On crime and political punishment


For the second time in six months, New Brunswickers appear ready to anoint Liberal Leader Brian Gallant with the premiership of the province. Or is “punish” the more appropriate choice of words?

Two consecutive quarters of public opinion polling reveals that the young lawyer, lately of Dieppe, is mopping the floor of the Legislative Assembly with his Tory opposite number David Alward. The most recent Corporate Research Associates survey has the former holding steady with 30 per cent approval ratings, compared with the latter’s rather negligible 19 per cent (which is just a shade above NDP Leader Dominic Cardy’s 15 per cent – a statistically meaningless distinction).

To put this into perspective, 19 per cent is Richard Nixon territory. (In fact, the old reprobate, long gone, managed 22 per cent just before he high-tailed it out of office in 1974). Michael Ignatieff – another notable, though less villainous, loser – pulled a 21 per cent on the eve of his political destruction in 2011.

It’s not entirely clear which factor, above others, accounts for Mr. Alward’s woebegone stature among voters. Is it the wretched state of the province’s finances? Is it the constant bickering with the New Brunswick Medical Society? Is it cutbacks to the public service. Is it his determination to give shale gas exploration a chance to gain a foothold in the region’s watersheds? Or is it, more likely, a pernicious combination of all of the above?

Far more explicable is Mr. Gallant’s popularity. He’s young, articulate, highly educated, passionate, personable, and telegenic. Most important of all, he hasn’t done anything yet. The moment he does, if given the chance a year from now, the tide will turn against him, as it has against the current premier. This is as certain as the ebb and flow of the Bay of Fundy.

The fact that Mr. Alward has made only mild tweaks, minor course corrections, to the province’s development during his time in Fredericton (he hasn’t threatened to sell of the power utility; he hasn’t touched the HST), and yet still earns a degree of opprobrium once reserved for public tax cheats, is telling.

It tells us that voters, en masse, no longer trust the office holder as much as they mistrust the office, itself. In this, they join the wave of contempt now sweeping across North America for all forms of mainstream politics – indeed, for governments deemed no longer to be for the people, by the people, of the people (an American construct, to be sure, but reasonably applicable to Canuckistan).

In such circumstances, people turn inward when they should gazing outward. And any politician who entreats them to observe the better angels of their democratic nature gets slapped down hard.

Still, if this now goes with the territory of elected representation in this province, in this country, there’s little to be gained by embarking on that journey with half measures. Ironically, the sole justification for a Gallant premiership would be found in the degree to which it continues the work of the Alward one – only faster, more deliberately and, frankly, more outrageously.

A province whose population could fit into a suburb of Toronto with room to spare should not post structural annual deficits of $500 million. It should not carry $11 billion in longterm debt. Doing so compromises every social program, every infrastructure project necessary to support economic progress.

How, finally, would Mr. Gallant’s Grits solve this hoariest of New Brunswick’s problems? Would they trim government spending, incrementally, as Mr. Alward’s team have? Would they bring a meat cleaver to the operating table? Or is there an approach that has, thus far, eluded us, but for which equal quantities of courage and ingenuity are urgently required?

As for tactics, would a new Liberal government embrace the politically expedient concept of public consultation as fulsomely as has the existing Progressive Conservative one? Would it be able to make a distinction between productive brainstorming and wasteful gum-flapping and act in the collective, rather than vested or special, interests of the province?

However a future Gallant government comports itself, it will not be popular. But if you’re destined to be punished for something, you might as well do the crime.

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