Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Red Chamber’s not so red anymore


In question period on Wednesday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau needn’t have uttered a word; the self-satisfied and supremely amused look on his face spoke volumes. It was the sort of expression one adopts when one has eaten somebody else’s lunch and gotten away with it.

The lunch, in this case, was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s who has been dancing around the complex and thorny issue of Senate reform for years; one tends to forget that overhauling the Red Chamber, making it more representative and democratic, was a signature plank in the Tory leader’s campaign for federal office.

But it was Mr. Trudeau who pounced, instead.

“As of this morning,” he said in a statement, “only elected Members of the House of Commons will serve as members of the Liberal Caucus. The 32 formerly Liberal Senators are now independent of the national Liberal Caucus. They are no longer part of our parliamentary team. . . .Let me be clear, the only way to be a part of the Liberal caucus is to be put there by the voters of Canada.”

Furthermore, he said, “I challenge the Prime Minster to match this action. As the majority party in the Senate, immediate and comprehensive change is in Conservative hands. I’m calling on the Prime Minister to do the right thing. To join us in making Senators independent of political parties and end partisanship in the Senate.”

Later, speaking with the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge, he said his timing had nothing to do with an auditor-general’s investigation of Senate expenses, which could embarrass some federal Liberals, calling that a “separate problem from the excessive partisanship and patronage. . .which is what I have moved to eliminate today. . . It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.”

All of which left Ottawa reeling, including Grit senators.

“We are the Senate Liberal caucus and I will remain the leader of the opposition and we will remain the official opposition in the Senate,” the former Liberal Leader of the  Senate James Cowan said.

“I’m still and Liberal senator, not an independent,” Senator Mobina Jaffer piped up. “I’ve always been a Liberal.”

Meanwhile New Brunswick Senator Pierrette Ringuette called the move surprising, but not shocking, and a “giant step in the right direction. . .If we want to reform the Senate, senators need to be independent of groups and parties, and that’s what the leader has done today.”

In fact, with this move, the leader has done quite a few things.

For one, he’s grabbed the initiative and stamped the future of Senate reform with the Liberal brand. Even if the momentum shifts back to the Tories, they can never again claim that they lead the charge.

Paul Poilievre, the Minister for Democratic Reform, questions the wisdom of freeing unelected senators from the influence and control of elected Members of Parliament (specifically, the prime minister and opposition leaders).That, however, is a point of process; how, exactly, the selection process will work is not yet clear.

What is clear is widespread, even overwhelming, public support for dramatic Senate reform, without which most Canadians would rather bid the institution a long overdue fare-thee-well.

Mr. Trudeau’s initiative, they will say, may not be perfect. In the long run, it may not even be workable. But at least he’s doing something. And that, alone, stands him head and shoulders above the rest on the Hill.

The move has also upended the Prime Minister’s Office’s strategy of keeping the Senate, with all of its attendant scandals, out of the news as much as possible. According to polls, the Mike Duffy-Nigel Wright affair has seriously damaged the government’s credibility.

“What the Liberal Party doesn’t understand is that Canadians are not looking for a better unelected Senate,” Mr. Harper told the House of Commons.  “Canadians believe that for the Senate to be meaningful in the 21st century it must be elected. . .I gather the change announced by the Liberal Leader today is that unelected Liberal senators will become unelected senators who happen to be Liberal.”

It was a good line. It’s too bad lunch was over when he delivered it.

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How to build a just society in no easy lessons


Unless we surrender to the increasingly strong suspicion that our North American democracies are shams – that the institutions we support to protect our rights and freedoms in Canada and the United States are hopelessly compromised by money and power – we must believe, somewhere in our souls, that the right men and women can still change the states of our respective unions for the better.

For me, and millions of others, one of those men was once Barack Obama, the 44th president of the stars and stripes. In fact, flickers of his former greatness were on display during his annual address earlier this week in Washington, D.C.

“What I believe unites the people of this nation,” he said, “regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all – the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead.”

Candor, thy name was Barack:

“Let’s face it: that belief has suffered some serious blows. Over more than three decades, even before the Great Recession hit, massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs, and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on.”

