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.