Tag Archives: David Alward

Plotting some common ground for shale gas

Beyond the headland, off to meet the horizon

It is only my uncommon determination to discount the fruits of my fevered and hyperactive imagination that prevents me from earnestly entertaining my latest New Brunswick Economic Development Conspiracy Theory, version 2.0.

But for this mindful discipline, however, my theory might go a little like this:

At some point in the not-too-distant past, Progressive Conservative Premier David Alward sat down with Liberal Opposition Leader Brian Gallant in a dark, windowless room in the basement of one of New Brunswick’s seedier hotels. They had agreed to meet to hatch a plot, the outcome of which, then prayed, would be to their mutual advantage.

Each man knew that the shale gas controversy was not going away any time soon. Too much emotional capital had been spent for either opponents or their opposite numbers in industry to retreat from the front lines of lunacy. Too much empty rhetoric had been spilt for the sake of hearing one’s voice repeated ceaselessly on the nightly newscasts.

Yet, as political leaders, Messrs. Alward and Gallant recognized their respective responsibilities to take firm and preferably opposing positions on the issue.

The problem was that they also recognized, in each other, if not kindred spirits then at least a meeting of minds.

Though Mr. Alward argued publicly that shale gas was New Brunswick’s last, best hope for economic salvation, in his heart he worried about the environmental impact of an industry whose North American track record was, at best, spotty.

Conversely, though Mr. Gallant vigorously called for a moratorium on exploration and development until such time as two new studies shed better light on the subject, in his heart he worried about the province’s long-term economic future without the royalties and taxes a shale gas industry would generate.

The question, they reckoned, was how to have one’s cake and eat it too. Is it possible to satisfy both commercial and community interests without requiring unacceptably high sacrifices?

The related, if more urgent, question was how to take the mickey out of the public debate long enough to peaceably erect an industrial and regulatory apparatus acceptable to all but the most ardent green warriors (certainly all the Tories and Grits from here to the horizon)

And their stratagem?

That’s easy: Bore everyone to death, or at least until most people in the province would rather have their incisors pulled than stand to listen to a) one more meaningless, partisan diatribe about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing; and b) one more corporate shill expounding on the environmentally risk-free bounties from that friendliest of all fossil fuels.

Once the electorate is properly and finally focussed on other, more diverting  affairs like, say, the homophobic Winter Olympics 2014 (and not constantly expected to tender their proudly uniformed opinions, for or against shale gas) then, and only then, can the real, grown-up, bipartisan work of shaping a safe, regulated, productive, job-generating, income-producing, made-in-New Brunswick solution; the envy of the industrialized world.

Yup, it’s a nice theory and it does look good on paper. Too bad it’s bogus.

That constant whining sound emanating from Fredericton’s political class on the subject of shale gas is merely the all-too-familiar politics of disputation for the sake of disputation. No plan; nothing special. It’s politics as usual; that is to say, as usual Premier Alward blasts Mr. Gallant for standing soft on the issue and Mr. Gallant returns the favour by charging Mr. Alward with willful misrepresentation.

In fact, of the two, Mr. Gallant is more consistently correct and thoughtful with his criticism. But, at this point – where we seem to have come to a full stop, crumpled over by the burden of all our words – does it matter?

Where are our deeds? Where is our determination to forge practical alliances that span party and ideological lines to extract and sell our natural resources as safely and sustainably as possible?

While we’re at it, where is our courage to collectively face the essential energy paradox of our times – that we actually need the cleaner-burning fossil fuels to bridge us and our technologies to a greener more renewable future?

In the end, alas, politics upends even our finest conspiracies.

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Training the literate mind: the younger the better

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As two New Brunswick political leaders duke it out over the wisdom of a school policy that neither seems to fully comprehend, at least one educator is fixing her gaze on the only issue that truly matters in the pedagogical careers of this province’s young and malleable: Literacy or, more precisely, the lack of it.

