Monthly Archives: January 2015

Speak up about New Brunswick, whomever you are


How delicious is the irony, how coarse and familiar are the political moats and keeps this government – indeed, every provincial regime since New Brunswick joined confederation some 148 years ago – dig and erect to protect their silos of interest.

Just as the Liberal regime of Brian Gallant invites citizens of this jurisdiction to suggest ways and means for improving the business and order of elective representation here, the premier, himself, chooses to take a broad swipe at two men who have done nothing but accept his request.

Are not provincial Ombudsman Charles Murray and Child and Youth Advocate Norman Bosse also citizens? And, in the course of their duties as officers of the Legislative Assembly, are they not, perhaps, better qualified than most to offer sound and cogent advice to the body politic?

What, indeed, disqualifies their opinions – apart from the fact that, as agents of civil administration, their utterances can, and do, embarrass the temporary overlords of the common weal?

A week ago, in the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, Messrs. Murray and Bosse issued a stern rebuke of the current and common practice of staying any and all investigations into potential conflicts of interest by elected members of the Assembly who have, for whichever reasons, ceased to sit as functioning MLAs.

In their joint commentary, the two officials point out that “when allegations of misconduct are made against our elected representatives, all New Brunswickers have an interest in the result. If an MLA has been unfairly accused, that Member deserves to be exonerated by a completed process, rather than have their reputation permanently marked by the accusation. Where the Member has erred, they deserve the censure appropriate to their misconduct and all Members can learn from the guidance the investigation provides.”

Moreover, they state, “Requiring investigations to end when a Member resigns or is defeated gives an incentive for trivial complaints and encourages delay and non-co-operation on the part of the investigated – a problem Conflict of Interest Commissioners past and present have noted in their reports.”

In fact, a simple legislative solution exists, to wit:

“A similar loophole for lawyers was closed in the statute governing the province’s Law Society decades ago with very little debate. If we allowed Doctors to end investigations about their conduct by resigning (we don’t), the Legislative Assembly could be expected to react with outrage. Why the double standard?”

Why, indeed?

But rather than embracing this worthy advice, Mr. Gallant decided to shoot from his hip, declaring, in effect, that none of this was Messrs. Murray’s and Bosse’s business. Responding to questions, the premier declared last week that he was “a bit surprised to see the ombudsman and the child and youth advocate speak about this.”

He continued: “I’m not 100 per cent sure exactly why they felt it was their place to make (a) comment. This is the conflict of interest commissioner’s role and we will certainly speak to him to see how we can improve the rules. . .I’m not sure how the child and youth advocate has a role to play when it comes to conflict of interest with politicians.”

Again, though, doesn’t everyone in this province have “a role to play when it comes to conflict of interest with politicians”?

Or should we all just shut up whenever an elected representative, accused of wrongdoing and under investigation, chooses to avoid a public roasting by resigning his post or refusing to re-offer?

More to the point, perhaps, is this: What is the role of this province’s legislative watchdogs, if not to point out when New Brunswick’s various emperors have somehow forgotten to wear their clothes?

Suggesting that a duly appointed ombudsman and child and youth advocate should stick to their knitting betrays a fundamental misapprehension of how a healthy democracy works.

In our system, justice, law and morality should never operate behind moats and keeps and silos, guarded by politicians and their intellectually corpulent operatives. 

All of this smacks of politics-as-usual, back-room smarminess, something that New Brunswick can no longer tolerate (if it ever could).

Bravo, watchdogs!

Keep biting the hands that swipe you.

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Let’s get serious about early childhood education


If the federal government is truly concerned about the welfare of women and children, then it should rethink its social policies before it pours good money after bad.

The current thinking in Harpertown posits a minefield of ideological presuppositions that is as breathtaking in its scope as it is in its peril: That young children benefit only when mum is chained to a doorknob in her kitchen; that women find their best, truest selves only when raising a brood with Captain Canada’s monthly cheques (about enough to cover the cost of novice hockey-league membership); that dad should, but should not necessarily be forced to, engage in raising the children he sired in the first place.

Did I say “Harpertown”? Let’s properly call it “Pleasantville”.