Meanwhile, he continued, “after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better.  But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”

Finally, he said, “our job is to reverse these trends. . .But what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require Congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still  – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Bully for him. Now, if we could only believe him. And not just him; if we could only believe every messenger of prosperity and ambassador of hope who comes along in a great while to lift the polity’s flagging spirit.

Still, if we really think about it we must concede that, ultimately, the

the failure is not in them, but in us. After all, if we don’t expect excellence in ourselves, how can we expect it in our elected officials or even recognize it when we see it?

What we do expect, of course, is voluminous: our appetite for material things to be sated; our thirst for comfort and ease to be slaked; our opinions to be revered; our attitudes to be certified; our privacy to be protected even as our personal lives are publicly acknowledged as utterly, absorbingly fascinating.

That’s us in the peanut galleries of the continent: John and Jane Q. Public both having and eating their cakes

We demand a clean environment, but not if it means leaving the car in the driveway once in a while.

We require good health and long life, but not if it means laying off the sugar and  taking a little exercise from time to time.

If successful politicians pander to us, it’s only because, despite growing joblessness and social inequities, we in the new west remain eminently, adorably pander-able. (So do the Europeans, though their triggers are different).

On the other, if we are are genuinely interested in improving the condition of our respective democracies then we should begin by admitting that we are addicted to the short-term habits of mind bequeathed to us by several generations of rampant consumerism and disposable values, fungible for cash in any money market.

Fair and just societies endure when their citizens take the long view and embrace  qualities and virtues common to most, if not always all: compassion, courage, honesty, intelligence, discipline, and even erudition.

In every election we designate certain people to reflect our values in the public square. But more than this, we select a specific culture of service to democracy. In this respect, the right men and women do change our systems of government, for better or worse, every day.

And they are us.

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Running our democracy on auto-pilot


On both sides of the 49th parallel, citizens pause, if only for a frigid winter’s moment, to reflect on the political bargains they’ve made and the consequences of disenchantment.

In the American Capital last night, President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union Address, a show the pundits unanimously panned in their previews.

This lame-duck Commander in Chief, they declared, has dropped the ball in practically every zone of the playing field. Now, even his once-ardent admirers have turned their backs on him.

What could he possibly say that would reduce the bitter partisan bickering and undo the gridlock in Congress?

In Ottawa on Monday, after one of the longest recesses in some time, Parliament reassembled just in time to receive the federal government’s 2014 budget. And oh, political observers clucked, what a deliberately dull, strategically boring, document that will be when the nation gets a look at on February 11, a month ahead of schedule.

But, then, what else would it be in the run-up to an election?

“It’s an opportunity to just get going early out of the gate and set the tone,” Michele Austin, a former Conservative operative and a top flack at Summa Strategies in Ottawa, told the Globe and Mail. “I’m not convinced that the Olympics has a lot to do with it (the budget’s early release). . .This is a bridge budget. It’s taking people to a surplus budget.”

Meanwhile, Kul Bhatia, an economist at Western, told the CBC, “The indications are that the fiscal situation is better than they’ve let it be known. This is based on some information that they have that is not in the public domain – that’s my hunch.”

Increasingly, we are told, the people we elect ostensibly to safeguard our system of government think of us as customers. That would make them used car salesmen and women, kicking the tires of democracy and pronouncing them sound.

The customer, of course, is never wrong, but sometimes he doesn’t read the fine print – the exceptions to the warranty, the nullifications to the contract we figuratively sign when we dare to vote.

Just like the pre-owned auto we drive off the lot, the government we get is often only just good enough. What qualities it lacks won’t bring it to a grinding halt. But neither will the absence of certain cherished virtues stave off a creeping sense of buyers’ remorse in the living rooms of the nation.

On this score, recent public opinion polls tell a convincing tale.

“Just 21 per cent of likely U.S. voters believe the federal government today has the consent of the governed.” That’s according to a Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. “Sixty-three percent  do not believe the federal government has the consent of the governed today; 16 per cent per cent are not sure.”

Here in Canada, we’re not much happier with our elected lot. In a piece published online earlier this month entitled, “Democracy and the death of trust,” EKOS Research Associates founder Frank Graves declared, “The rise of mass education, along with more critical media and a more cynical pop culture, has produced a more aware and less trusting public – a shift which poses huge challenges to governments and democratic institutions.”