NDP Leader Dominic Cardy threw down the gauntlet last week when he blamed low proficiency rates of reading and writing in New Brunswick on the provincial system of fast-forwarding effectively failed students through high school graduation and into colleges and universities.

Vowing to change this perfidious policy in the unlikely event that he should one day form a government, he declared at an editorial board meeting of Brunswick News, “If you’re a good teacher you’re going to do everything you can to make sure that your kids are doing well and you are going to pass them on to the next level.

“But if you’re not as good or the kid is that much more difficult, it takes a lot of the incentives out of the system if there is no social consequence for the child not doing well and there is no professional reason for the teacher to work harder,” adding, “You can’t fail right now.”

To which the Progressive Conservative Premier David Alward predictably harumphed in disdain to reporters: “There is no ‘no-failure policy’ in New Brunswick,’ . . .there are children who do, for various reasons, spend more than one year in a grade level  – that is done in a collaborative process in co-operation with parents, with a teacher, to identify what’s best for the child.”

Indeed, he boasted, “We have an inclusive education system in our province, which we are leaders globally in helping ensure that every child is able to meet their fullest potential.”

That, of course, is solely a matter of opinion as there is nothing empirically testable about the claim.

On the other hand, Mr. Cardy’s approach – holding kids back a grade or two until they learn how to read in a system that couldn’t manage to teach them the first time around – seems almost mad.

Meanwhile, Marilyn Luscombe, president of New Brunswick Community College wisely avoids the blame-game altogether and suggests that low literacy is a far more complex problem than the province’s politicos – who adore their policy footballs – care to concede. “We have to come together in New Brunswick in partnership with the secondary system and with community literacy organizations,” she told the Telegraph-Journal recently.

“(We have to) figure out more clearly who does what and how we can ensure that more people enter the post-secondary education system and have the skills to be successful. It’s much more than the no-fail policy. It’s a lot of elements.”

In fact, teaching kids how to read is not essentially the function of primary – certainly not secondary – school educators. Expecting them to take the lead misses the point of graduated learning and baldly ignores every gradient in human development.

Learning first words, and learning them well, happens in early childhood education programs, pre-school and, ultimately, the home, where mum and dad and older brother and sister help junior practice until perfect. That’s because nature has programmed our species to learn best before age five. These are the optimal years for acquiring languages, developing math skills and recognizing spatial relationships.

It stands to reason that if we want literate, critical, thinkers populating our universities and trade schools, we should spend most of our energies and resources on the early years.

Of course, one point on which all – feuding politicians and bemused educators, alike – can agree: Low literacy costs society in material and tangible ways. It taps the social welfare system, and drives up poverty and homelessness rates. Some studies have even suggested that it increases the incidence of crime, mental illness and drug addiction.

Is there, then, much sense in jawboning about rickety middle and high school matriculation policies – which don’t make an iota of difference to the structurally illiterate and innumerate – that distract us from the issue that truly matters?

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The other state-of-the-province address

A bearish outlook for New Brunswick's economy

A bearish outlook for New Brunswick’s economy

As any political operative worth his argyle socks and patent leather brogues will tell you, the first rule of delivering a state of the union address is never talk about the actual state of the union – or province, as the case may be.

For if New Brunswick Premier David Alward, reportedly a tad under the weather (must be all the existential dread floating around Freddy Beach these days), had skipped the meaningless pabulum about an “incredibly exciting and prosperous” future and an impending economic “resurgence” in his annual speech last week and talked, instead, about the true state of the province, he might have sounded a little like this. . .

“My fellow New Brunswickers. I wish I could tell you that it is a pleasure to be here this evening. Unfortunately, it is not. I wish I could tell you that the future of this province is bright. Again, unfortunately, it is not.