Pleasantville is now spending tax dollars to hike the children’s fitness tax credit; arrange for income-splitting among worthy, affluent families; and double down on the Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB) for children under age six, to wit:

“As of January 1, 2015, parents will receive a benefit of $160 per month for each child under the age of six up from $100 per month. In a year, parents will receive up to $1,920 per child.”

That notice comes directly from the Canada Revenue Agency, by way of the Prime Minister’s Office. What it doesn’t bother to mention is that these election goodies will cost, all tallied, upwards of $7 billion a year – just about as much as a truly scientific, comprehensive, empirically designed program of national, government-subsidized early childhood education.

In a 2013 syllabus on the broad effects of early-years instruction, TD Bank Group’s senior vice president and chief economist Craig Alexander had this to say: “There is a great deal of evidence showing overwhelming benefits of high quality, early childhood education. For parents, access to quality and affordable programs can help to foster greater labour force participation. But more importantly, for children, greater essential skills development makes it more likely that children will complete high school, go on to post‐secondary education and succeed at that education. This raises employment prospects and reduces duration of unemployment if it occurs.”

In fact, according to his research, “for every public dollar invested in early childhood development, the return ranges from roughly $1.5 to almost $3, with the benefit ratio for disadvantaged children being in the double digits.”

Indeed, around the world, the happiest results correlate with the earliest starts.

A recent OECD report states that in Sweden “The system of pre-school education is outstanding: (a) in its fidelity to societal values and in its attendant commitment to and respect for children; (b) in its systemic approach while respecting programmatic integrity and diversity; and (c) in its respect for teachers, parents, and the public. In each of these categories, the word ‘respect’ appears. There was trust in children and in their abilities, trust in the adults who work with them, trust in decentralised governmental processes, and trust in the state’s commitment to respect the rights of children and to do right by them.”

In Finland, the OECD concludes, “The early childhood education workforce has several strengths, such as a high qualification level of staff with teaching responsibilities, advanced professional development opportunities and favourable working environments. Staff with teaching responsibilities are well educated and trained with high initial qualification requirements. Professional development is mandatory for all staff; and training costs are shared between individual staff members, the government and employers. Working conditions in terms of staff-child ratio are among the best of OECD countries.”

All of which confirms that early childhood education is not the expensive experiment that cynics decry. On the contrary, it is a plausible, workable application for meeting some of our hoariest, long-term social challenges.

The sooner this federal government understands that this nation is not, as its political operatives like to assume, a blank canvas for partisan portraiture, the sooner we can get on with investing good money where it belongs: In the future of our kids, who will return dividends that Pleasantville can’t begin to imagine.

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The good news for New Brunswick: Here, in this place 


“Finances bleak, but province not bankrupt” – headline news in the Moncton Times & Transcript, Friday, January 23, 2015

Dear New Brunswick,

Here’s what you do when you’re about to go under: Put on your Sunday best, paint a smile on your face, take a walk through all your favorite haunts, count your blessings, and, above all, keep your mouth shut.

You would not believe how ennobling simple measures can be when you are about to lose everything.

After all, what is “everything”?

Is it a house, a car, a snowmobile?

Is it a wife, a husband, a son, a daughter?

Oh well, easy come, easy go.

We can’t have it all.

Gone – that’s the poetry of our times.


In fact, when you think about it (and you’ll have plenty of time for that), “Gone” is a pretty fantastic place to live.

No more obligations, expectations or dreams. No more plans, plots or potting beds. No more of. . .well, anything, really.

Just silence, sleep, and the slow inexorable crawl to the circus tent, where all are destined to find their final resting places – just some sooner than others.

Still, dear New Brunswick, don’t forget to slap on that lipstick, don that boater, adjust the suspenders on the oak barrel you’re wearing. The world is watching you. You want to be presentable when you finally succumb.

Don’t you?

Fear not at all, noble province. Those who were smart enough to leave in time to make their bones in far-off places – where big, rock candy mountains still transform black gold into fountains of toonies – will return to bless your own inert skeleton.

Speaking of them, what of Jules and Jim 15 years from now.

In January 2031, Jules is running a hand through his thinning, grey hair, glancing occasionally at the clock on the wall of the departure lounge. “Looks like we’re running out of time,” he mumbles. “What else is new?”