That may, indeed, be true. But it is also true that we, the unelected drivers of our democracy, must shoulder most of the blame, for it is we who routinely install public servants demonstrating only the profoundest gaps in imagination, only the most thorough absence of courage.

Do we limit ourselves and the well-being of our society by deliberately curbing our expectations of the political class?

What do we actually want? Is it a tax free bank account with the twice the allowable contribution level? Is it a topped-up child tax credit? Is it a national budget surplus of $4 billion?

Or is it better, more open-handed cooperation among political parties – and levels of government – on matters that actually resonate with all Canadians: education, health care, infrastructure?

In the end, all the truly hard decisions fall to us. That is our part of the bargain we keep for posterity.

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The Internet of Things’ nosy, new tech


It is an indisputable fact of modern life that even the fiercest defender of personal privacy will trade the juiciest morsel of intel on himself for the latest item of cool consumer tech – as long as said tech is connected to the vast, remorseless Internet.

This is, in a nutshell, the essential dialectic of our human nature in the 21st century: our contradictory urges and impulses that find nearly perfect expression in the exquisitely instrumented age of greed.

In this context, I sometimes wonder who Ann Cavoukian thinks she’s reaching when she complains about the shadowy doings at Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), where spies toll the electronic highways and byways for tidbits about their fellow citizens.

“Technology allows our every move to be tracked, collected and catalogued by our governments,” Mr. Cavoukian, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner writes in a commentary published yesterday in the Globe and Mail. “Yet, while our U.S. neighbours are debating the future of phone and Internet surveillance programs, our government is maintaining a wall of silence around the activities of (CSEC). This silence is putting our freedoms at risk.”

She is, of course, utterly correct, and I applaud her determination to tear back the veil that hides the snoops, creeps, plotters, conspirators, crooks, crackpots and incipient blackmailers from plain view.

Then again, what else would I say? I’m a hopeless paranoid who believes that former National Security Agency analyst, and latent whistleblower, Edward Snowdon is actually a red herring and that the truth – whilst still out there – is worse than you can possibly imagine.

Most people are more sanguine than I about the nakedness with which they comport themselves while the world tunes in and out, variously following the motions and transactions that comprise their quotidian existence. Indeed, members of my own family couldn’t care lees who’s been peeking at them through the drapes.

Says one: “My life is an open book – and a pretty boring one, at that.”

Says another: “Dude, sacrifices must be made. Ever think what you’d do without the Internet?”

To which I respond, “Don’t call me dude.”

In fact, I have often pondered what I’d do without the web. And, if I’m honest with myself, the story never ends well. Still, I wonder just how much Kool-Aid the so-called “Internet of Things” requires its true believers to quaff?

“With never-before seen tech breakthroughs and thousands of new products launched, innovation took center stage at the 2014 International CES (Consumer Electronics Association conference) in Las Vegas, Nevada.”

That was from the press release following the event – during which “3,200 exhibitors showcased their latest technologies and major tech breakthroughs, launching some 20,000 new products to capture the world’s attention” – earlier this month. Here’s what Karen Chupka, senior vice president of International CES and corporate business strategy, had to say:

“Technology of the future was widespread  at the 2014 CES where executives from every major industry came to see, touch, interact and do business at the world’s intersection for innovation. Amazing new products emerged in the areas of wireless, apps, automotive, digital health and fitness, 3D printing, startup tech and so much more. It was an incredible event that brought the global tech community together and successfully celebrated and showcased the amazing innovation that is a hallmark of our industry.”

Welcome, indeed, brave new world.

Common – nay, fundamentally crucial – to all such gadgets is their Internet connectivity. Everyday household appliances – once inert and dumb; now active and smart – will keep tabs on your habits, schedules and coming an goings in both real and digital worlds.

Leading the charge, naturally, is Google. The giant announced earlier this month that it would buy Nest Labs Inc. for a cool $3.2 billion in cash. Nest manufactures  thermostats and smoke alarms. But not just any thermostats and smoke alarms. In their effort to make you a more intelligent energy consumer, these ones talk to you through your Internet-enabled computer, and this, of course, raises the specter of spying.

For its part, the new venture has insisted that it would never tabuse its position by mishandling personal information that might come its way via its new “nests”.

But, really, if the choice is between privacy and cool, new tech for the vast, greedy marketplace, are Google’s assurances even necessary these days?