“We politicians love metaphors and allegories. In my calmer moments, I sometimes find myself warbling the words to an old folk song by American melody maker Harry McClintock. You can hum along, if you like:

‘In the Big Rock Candy Mountains, there’s a land that’s fair and bright/Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night/Where the boxcars all are empty and the sun shines every day/And the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees/

The lemonade springs where the bluebird sings/In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.’

“Now, doesn’t that just sound like the New Brunswick we all want, the one we all deserve? Regrettably, another tune that more accurately reflects our current circumstances comes to mind. You know the one:

‘Some people say a man is made outta mud/A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood/Muscle and blood and skin and bones/A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong/You load sixteen tons, what do you get/Another day older and deeper in debt/Saint Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go/I owe my soul to the company store.’

“The company store, in New Brunswick’s case, is Wall Street, where money lenders and bondholders hold all the leases on our collective life in this province.

“Here’s a number for you: $11 billion. Does anyone in this audience know what 11 billion of anything looks like? I read somewhere that you can count out one billion inches from the top of Baffin Island to the southern tip of South America. Also, apparently, there are one billion drops in 15,000 gallons of oil.

“At any rate, $11 billion is New Brunswick’s longterm debt. That’s $14,600 for every man, woman and child in the province. And, according to the Royal Bank of Canada, our net debt per capita was fifth highest among the provinces in 2012-2013. “And here’s the kick in the pants, folks: That’s only going to keep going up. Why?. Because that great sucking sound you hear is coming from Alberta, which is hoovering up all our young people as fast as we can produce them.

“No, my fellow New Brunswickers, things are not rosy. Things are not looking up. And we are definitely not on the verge of a New Brunswick resurgence, whatever the heck that means.

“Quite frankly, we’re in it deep; right up to our necks and no one’s lining up to throw us a rope – certainly not the feds who can see as well as anybody else that the writing on the walls of this region is turning Liberal red.

“So, then, what do we do? Give up? Move away?

“I say: ‘Not on your life.’ We fight and we don’t give up. If the old plans and ways of doing things in this province no longer work, then we throw them out and make new plans, do things differently.

“Ultimately, this means becoming the most self-reliant private sector in Canada if for no other reason than this: As things stand, we simply can’t afford ourselves. All public dollars must be spent on things that build long-term prosperity; things like early childhood education, for one.

“My fellow New Brunswickers, none of this will be easy. But we’ve been in tight spots before. We’ve come through them. We’ll come through this one, too – but only if we face the facts and stop sugar-coating our circumstances.

“Those of us who are adults don’t eat pabulum for breakfast.”

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It’s time to stop thinking magically about the future

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Those of us who are well-established in our irascibility – a function of our sullen conviction that most people are thoroughgoing nincompoops – approach the dawn of a new year experiencing an odd mixture of dread and resignation.

Didn’t we just come off the tail-end of one of the stupidest 12-month periods in recent Canadian history? Why must we do this all over again? Do we really expect to get it right this time when getting it wrong is what we do best?

Of course, part of getting it wrong – maybe the most important part – is making darn sure that otherwise eminently solvable problems become utterly intractable and, so, eternally, nauseatingly durable.

Consider, in this context, shale gas.

There might be 70 trillion cubic feet of the stuff trapped in sedimentary rock beneath the surface of New Brunswick. Presently, a handful of companies pursue exploration leases to determine whether any of the resource is commercially exploitable. If any of it is, then a new industry dedicated to its extraction and export could create hundreds of jobs and replenish provincial government coffers with royalty revenues.

Meanwhile, cognizant of the potential environmental hazards associated with drilling operations, the Government of New Brunswick has released not one, but three sets of guidelines to govern industry practices. Premier David Alward calls these rules “the toughest and most comprehensive in North America.” He’s not wrong.

All things being equal, then, one should expect a broad level of public support for the investigative phase of this resource’s development. After all, no one’s building a strip mine or digging a quarry, many of which exist in New Brunswick, posing far more of an existential threat to potable water and uncontaminated soil than do shale gas wells.

