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.”