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Exporting Canada’s bad boy image

No one's coming up smelling like roses these days

No one’s coming up smelling like roses these days

If I didn’t know better, I might say a certain collusion is afoot in the Great White North, where our national reputation was once as pristine as the driven snow.

Consider a few dispatches from the world press last week:

“(Justin) Bieber posted bail of $2,500 US, and faces charges of driving under the influence, driving with an invalid licence, and resisting arrest without violence after being stopped while ‘drag racing’ in a residential neighbourhood,” the CBC reported. “His rented, yellow Lamborghini was impounded.”

According to the arresting officer’s official report, which tweeted faster than a song bird in heat on Thursday, “I caught up to the yellow Lamborgini (sic) and initiated a traffic stop. . .I approached the vehicle on the driver side. I asked the driver to place the vehicle in park. At this time, the driver began to state, ‘Why did you stop me?’ I explained to the driver that he was stopped because he was drag racing with (another) Lamborgini (sic). I immediately smelled an odor of alcohol eminating (sic) from the driver’s breath and bloodshot eyes. The driver had slow deliberate movements and a stuper (sic) look on his face. These are all indicators of an impaired driver. I asked the driver to exit the vehicle. . .The driver stated, ‘Why the (expletive) are you doing this?’”

Meanwhile, back at the barn in good, old Hog Town, Burgermeister Bob was up to his old tricks. According to the Toronto Star, “Mayor Rob Ford was off the wagon at an Etobicoke steak joint this week, impaired and rambling, associating with accused video extortionist Alexander ‘Sandro’ Lisi and hurling profane, expletive-laden insults at Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair. . .’(Expletive) Chief Blair,’ Ford says in a videotape made at approximately 1 a.m. Tuesday. ‘They chase me around for five months. . .You know how much that costs?”

Later in the week, the Star’s Robyn Doolittle reported, “A couple hundred suits who’d gathered at the Hilton Toronto on Thursday afternoon grumbled quietly to each other about the mayor’s extreme tardiness. Rob Ford’s speech to the Economic Club of Canada was supposed to start at noon, but when he was still a no-show 45 minutes later, an entire table got up to leave. . .The mayor was an hour late for his speech.

‘We were stuck in an elevator,’ his spokesperson Amin Massoudi insisted.”

The question for the conspiratorially minded among us is, of course, are these separate and unrelated events or are they, rather, strategically conjoined displays of bad behavior designed to promote Canada’s new and improved tough guy image abroad? And if the latter is the case, who’s pulling the strings?

More questions swirl:

Is it really mere coincidence, dear reader, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has campaigned vigorously over the past year for a national hardline reset on everything from environmental rules and regulations to foreign policy just as Messrs. Bieber and Ford began to act out?

The former has 48,996,563 twitter followers. The PM has a mere 408,102. If you were him (Mr. Harper, that is), whose social media presence would you count on to  popularize the message that we Canadians are, in fact, bat-guano crazy?

Former federal Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae doesn’t go down conspiracy row with any sort of aplomb, but he made some excellent points this past summer in his political blog on Huffington Post, to wit:

“Canada has become the classic practitioner of megaphone policy. . .We have the megaphone, the Prime Minister telling the American President in his own country that ‘he won’t take no for an answer’ on Keystone, John Baird . . .expressing skepticism but having no information and no knowledge to assess what is actually happening in Tehran. In my recent travels and discussions with seasoned foreign policy experts and politicians in the U.S. and Europe, I haven’t met one who took Canada seriously anymore, except as a posturer, a poseur, a political game player.”

Oh, I don’t know about that. The stridently hawkish Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, seems to think we’re pretty swell.

Then again, he may may also think that a country’s international reputation can only benefit from blanket coverage of its boozy mayors and sloshed, foul-mouthed post-adolescent superstars.

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When home-sweet-home becomes a battlefield


Each and every day, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) concerns itself with the weighty problems of life on Canada’s east coast – problems such as equalization, energy policy, health care, labour markets, municipal tax reform and. . .um. . .doorknobs.

