, could help transform the province’s economy – thanks to the money it will generate for public coffers – into an incubator of commercially viable innovations in sectors not specifically related to resource extraction?

Those who argue that the provincial government has no business using public dollars to promote its economic agenda are, among other things, on the wrong side of history. Governments do this sort of thing all the time. In fact, we expect it of them, especially when they don’t do it. What is tourism, except a giant public-sector promotion campaign?

This Tory reign has staked its mandate on transforming the New Brunswick economy through its responsible stewardship of natural resources. Its most recent ad campaign, however, indicates that it has not yet learned how best communicate this otherwise clear and simple message.

Meanwhile, as goes its mandate, so goes any chance New Brunswick has of seizing its future for its now-departing citizens.

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Politicians say the darndest things

If only fatheads could float far away

If only fatheads could float far away

They don’t really mean the nonsense that, so often, trips off their tongues. They just libel can’t help themselves. Theirs is less an affliction than an occupational hazard. It comes with the territory upon which the politician must trod, oh so publicly, every day.

We shan’t soon forget this beauty, courtesy of former U.S. President George W. Bush, circa 2004:

“Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”

Nor can we let current U.S. President Barack Obama off the hook for this campaign trail blooper some years ago: “I’ve now been in 57 states – I think I have one left to go.”

There’s the late U.S. President Ronald Reagan on the environment: “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.”

There’s U.S. Congressman Joe Barton on wind energy:

“Wind is God’s way of balancing heat. Wind is the way you shift heat from areas where it’s hotter to areas where it’s cooler. That’s what wind is. Wouldn’t it be ironic if in the interest of global warming we mandated massive switches to energy, which is a finite resource, which slows the winds down, which causes the temperature to go up?

There’s former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on being gay: “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country.”

There’s former U.S. Representative Todd Akin on pregnancy resulting from sexual assault: “It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

There’s Canada’s former Minister of Public Safety on an opposition MP who criticized new government legislation designed to fight online pedophilia: “We are proposing measures to bring our laws into the 21st century and to provide the police with the lawful tools that they need. . .He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.”

Now we witness Toronto Mayor (in name only) Rob Ford throw his hat into the arena with what is clearly a litigious attack on Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale, who has returned fire with a libel notice.

Mr. Ford’s remark in an interview with Conrad Black on The Zoomer TV show earlier this month was, verbatim: “Daniel Dale in my backyard taking pictures. I have little kids. When a guy’s taking pictures of little kids, I don’t want to say the word, but you start thinking, you know, what’s this guy all about?”

To which Mr. Dale’s lawyers responded, “This is a vicious libel of Mr. Dale. In its plain and ordinary meaning, Rob Ford is calling Mr. Dale a pedophile. . .This letter shall constitute notice under section 5(1) of Ontario’s Libel and Slander Act. . .ZoomerMedia and Rob Ford should immediately retract the false and defamatory statements in their entirety, and apologize to Mr. Dale – publicly, abjectly, unreservedly and completely – if they wish to even begin to undo the harm caused by the broadcast of Mr. Ford’s outrageous statements.”

Yeah, good luck with that.

Methinks Mr. Ford, who has admitted to smoking crack cocaine and being outrageously drunk in public and, yet, remains technically in office, believes his skin in made of teflon. And maybe it is.

Maybe that is the secret of public office: Regularly say the the most ludicrous things you can imagine and, pretty soon, people become inured to your absurdity.

Conversely, when a smart, articulate guy says something just a wee bit silly, the remark stands out.

Here’s New Brunswick Liberal MLA Don Arseneault critiquing the new Tory drug plan for the province last week: “If a single mother or anybody in New Brunswick misses a payment – maybe because of being out of the country or being in the hospital or just not being able to make ends meet – the government is going to multiply that fine by the number of days and the person can be fined up to $5,200. . .Do you think that is right?”

To which Health Minister Ted Flemming replied, “Any person who is in need is not going to be paying under this plan. . .To suggest that New Brusnwickers are a bunch of people who are not going to p[ay their bills is an insult. . .and you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

Careful, fellows. . .You are heading dangerously close to Rob Ford territory, where nonsense is a way of life.

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New Brunswick gets it right on drug plan

Maybe it, like health, will recover

Maybe it, like health, will recover

Three years ago, David Alward made catastrophic drug coverage one of the linchpins of his election campaign. The other was capping the Harmonized Sales Tax at 13 per cent. Thus began, perhaps, the premier’s complicated relationship with what economists term “inputs and outputs.”

Specifically, one actually needs to raise revenue before one increases spending or one tends to go broke pretty darn quickly.

Most householders in New Brunswick get this simple arithmetic. A $500-million annual deficit and a $11-billion long-term debt against the province’s accounts suggest that our elected lawmakers are not as perspicacious as the people they represent.

Still, every so often, a case can be made for a spending program in the absence of a new and ready source of revenue to cover its costs – especially when the administration of such a program will likely prevent the state’s extensive financial hemorrhaging in the future.

Indeed, such a case can be made for the Tory government’s comprehensive drug plan, announced last week, and its specific codicils for catastrophic prescription coverage. Apart from opposition Liberals in the legislature, most interested groups in the province seem sanguine about what they observe in the fine print, which splits the cost of the $50-million (per annum) plan almost evenly between consumers and the Province.

“We’re pleased to see this happening – it’s a moment in history for New Brunswick health care,” Anne McTiernan, CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society in New Brunswick, told the Telegraph-Journal last week. “It will make a huge difference on a go-forward basis for New Brunswickers. It will address both the financial barriers for people accessing important drugs.”

Added Barbara MacKinnon, president and CEO of the New Brunswick Lung Association, for the same piece: “This is an excellent plan. Although it is going to cost, it is really going to keep people out of the hospital. . .If you can get the right diagnosis, the right prescription drug plan, then you are not going to have a stroke.”

In fact, this plan is not likely to financially hobble anyone – not the province which is, arguably, already on skid row, or individuals whose premiums have been scaled to their incomes.

According to the Department of Health, “For individuals earning a gross income of $26,360 or less and families earning a gross income of $49,389 or less, the premium will be approximately $67 per month per adult ($800 per year). For individuals earning a gross income between $26,361 and $50,000 and families earning a gross income of between $49,390 and $75,000, the premium will be approximately $117 per month per adult ($1,400 per year). For individuals earning a gross income between $50,001 and $75,000 and families earning a gross income of between $75,001 and $100,000, the premium will be $133 per month per adult ($1,600 per year). For individuals earning a gross income of more than $75,001 and families earning a gross income of more than $100,001, the premium will be $167 per month per adult ($2,000 per year).”

Meanwhile, “Children 18 and younger will not pay premiums but a parent will have to be enrolled in the plan.  All plan members will be required to pay a 30-per-cent co-pay at the pharmacy up to $30 per prescription.”

There’s even a bone or two tossed to the approximately 80 per cent of New Brusnwickers who hold private drug coverage, to wit: “From May 1, 2014, to March 31, 2015, some New Brunswickers who have private drug plans but still incur high drug costs or need access to a drug covered under the new plan but not through their private plan may join the New Brunswick Drug Plan.”

After that, the province mandates that all private group drug plans “must be at least as comprehensive as the New Brunswick Drug Plan.” That means they must provide comparable coverage in terms of prescriptions and costs.

It has taken three years to craft a program that make sense. But, as Health Minister Ted Flemming points out, if it’s the right plan, it’s worth the wait.

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