The storms of late December had minced the schedules of the one airline that still bothers to call on New Brunswick. Normally, any delay en route to the oil and gas fields of northern Alberta mean long lineups for itinerant Maritimers arriving late to Fort Mac’s weekly job lottery.

But, today, Jules doesn’t mind so much. His traveling companion is late. Might as well sit tight, he tells himself. A pipe-fitter by trade, 25 years of going down the road and back has taught him how to wait. He’s good at it; waiting and thinking.

He’s old enough to remember a different New Brunswick, when his native home was not just a regional staging ground in the brisk business of exporting human capital. That was before the Wall Street money lenders had called the loans, effectively throwing the province into receivership.

Really, he thinks, what other choice did they have?

In 2024, the provincial government had failed to make the minimum payment on its long-term debt of $42 billion. Sporting an operating budget deficit, in that fiscal year, of $7 billion, it had needed a miracle to cover its financial obligations. And there hadn’t been one of those in this benighted corner of Canada for some time.

Still, Jules recollects the word “miracle” being used when he was a boy and Greater Moncton, for one, was an authentic economic nexus of the Maritimes.

He checks the clock on the wall again.

“Where is that whelp?” he mutters to no one in particular. “The boy is 45 minutes late, and the plane is here, finally.”

As his 16-year-old nephew Jim’s bonded master, Jules is almost looking forward to showing his young apprentice the ropes in Alberta.

Jim, apparently, has made other arrangements.

Dear New Brunswick, here’s what you do when you’re about to go under: Put on your Sunday best, paint a smile on your face, take a walk through all your favorite haunts, count your blessings, and, above all, shout from whichever rooftop you still own.

Shout loudly and shout boldly.

“I am still here.”

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All the malaprops and melodious valedictories of office 


The public’s love-hate relationship with political speeches is not merely a matter of record; it is an historical fact. It’s also an observably mutable one.

On word, for example, that a young Winston Churchill, primping and posing in the early years of the 20th century, was about to speak, his fellow parliamentarians (of all ideological bents) could not flee the Commons’ chamber fast enough.

Today, of course, we recognize the late Prime Minister of Great Britain as one of the all-time great speechifiers in english

His famous quips inspired (“to build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years; to destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day”), assured (“success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts”), motivated (this is no time for ease and comfort; it is time to dare and endure”), advised (if you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. . . use a pile driver. . . hit the point once. . . then come back and hit it again. . .then hit it a third time-a tremendous whack”), and amused (“I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly”).

Prior to winning the presidency of the United States, Barack Obama had been considered a worthy successor of Churchillian oratory – certainly, a breath of fresh and invigorating air, given his immediate predecessor’s preternatural talent for issuing verbal gaffes and malapropisms.

Ah, yes, George W. Bush, we continue to miss your skilled use of language from 

“I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully,” to “rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?”

And we have not forgotten this: “They misunderestimated the compassion of our country. I think they misunderestimated the will and determination of the commander in chief, too.”

Or this: “There’s no doubt in my mind, not one doubt in my mind, that we will fail.” Or this: “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”

Or, finally, this: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee that says, fool me once, shame on shame on you. Fool me you can’t get fooled again.”

In the dim light of such unintentional tom-foolery, Obama has presented himself as a virtual oracle of hope and promise (which is his deliberate brand statement). In fact, giving speeches, some critics have observed of his term-and-a-half as president,  is about the only thing he does well.  As for follow through. . .well, not so much.

Still, in last week’s sixth State of the Union address he was, as political speechwriters like to say, on fire; and sitting here in the frigid northern reaches of North America, it’s hard not draw comparisons with our own latter-day Ciceros.

“At every moment of economic change throughout our history, this country has taken bold action to adapt to new circumstances and to make sure everyone gets a fair shot,” he thundered. “We set up worker protections, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid to protect ourselves from the harshest adversity. We gave our citizens schools and colleges, infrastructure and the Internet tools they needed to go as far as their effort and their dreams will take them.

“That’s what middle-class economics is – the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, everyone plays by the same set of rules. We don’t just want everyone to share in America’s success, we want everyone to contribute to our success.”