But lest John Q. Public becomes confused, he must always ignore the facts. Now, the only images tight plays of petroleum conjure in the minds of the majority are those of angry, rural locals (and their urban, politically correct confederates) who are convinced that democratically elected governments cannot be trusted to regulate industry responsibly.

Somehow, placards, barricades and protest lines do a far better job than does the law of holding accountable those dirty, rapacious drilling operations.

Equally absurd, and no less irksome, is the notion, gaining widespread currency in the mainstream of the population, that New Brunswick should abandon all efforts to develop any of its natural resources – non-renewable and otherwise.

The argument against harvesting and processing fossil fuels is already familiar and, though not actually practical, not without some merit. But many of those who decry pipelines for Alberta bitumen into Saint John’s refinery also condemn wind turbines, which pollute nothing, contribute no green house gases to global warming, as they add 500 megawatts of electricity to the province’s power grid each year.

With evidence that is almost diaphanous, opponents of “big wind” claim that proximity to the rotating blades produces everything from migraines to vertigo to brain tumors. Besides, they whine, they’re ugly.

Such was the condition of New Brunswick’s polity in the year that was. Such, we may reasonably fear, will be its condition in the year ahead, solely because, in this province, a lack of intellectual firepower is matched only by a catastrophic failure of the collective imagination.

Increasingly, far too many of us cannot conceive of a day when we will witness the economic engines and commercial levers freeze for good. It’s never happened before. We’ve always managed to pull through, demanding and pretty much getting everything we’ve asked our politicians to deliver.

The corollary effect, of course, is that we get politicians who will only pander to our misguided, uninformed expectations.

But the day of reckoning is nearly upon us. A province of 750,000 people, sporting a structural deficit of $500 million on a long-term debt of $11 billion – a province that is shedding people and jobs faster than any other in Canada – cannot afford to engage in magical thinking about its future.

Should this realization eventually dawn on New Brunswick, version 2014, I’ll gladly apologize to all those of my fellow citizens who once apprenticed in this sullen, self-satisfied land as nincompoops.

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Same old, tired chestnuts of office

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Tradition, if not prudence, demands that the premier of New Brunswick addresses the province’s electors at least once a year through the shrewd graces of the local, mainstream media.

So it was last week and this when David Alward presented himself to various editorial boards, his talking points in hand, his brow appropriately furrowed in keeping with the solemnity of the occasion.

New Brunswick, he said in so many words, was on the horns of a dilemma. Or, rather, perhaps it was at a crossroads, a critical juncture, a turning point. In any event, it needed a reality check, an infusion of entrepreneurial vigor, a shot in the arm.

These, naturally, are what one must endure when the sturdier veins of vision become varicose: cliches, all of them empty.

“We are still as focussed as we have ever been in terms of getting back to that fiscal strength where we need to be as a province,” Mr. Alward told the Telegraph-Journal. “We have taken and continue to take the difficult decisions, whether that be from an expenditure perspective – we see for the first time in many, many years a government actually come in under budget – the work on foundational reforms, whether that be on work on pensions or local government.”

It is, of course, authentically absurd to speak of coming in “under budget” in a province that’s running an annual budget deficit of $538 million for the current fiscal year and a long-term debt of $11 billion. Shall we now praise the provincial Tories for managing to keep most of their spending promises while the apparatus of the economy crumbles at their feet?

Yet, Mr. Alward also spoke of cornerstones: “Jobs and the economy continue to be the overriding issue that faces us collectively as a province, but as individuals and families as well. Continuing the work that we have done with the development of natural resources will be a very important part of that.”

Specifically, he said, “We are committed to seeing natural resource development as a key cornerstone. . .Next steps when it comes to shale gas development, next steps on things like the TransCanada pipeline, on a number of mining opportunities in the province, will all be very important.”

Does this seem yawningly familiar? Once upon a time in the Progressive Conservative liturgy, shale gas was but one “opportunity” the province might tap to lift the spirits of its flagging economy. Others included: commercially viable university research and development, health care innovation, software engineering, back office services, and data storage.