That’s right, doorknobs; specifically, whether they should be round or levered. Here’s what Marco Navarro-Genie, AIMS’ president, had to say on the subject in a recent commentary for The Chronicle-Herald of Halifax:

“Vancouver’s recently passed legislation outlawing round doorknobs for new construction, favouring protruding levers instead, seems enlightened and compassionate toward those with limited manual dexterity, such as the elderly. . . .Surprisingly. . .the move puts children between the ages of six and 10, who are roughly about 125 centimeters tall, at significant risk. Door levers are disastrously dangerous for them, especially boys.”

Mr. Navarro-Genie then references two recent studies – one published in the British Journal of Opthalmology; the other in the Annals of Pediatric Surgery – that cite cases of detached retinas and pierced throats thanks to unfortunate collisions with the pointy ends of levered doorknobs.

Indeed, the good fellow seems downright offended by one Halifax city councillor’s  desire to have her municipality emulate Vancouver. “Coun. Jennifer Watts promises similar enlightenment for Haligonians,” he writes. “Perhaps less impressive is the ideological motivation of progress. For some, the thought of being ‘ahead of their time‘ is an exhilarating experience. . .Imposing the use of levers in all public buildings might not be far behind when people live by the dictates of progress or by the desire to out-progress others.”

That’s certainly been my observation. In fact, it is my contention that the road to hell is paved not with good intentions but with the “desire to our-progress others”. Presumably, that’s why the economy of the Maritimes is in such rotten shape these days. We’ve all been too busy out-progressing one another to stick to our knitting.

But, I digress.

Mr. Navarro-Genie’s point assumes that kids between the ages of six and 10 are either idiots or masochists. It also suggests that parents and other adult guardians or caregivers are either too distracted or too callous to notice junior impaling himself on a doorknob. Fair enough.

Still, why stop with mere handles? In a world fraught with dangers, the home can be a veritable minefield.

Consider, for example, the door, itself. Even without a knob, this deceptively harmless contrivance is an accident just waiting to happen. Try jamming your fingers between the hinges before slamming it shut and then tell me I’m wrong. Try banging your head against the molding until you see stars and you’ll know I’m right. You’re welcome, brother.

And what about walls? You’re bound to run into at least one of them, especially if you’re a sleepwalker (or just home after midnight on New Years Eve). If, on the other hand, you are tempted to remove one or two for reasons of safety, if not feng shui, you risk bringing the ceiling down on your head. So, don’t be fooled. Walls only seem like your best friends. In reality, they’re out to get you, just like everything else in your home.

The obvious perils include falling fridges, exploding gas ranges, flying fireplace pokers, exploding circuit breakers, leaky roofs, and crumbling chimneys. But forewarned  is forearmed. It’s the less obvious threats that are more likely to do you in.

Have you considered how much safer you would be without a flight of stairs to face every morning and night? You might climb those puppies 1,000 times never thinking that there, but for the grace of the Almighty, go you slipping and tumbling into a traction cast for six months.

It is as Mr. Navarro-Genie says, when he writes, “It is not too late for Haligonian councillors and future copycats elsewhere to consider whether to sacrifice even one child’s vision for the sake of easier access. Given that (the) Halifax Regional Municipality cannot modify the building code without the intervention of the province of Nova Scotia, legislators must also consider the question. . .So let’s think of the children.”

Hells ya!  And let’s keep the doorknobs round while we’re at it.

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The stiff upper lip to success


New Brunswick’s estimable finance minister, Blaine Higgs, promises as a matter of course that he will announce no new tax hikes at next month’s grand budget reveal. To which we curtsy politely and thank the graveyard of foreboding that dominates Fredericton for small mercies.

Still, at this stage in the daily, grinding, “this-too-shall-pass” culture of what is, indisputably, Canada’s least economically promising province, higher taxes will serve precisely no purpose.

The time for a boost in the HST was four years ago. Today, when a precipitous drop in revenue to government coffers is related entirely to a concomitant decline in business income, the taxman’s various dogs just won’t hunt anymore.

Meanwhile, the list of likely economic saviors grows ever longer, even as it begins to blur the boundaries of credibility.

There is a pipeline into Saint John. It will, we are assured, bring Alberta oil into the Port City for refining and subsequent export to locales both exotic and mundane. In the process, it will employ hundreds of skilled and able-bodied men and women (thousands during the construction phase). At least, that’s the scuttlebutt. Boosters are still looking for the project’s starter pistol, which seems to have gone missing.