In Canada, our version of a call to citizen action sounds a lot like this passage from the 2013 Speech from the Throne: “(Ours) is now among only a few countries in the world with a triple-A credit rating. By taking decisive action, Canada has stayed strong where others have faltered.

“But we cannot be complacent. The global economy still faces significant risks from factors that we do not control. We must stay the course. And sound management remains our Government’s guide.”

Who knows? Maybe this will be remembered someday as a glittering example of 21st Century oratory.

“Staying the course” may be every government’s boring, old bread and butter, but

a political speech that doesn’t over-promise. . .well, that’s something to commemorate.

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Focussing the lenses of two economic telescopes into one


As the country’s leading economic prognosticator suggests the “the trickle-down effect from plunging oil prices will boost New Brunswick’s economy in the short term,” the province’s Auditor-General Kim MacPherson issues “a stark reminder that” the government, here, “has not listened to much of (her) fiscal advice.”

Both quotes emerged in stories the Telegraph-Journal researched late last week and published on its increasingly crowded front-page acreage (a testament, perhaps, to the surging intrepidity of its economic reportage).

In the first instance, the Conference Board of Canada holds out hope (faint as it may be) that New Brunswick will grow its GDP by as much as 1.8 per cent this year – the beneficial result of a low Canadian dollar, driven down by falling oil and gas prices and the Bank of Canada’s attending interest-rate adjustment of its benchmark rate, from one to 0.75 per cent.

This lending level is almost unheard of in recent times, and its effect will be (at least, for now) to make New Brunswick’s predominantly export-oriented goods and services appear mighty attractive to the U.S. marketplace, where a newly booming and hungry economy will almost certainly want to backstop its inevitable price inflation with comparatively cheap, high-quality wares from its friendly neighbours to the north. (Remember: consumer spending is the Holy Grail of global capitalism).

In the second instance, says A-G MacPherson, the New Brunswick government is spending too much. In fact, the habit has become an addiction. According to the official statement from her office on her her most recent report, “the financial position of the province tabled today (January 22, 2015) in the legislative assembly, the auditor general. . .expressed concerns about the continued increase in net debt of the province. In 2014, New Brunswick reported a deficit of $498.7 million, its sixth annual deficit in a row. To assist in financing these deficits, the province has incurred additional debt. New Brunswick’s net debt has now risen to more than $11.6 billion or $15,400 per New Brunswicker.”

The summary continues: “The report shows a troubling $4.7 billion (69 per cent) increase in net debt since 2006. An increase in net debt of $530.7 million has been budgeted for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2015 suggesting net debt could exceed $12 billion by that time.”

Said Ms. MacPherson: “The new Fiscal Transparency and Accountability Act includes targets to decrease net debt. To achieve these goals, the government will need to demonstrate more fiscal diligence.”

Finally, “In the report, the auditor general also addressed the challenges of the deteriorating state of capital assets such as roads, highways, schools and hospitals.

‘Solving the problem of aging infrastructure is more than a matter of new spending,’ said MacPherson. ‘It is about having a long-term infrastructure plan that will ensure the sustainability and safety of all essential infrastructure, while respecting the fiscal challenges faced by the province.’

“The auditor general stressed that while the government has acted to restrain the growth of expenses, it needs to do more to address New Brunswick’s structural deficit and continued growth of net debt.”

So, here, then, we face the conundrum of New Brunswick’s faltering economy: On the one hand, we can expect short-term growth thanks to forces beyond our control; on the other, we face long-term demise thanks to forces beyond our control.

‘Twas ever thus in these parts.

The question is: Must it forever be?

The answer is not easy, but it is explicable.

The private sector (occasional big-business gerrymandering, notwithstanding) makes money when it believes that the public sector conducts itself fairly, equitably and transparently; when the latter’s regulatory frameworks are straightforward and commonsensical, when its costs do not exceed its value, when its employees do not, in the course of their duties, betray a career-long affection for “nine-to-fiveing” in their boots of clay.