Now, the message coming from government circles is all about shale gas all the time, which would be just fine if there were anything new and constructive to contribute to the conversation. There isn’t.

The industry still doesn’t know if or when it will proceed to extract what remains, at best, an estimable asset. A vocal minority of New Brunswickers remain adamantly opposed to shale gas drilling. The rest of the population doesn’t seem to know or care enough about the issue to venture an opinion one way or the other.

And yet, this potential economic player somehow becomes a “cornerstone piece” in the puzzle that is New Brunswick 2014.

So does a pipeline from Alberta’s oil depots into Saint John. Forget the fact that political goodwill, while useful, does not a pipeline build without pubic support and regulatory approval.

These projects are not, in fact, projects until they begin to generate revenue for their commercial masters.

How, then, can government seriously view them as pillars of the provincial economy? A priori reasoning works marvelously well in philosophy – not so much in public planning.

Still, get ready one and all for another round of useless deficit targeting. Tradition  demands the February is the month for reckoning the condition of our collective pocketbook. And so, as usual, all the vain assumptions will be assembled. All the projections, masquerading as actual calculations, will be trotted out.

Mr. Alward, meanwhile, may wonder whether prudence, in the absence of anything novel or encouraging to say, now demands his silence.

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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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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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No room for pleasantries in real politics

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Despite his occasional partisan bluster – a necessity of elective office, regardless of one’s political flavour – the premier of New Brunswick is a genuinely nice guy who actually cares about other people’s feelings.

In fact, until recently, about the only way to get an authentic rise out of David Alward was to suggest the he and his government ministers were aloof to the concerns of their fellow citizens, content to play king and courtiers in their castle made of sand above the high water mark on Freddy Beach.

“It bugs me,” the pastor’s son (who is a certified psychological counsellor, a former community developer and an active rural hobby farmer) once interrupted himself in mid-interview with yours truly. “I don’t know how anyone could describe us as closed or uncommunicative or not inclusive.”

The truth, of course, is that openness has all but typified the premier’s political oeuvre since he came to govern one of Canada’s defiantly ungovernable provinces in 2010. Where his predecessor, Liberal Premier Shawn Graham, protected his counsel like a NSA agent under house arrest, Mr. Alward has done a contortionist’s job at public events, and in private meetings, explaining, in often exquisite detail, his plans and priorities; in effect, his thinking.

And that may be his biggest problem.

On Friday, the premier was in a rare uncompromising, even antagonistic, mood. Lashing out at anti-shale gas activists in the province, he declared that they represented the point of the spear aimed directly at the heart of natural resources industries here.

“This is not just about SWN (Resources Inc.) being able to develop,” the Telegraph-Journal quoted him. “This not just about Rexton or Kent County and SWN. Mark my words that the same groups that are against seeing SWN move forward with exploration are against projects like Sisson Brook or other potential mining projects we have in New Brunswick. They are against seeing pipelines come across our country to Saint John and creating the prosperity (they) can.”

The denouement of his point was simply this: “The question the New Brunswickers should be asking is ‘what is our vision for our province’? . . .Do we want to have our young people living here in our province building their lives here or are we condemning them to having no choice of where they are going to live in the future?”

These are, indeed, the questions. They have always been the questions. It’s just too bad that Premier Alward has waited until now – less than a year before the provincial election – to pose them with such cogency and force.

In fact, had he spent more time over the past 18 months unapologetically supporting industry’s efforts to ascertain the economic potential of shale gas (indeed, of all promising avenues of natural resources) – and commensurately less time defending his government’s decisions and convening public panels in vain attempts to win friends and influence people – the conversation in this province might now be profoundly different, and radically more productive.

The bottom line is that Mr. Alward’s generally laudable instinct to consult ‘the people’ has also been a lamentable liability of his leadership, and on more files than natural resources.