There is some fresh promise in the mining sector, no thanks to The Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan which, according to a CBC report in early December,  “issued a blow to one of the Alward government’s hopes for job creation in the province.

The company is laying off more than 1,000 people, including 130 in New Brunswick, due to what it describes as slumping demand for its potash and phosphates, which are used to make fertilizer. . .Just last week the provincial government issued a request for expression of interest to explore for and mine potash in New Brunswick.”

Of course, there is always (groan!) shale gas. In fact, there might be 70 trillion cubic feet of the stuff below ground in New Brunswick. If any of it is extractable in a commercially viable sort of way (that is, before oil and gas prices wobble too far into the red zone), then a new fossil fuel industry could create hundreds of jobs and top up the government’s bank account with new taxes and royalties.

On the other hand, there is the little matter of the screaming meemies to which the chronically anxious among us succumb whenever the phrases “government oversight” and “hydraulic fracturing” appear in the same sentence.

It appears that the rest of us are fated to follow their lead as it is embraced by the next premier of the province, Brian Gallant, who has already announced his planned moratorium on further shale gas development once he trundles into power this fall.

And yet, somewhere, in all of this, we’re missing something vital, and it’s getting us down. Behind every commercial and industrial project – large, like a pipeline; or small, like a high-tech joint venture – are people.

That may sound trite, but our tendency is to perceive our economy as intractably composed of forces that are largely beyond our control. This is the language we allow our political leaders to adopt when times are tough and they shrug their shoulders in defeat: “Hey. . .Whaddya gonna do?”

In most cases, the answer to that question is: “Plenty.”

New Brunswick’s future might look rosier than it presently does if mega-deals for oil and gas and other natural resources were firmly on track. Still, this is not the alpha and omega of the province’s potential.

The real, durable future is being written in the idea factories of the private sector, in the common markets of the province’s small cities and feeder towns and villages, on the entrepreneurial front lines where problems are things you solve and obstacles are things you hurdle.

Listen closely, and you will still hear the relentless hum of enterprise, which remains happily oblivious to the macroeconomic demons that torture the province’s elected leaders, appointed officials and, as often as not, professional chatterers like Yours Truly.

If, as one of my colleagues in arms recently claimed, GDP is two-thirds consumer confidence, then attitude is everything.

Perhaps, then, we should try stiffening our lips and, for once, whistle obstinately past that graveyard of foreboding.

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Spreading a little of Moncton’s famous mojo


Hindsight makes geniuses of us all, which is one reason why the most astute economic development gurus are keen students of history.

For Greater Moncton last week, the past met the present and together they stared steadily, if not altogether fearlessly, into the future.

It’s nearly impossible to get 300 people to sit still in one room, let alone command their undivided attention, but there were times during the 2014 Greater Moncton Economic Summit when all eyes were fixed on the gantlet that history has thrown down.

That gantlet is nothing less than 25 years of sturdy growth in the Hub City regardless – and, at times in defiance – of weak economic conditions elsewhere in New Brunswick and Canada.

The challenge, as always, in the here and now, where and when we gather to consider our options, is in properly appreciating what the community has done right – not to replicate an old vision, but to help create a new one for different and, in some ways, tougher times.

Of course, ever since the financial meltdown of 2008 and subsequent recession cities and towns all over Canada – indeed, the world – have made routine naval gazing a part of their municipal roadshows.

But in my 30-plus years covering city halls and urban planning conferences, only in Moncton have I observed deliberate, indefatigably cheerful determination actually transform street scapes, sectors and even industries.

All of which is fortunate for those of us who live, work and play here. The city – nay, the entire province – is going to need such a patented brand of pluck.

“We’ve seen almost five years with no net employment growth in Nova Scotia, for example, and there’s a big difference too now between Newfoundland and Labrador, which is looking to a long and sustained period of large project activity and all the benefits that brings in terms of high income growth, high employment growth. The difference here in the Maritimes couldn’t be more stark.”

Those were Elizabeth Beale’s words in mid November. She’s the president of one of the region’s leading think tanks, the Atlantic Province’s Economic Council (APEC). Specifically, here’s what the organization predicted for the provinces:

“Newfoundland and Labrador is expected to have one of the fastest growth rates in Canada this year, at six per cent, due to increased oil production and capital investment.