Governments in New Brunswick, meanwhile, would do themselves enormous favors by proposing triumphs of the imagination: Sensible tax structures that emphasize consumption over income; bold policies that encourage immigration from around the world, and not just from northern regions of this province (tantamount to moving deck chairs on a sinking ocean-liner); and investments in early childhood education paid for with, say, tolls on overbuilt, public highways.

This is all within our grasp. And if we do, in our collective wisdom, grasp, the changes in the province might, for a change, prove permanent.

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Balancing the federal budget or bust


As the we wake up to the nauseating certainty that the Conservative government of Canada finds itself with its shorts down around its ankles, we might properly wonder what all that official, post-Great Recession palaver about economic stewardship and sound fiscal planning actually produced.

Plummeting oil prices – always considered a possible, if not likely, eventuality a year ago by those who actually pay attention to markets – have sent once-mighty prognosticators in high office scurrying like so many scared bunnies into a brier patch (as the oil patch, don’t you know, has become suddenly inhospitable for political animals of every stripe and species).

In fact, Finance Minister Joe Oliver is so shakent, he’s taking the unusual, if not altogether unprecedented, step of delaying the federal budget until “at least” April – all the better, presumably, to gauge the impact on federal coffers of lower dividends oil producers pay to the people of Canada in return for the economic license we have apparently granted to them.

Given that most experts now predict that volatility in the oil and gas sector will remain the new normal for some time (perhaps, as many as three years), it’s hard to cotton what Mr. Oliver’s finance department mavens are divining as they buy themselves a month to chew what’s left of their nails to the nubs.

Really? Why not make it two or even six, for all the good it will do.

The energy roller coaster now makes balancing the federal budget in any meaningful or sustainable way virtually impossible – so dependent on revenues from fossil-fuel production are government coffers; as are, in fact, increasingly broad swathes of the rest of the economy.

In 2013, according to Natural Resources Canada (NRC), the oil and gas sector generated $133 billion in gross domestic product (about 7.5 per cent of the national total) in his country. It employed 190,000 people, or about 1.1 per cent of the working, adult population, even as it accounted for $83 billion, or 21 per cent, of total capital expenditures in Canada.

Again, says an NRC bulletin, “Federal and provincial/territorial (P/T) governments in Canada receive direct revenues from energy industries related to corporate income taxes, indirect taxes (such as sales and payroll taxes), crown royalties (which are the share of the value of oil and gas extracted that is paid to the Crown as the resource

owner) crown land sales, (which are paid to the Crown in order to acquire the resource rights for specific properties.”

Moreover, “the largest share of government revenues is collected from the oil and gas industry, which averaged $23.3 billion over the last five years, including $20.7 billion from upstream oil and gas extraction and its support activities. Between 2008 and 2012, the energy industries’ share of total taxes paid (11.9 per cent) was in line with their share of total operating revenues (13.6 per cent).

So, when the price of oil takes a hit, so do we all in this country – at least, fiscally. That’s almost as immutable a law of nature as gravity or, more appropriately, the handwringing and teeth-gnashing of high-profile politicians determined to keep their promises – fool-hardy though they may be – come what may.

“The Conservative government is warning for the first time that falling oil prices could trigger new spending cuts in order to deliver on a promised balanced budget,” Bill Curry writes in the Globe and Mail this week. “On the heels of the surprise decision to delay the federal budget until at least April, the government is putting Canadians on notice that it is prepared to cut spending further rather than abandon its goal of balancing the books.”

It’s a challenge that Jason Kenney, federal employment minister, insisted in broadcast interviews last weekend could be met with “additional fiscal restraint.”  After all, he said, balancing the budget is a commitment we made to Canadians in the last election.”

It does, however, seem broadly nonsensical – and even amateurish, from a money manager’s perspective – to manufacture more austerity just to be able to show a book entry in black ink, fleeting though it may be.

Canadians want their government’s books in fine balance, yes – but not at the expense of programs that do more good for the economy than does a technical surplus the durability of which ultimately hinges on volatile forces beyond any one pledge-making politician’s ability to control.

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Whose money is it anyway?


When attempting to embarrass the filthy rich into parting with a few ducats from their dragon hordes, timing – which is, itself, the fount of all great wealth – is everything.