The awful state of the province’s books – its rolling $500-million deficit on a long-term debt of $11 billion – is not, strictly speaking, the premier’s fault.

Still, in a way, it is.

By refusing to consider raising the provincial portion of the Harmonized Sales Tax, because he promised ‘the people’ he would consult them first, in the form of a referendum, he effectively tied the hands of his Finance Minister and severely compromised New Brunswick’s fiscal recovery from the Great Recession.

Had he forced the province to swallow this bitter, but necessary, pill early in his mandate, the public accounts would have been far healthier than they are today, providing the governing Tories with more and better options for health, education and social policies.

It might even have influenced the debate about shale gas by having eliminated much of the monetary hysteria that now underpins it.

Make no mistake: The consultative, empathetic premier of New Brunswick is a genuinely nice guy.

But, oftentimes, as the saying goes, nice guys finish. . .well, not first.

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Toward a living thing in politics

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Across the River Styx, the heroes of the Underworld extend their hands to shake our own as they muse bravely about the future of this perdition that is New Brunswick.

Or, perhaps, “perdition” doesn’t quite capture the esprit de corps in Canada’s lagging indicator of a province. This is, after all, where the unemployment rate moves up or down by mere tenths of a point, and never more, around the 10 per cent mark.

This is the place where the annual rolling deficit assumes a life of its own despite feckless efforts to reign it back below $500 million.

Meanwhile, in this place, where we be, the trail of breadcrumbs leading our wee Hansels and Gretels due west grows ever broader, ever more inviting.

Perhaps, then, New Brunswick is not so much a country for the damned, but rather this nation’s one, true country for old men (and women).

What say you, provincial NDP Leader Dominic Cardy in your official response to the recent Throne Speech of the reigning Tories?

“We have to think of our seniors as an asset, not a burden, and their experience as an economic engine that can strengthen our economy,” he declared in the Telegraph-Journal this past weekend. “Engaging and unleashing the potential of seniors in the education and social services field will have a significant and immediate benefit.”

Well said, oh ye of great faith, if little actual experience governing anything. The same observation, of course, can be made about his opposite number, Liberal Leader Brian Gallant, who also has a thing or two to say about New Brunswick’s prospects.

“We have to ensure that we invest on ourselves and that we believe in ourselves,” he opined in Saturday’s T-J. “It is the best way to ensure that New Brunswickers can fill the jobs that are waiting for them and that employers can get the jobs that are waiting to be filled.”

It is entirely probably – even guaranteed – that Premier David Alward will voice similar sentiments – very nearly identical ones, in fact – in the weeks and months ahead. He seeks another mandate on the strength of his stewardship of the provincial economy and, again, on the supposition that things will get better if only we have faith in the future of the province’s commercially viable natural resources.

But where the Tories and their rivals part company is in the respective locations of their priorities. And this is substantially a matter of emphasis.

The Throne Speech is, in tone, an almost technocratic document. It talks about people, but largely in a perfunctory way; as the recipients of sound government planning and policy. Individuals emerge as passive participants in the political process and in their own lives, even though they are, and will continue to be, the subject of extensive “consultations” on just about every file in the legislative docket.

In contrast Messrs. Cardy and Gallant (the latter, in particular) proceed from an almost humanist perspective and fill in the policy agenda as they go.

“Investing in knowledge and in ourselves is by far the best economic investment, but, at the same time, it is the best social equalizer,” Mr. Gallant stipulated in his weekend commentary.”. . .All the people who lobby me talk about education or training, whether it is to start growing our economy, whether it is to help their specific businesses,  whether it is to help our children, whether it is to combat obesity, whether it is to increase our literacy rates, or whether it is to eliminate poverty. . .How are we going to do this? First off, we have to believe that we are capable of doing this.”

Implicit in all of this is the contention that New Brunswick is not “going to do this” by exploiting natural resources, alone.