“Prince Edward Island will see its economy expand by 1.1 per cent in 2013, due to a strong labour market. The forecast for 2014 calls for growth of 1.3 per cent, due partly to growth in the bioscience sector, a rebound in aerospace and defence, increased food processing and a decent tourism season.

“Nova Scotia sees flat employment and weak consumer spending in 2013, limiting GDP growth to about 0.8 per cent. In 2014, that is forecast to accelerate to about 2.0 per cent, boosted by a jump in natural gas output and increased investment in major projects.”

And what of New Brunswick, host province of the original “Moncton Miracle” – the retail, transportation, IT and entertainment capital of the central Maritimes?

Says APEC: “New Brunswick will have no economic growth in 2013 as a result of a weak labour market, the closure of the Xtrata mine in Bathurst and a lack of major projects. New Brunswick’s real GDP growth is forecast to expand 0.9 per cent in 2014.

However, that is expected to slow to 0.8 per cent in 2014 due to flat oil production and investment.”

This follows five straight years of double-digit unemployment overall (despite one of the highest per-capita public-sector employment rates in the country) the slowest housing starts and lowest house prices east of Toronto. Then, of course, there is the fiscal morass: a $550-million annual budget deficit on a structural long-term debt of $11 billion, closing in on $12 billion.

This is the context in which Moncton now reviews its history by way of envisioning its future.

What does it want to be over the next 25 years, not merely to itself but to a province that, in important respects, has lost its way along with whatever mojo it once possessed?

History may open doors to the future, but attitude – and lots of it – marches us through them.

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Averting the world’s end, on trust

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As the word, “systemic”, appears not once but three times in the two-page Executive Summary of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Risks 2014 report, you get the distinct impression that this members-only club of the planet’s uberinfluencers is already planning for the apocalypse.

In previous risk assessments (released annually) the WEF has been content to merely list the various threats – financial, social, economic – that it thinks imperil the world’s fragile accommodations to national well-being.

This year, however, the Forum is determined to emphasize how these risks have become so well integrated that they pose a systemic danger to civilization, itself.

To be sure, it’s a little like watching a street prophet foretell the arrival of the four horsemen.

“Each risk considered in this report holds the potential for failure on a global scale; however, it is their interconnected nature that makes their negative implications so pronounced as together they can have an augmented effect,” said Jennifer Blanke, the WEF’s chief economist, in the news release that accompanied the report last week. “It is vitally important that stakeholders work together to address and adapt to the presence of global risks in our world today.”

The hit parade of hazards include, in no particular order of pernicious effect: income disparity, fiscal crises, monetary collapse and illiquidity (that means you New Brunswick). There’s also structurally high underemployment and joblessness, especially among the world’s youth.

There’s oil price shocks, critical infrastructure failures and currency devaluation.  Then there’s climate change: greater incidence of extreme weather events; greater incidence of natural catastrophes. There’s also greater incidence of man-made environmental catastrophes, such as oil spills nuclear meltdowns.

If that’s not enough to send you back beneath the covers, consider the failure of global governance models, political collapses, increasing corruption, a major escalation in organized crime and illicit trade, large-scale terrorist attacks, the deployment of weapons of mass destruction.

Wait, we’re nowhere near done.

There are food crises during which access to appropriate quantities and quality of nutrition becomes inadequate or unreliable.” There are pandemic outbreaks thanks to

“inadequate disease surveillance systems, failed international coordination and the lack of vaccine production capacity.” And there’s the “increasing burden of illness and long-term costs of treatment” which threaten “recent societal gains in life expectancy and quality while overburdening strained economies.”

Apart from growing income disparity, by which the WEF seems most troubled, the problem of the kids today hovers like a dark cloud. “Many young people face an uphill battle,” offers David Cole, the Group Chief Risk Officer of the Forum-affiliated Swiss Reinsurance Company. “As a result of the financial crisis and globalization, the younger generation in the mature markets struggle with ever fewer job opportunities and the need to support an aging population. While in the emerging markets there are more jobs to be had, the workforce does not yet possess the broad based skill-sets necessary to satisfy demand.”

Naturally, there’s a bunch more perils – including a nifty event the WEF rather provocatively dubs “cybergeddon”, in which “systemic failures of critical information infrastructure (CII) and networks negatively impact industrial production, public services and communications” – but why blunt the point with too much repetition?

We might as well face it folks. We are well and truly. . .um, you might say, fastened by means of a screw.

Or, maybe not. All good end-of-the-world myths contain escape clauses. And they all share the same qualities: an almost childlike faith in certain principles, the absence of which caused our headlong rush to perdition in the first place. The WEF’s creation/destruction story is no exception.

It wants us to put on our “longterm thinking” caps, get busy getting together for “collaborative multi-stakeholder action” that includes effective “global governance.”

Most crucially, though, its wants us to “trust”.

Trust, it says, “is necessary if stakeholders are to work together to tackle global risks, but trust is being undermined in some systemically important areas. For example, much of the younger generation lacks trust in traditional political institutions and leaders, while recent revelations about cyber espionage have undermined trust in the Internet in general and the governance of cyberspace in particular.”

Of course, restoring trust to a bitter, cynical world on the brink of collapse would be a neat trick, indeed.

One might even call it systemic.

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For once, a great notion


Astoundingly, the federal and provincial governments in Atlantic Canada are getting out of their own way and forging a rational, relevant and thoroughly reasonable accord designed to improve both job prospects and economic development in the region for years to come.

And no, bitter winter weather aside, hell is not freezing over.

Witness last week’s announcement of an $8-million joint program (cost-shared between the feds, who are ponying up $4.3 million and the four Atlantic provinces, who will contribute $3.5 million) to promote trades training and apprenticeships and remove educational and labour market barriers that prevent employers and workers from finding  true, wedded, occupational bliss together.

“What’s happening now (is), in essence, we have four provinces doing their own thing virtually doing the same thing,” Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil told The Halifax Chronicle-Herald.

That’s got to go, said federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney at a news conference in Fredericton last week: “We need to break down the unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy that exists to people getting their apprenticeships done and to getting their journeyman ticketed status so they can actually be full journeymen on the job sites and moving around to where the work is.”

In practice, the program will harmonize training, certifications and standards across the region in 10 trades, starting with cook, instrumentation and control technician, bricklayer and construction electrician. The rest will follow in due course, and not a moment too soon.

For decades, certain parts of Canada have been enduring a steady erosion in the number of skilled tradespeople on the job. Where once being a cabinet maker or plumber was considered a thoroughly viable career choice, we somehow got it into our heads that, as Mr. Kenny so aptly states, “everyone just had to go to university. . . We stopped encouraging people to pursue vocational and technical trades in our  high schools.”

In recent years, the pendulum has begun to swing back. According to “the wage gap between workers with bachelor degrees and trade certificates is declining.  Between 2000 and 2011, the average weekly wages of full-time workers aged 25 to 34 with trades certificates grew by 14 per cent, while bachelor degree holders saw their wage growth slow to 1per cent. And, apprentices begin to make money right away, earning a wage from their first day at work.”

And yet, according to Rick Spence, business columnist, writing in the Financial Post last year, “Studies cited by Skills Canada, a federally supported organization dedicated to trades and apprenticeships, indicate 40 per cent of new jobs in he coming decade will be in skilled trades or technology (think computer animation, network support, etc.). “

Meanwhile, in guidance offices and family dining rooms, the song remains the same: just 26 per cent of young people aged 13 to 24 plan to consider a career in the skilled trades, with 59 per cent of youths saying their parents have not encouraged them to consider the trades as a career option.”

Given the coming demographic changes – the last cohort of baby boomers retiring (we’ll see about that, of course), dropping birth rates, and a steady-state universe for immigrants – a country with an increasingly light supply of people who can actually make things, like toilets, work invites a whole new set of productivity problems not yet imagined in chambers where bankers and economists chatter about national competitiveness.

Indeed, as Mr. Kenney observed, “We have a lot of tradesmen, the guys and ladies who literally built the the country, who are about to start retiring. We have a much smaller group of people to fill their shoes.”

It is refreshing, like a blast of Arctic air, to hear politicians of any stripe, from any level, talk pragmatically about issues into which they are willing to invest some expertise and over which they are prepared to exert some control – and all for the common good.

It is heartening to watch them put their heads together, work out their problems logically and calmly and, when the day’s work is done, unveil the big reveal.

Why, it’s almost as if some of them went to trade school.

Well. . .almost.

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