The solution, he suggests, is nestled somewhere in a much bigger picture, a larger and more inclusive vision of the province’s future – a vision that posits classically liberal notions of intellectual and manual dexterity, rather than the machinery corporate exploitation, at the centre of a durable economy.

Messrs. Gallant and Cardy still linger, like the rest of us, in the Underworld, but their notions are beginning to resonate among voters, who are, in the end, the only arbiters of the future who matter.

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A good try, but say good-bye PCs

Fame is so fleeting, so cold in its remembrance

Fame is so fleeting, so cold in its remembrance

The New Brunswick election is 11 months out, and I’m calling the odds.

David Alward’s pseudo-Tory juggernaut – that un-merry band of hometown heroes who thrashed the brash Shawn Graham and his ineffectual Liberals in convincing fashion three years ago – is dead on arrival.

Other metaphors spring to mind.

There’s “toast” and “belly-up.” There’s “froggies on a slow boil.” There’s knocked and knackered and out cold.

But however you term the imminent future of New Brunswick’s sitting government, the conclusion that it has become as useful to this province as a pocket is on the back of a shirt is impossible to escape.

Still, somehow, the shirt continues to fit in the minds of those who craft things like Throne Speeches, the most recent of which – delivered Tuesday – leaves no issue unmentioned, though few merit much more than passing references.

As for the forestry, in the upcoming year, our government promises to implement “a strategy to ensure New Brunswick has a competitive industry for generations to come” – whatever that means.

Meanwhile, “on the innovation front. . .in the coming year” our government’s focus on research and innovation will start “bearing fruit” as “other policies and initiatives are being designed to bolster our knowledge economy and create new, sustainable jobs.” The specifics, apparently, are temporarily unavailable.

There’s neat stuff on culture. “By establishing a Premier’s Task Force on the Status of the Artist, your government will work towards recognizing and supporting the profession of artists in our province.”

There’s a cool measure to protect personal pocketbooks. “Your government plans to introduce amendments to unproclaimed legislation aimed at regulating payday loans to create an effective regulatory regime.”

Where the Alward government appears unequivocal, clear-eyed and firm is on the subject of natural gas – shale gas, in particular. In fact, the “responsible” exploitation of all the province’s commercially viable natural resources has become the Tories’ single loudest rallying cry leading to the next election.

“As you may recall, your government has done a great deal of work towards making sure that our natural resources – and, in particular, our natural gas potential – are identified to determine whether there is potential for economic benefits in the future,” the Throne Speech notes. “Economic benefits that could be derived from our natural resources are what will allow government to help fund and improve education, health care and many other services in the years ahead.

“Backed by the strongest rules for industry, introduced in February, as well as an action-oriented Oil and Natural Gas Blueprint for New Brunswick, introduced in May, your government will continue on the course of responsible exploration and development.

“A key aspect of managing oil and natural gas development is ensuring that the province secures a fair return to New Brunswickers for our resources. Your government recently announced a new natural gas royalty regime that ensures a fair return to New Brunswickers while encouraging investment in this sector.”

To many in the Progressive Conservative camp (and outside of it), this is the economically right thing to do. And Premier Alward and his team deserve praise for sticking to their principles regarding shale gas. New Brunswick is the only province in Canada that has not posted job gains in the past year; its $500-million annual deficit is beginning to resemble a permanent feature of the landscape.

But common sense rarely wins elections. Voters in this province are in no mood to award power to anyone. They’re far more apt to deny an incumbent his mandate, especially if that mandate depends on the most incendiary issue to come along in this province for many years.

Shale gas is not about royalty regimes, deficit reduction, and funding increases to social programs. In New Brunswick, it’s about symbols of justice, law and morality. It’s about defending the little guy against the big, bad, rapacious corporate elite. It’s about taking a stand in the absence of a trustworthy, faithful government.

In other words, a lot of it is pure nonsense.

Still, no party – Tory, Grit or otherwise – can win against those odds.

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