Oxfam knows this, which is why, on the eve of the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland (a swank soiree for the world’s movers and shakers, or, depending on one’s political leanings, satanic masters of the dark arts), the international anti-poverty organization has released its most recent research paper on the unequal distribution of mammon across the planet. And the tale it tells might curl a philanthropically inclined billionaire’s toes.

As the summary document, Woking for the Few, plainly states, “Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one per cent of the population. The wealth of the one per cent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.”

Meanwhile, “The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world. Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years. The richest one per cent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012. In the US, the wealthiest one per cent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis

growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.”

Oxfam allows that some inequality can be a good thing, as it tends to “drive growth and progress, rewarding those with talent, hard earned skills, and the ambition to innovate and take entrepreneurial risks.”

Overall, though, that’s not how the world is working.

“Widening inequality is creating a vicious circle where wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, leaving the rest of us to fight over crumbs from the top table,” Oxfam’s Executive Director Winnie Byanyima told the Guardian this week. “In developed and developing countries alike we are increasingly living in a world where the lowest tax rates, the best health and education and the opportunity to influence are being given not just to the rich but also to their children.”

As the report points out, runaway economic inequality creates permanent upper and lower classes, which constrain the flow of capital to deserving and innovative programs and projects. That, in turn, dampens overall growth and exacerbates poverty and homelessness. It also tends to widen existing gulfs in opportunities, particularly those between women and men.

What’s more, the research reports, “In many countries, extreme economic inequality is worrying because of the pernicious impact that wealth concentrations can have on equal political representation. When wealth captures government policymaking, the rules bend to favor the rich, often to the detriment of everyone else. The consequences include the erosion of democratic governance, the pulling apart of social cohesion, and the vanishing of equal opportunities for all.

“Unless bold political solutions are instituted to curb the influence of wealth on politics, governments will work for the interests of the rich, while economic and political inequalities continue to rise. As US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, ‘We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we cannot have both.’”

The question, of course, is: How much more concentrated can the world’s wealth become before any notions of democracy or, for that matter, market capitalism – which theoretically, at least, encourages fair and open competition – become quaintly invalid.

Still, many who perch at the right end of the political spectrum prefer to propagate the specious argument that fortune favours, by and large, the talented, hard-working, well-educated, and courageous, (not, as is more often the case, the entitled, corrupt and protected).

The rest of us shouldn’t envy hordes of wealth, but celebrate them as beacons of hope and inspiration: There, but for the failure of our own character, go we.

If only that were true. And Oxfam is not the only, or even most influential, voice pointing out the patently obvious on this subject.

“Through the tax code, there has been class warfare waged, and my class has won,” Warren Buffett ruefully observed in 2011 It’s been a rout.”

Of course, as the third-richest man on the planet, he can afford to be embarrassed.

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Walking the low wire in fine and familiar balance


A first-term premier in this corner of Canada can sometimes thrill the thralls, who newly elected him, by successfully negotiating the tightrope of regional politics, with or without a net.

To this end, New Brunswick’s young and inarguably energetic Brian Gallant practiced his equipoise in St. John’s earlier this week, alongside his counterparts at the annual Council of Atlantic “elected-men-in-suits”.

Did our fearless leader make it to the end of the line – strung merely inches above the ground, and, therefore, posing little risk to future career opportunities – or did he fall awkwardly to his knees?

As usual, this yearly gabfest among East Coast premiers promised more photo opportunity than perspicacity.

Still, it was incumbent on this bunch to, at least, appear effective. Hence, we are obliged to observe the Council’s official policy statement, issued Monday (helpfully provided by the Prince Edward Island government’s official website, among others):

“Atlantic Premiers are working together to improve the competitiveness of the region’s economy through actions to strengthen our workforce, harmonize and streamline regulations, ensure open transmission and transportation of energy, and provide more efficient and cost-effective services to Atlantic Canadians.

“The private sector is a key driver of job creation and economic growth across the region. Premiers announced today the Atlantic Red Tape Reduction Partnership. This partnership will identify business regulations and administrative processes that can be harmonized and streamlined to create a more competitive economic environment across Atlantic Canada.

“A competitive Atlantic economy depends on people having the right skills for the right job. Premiers extended the successful Atlantic Workforce Partnership for a further three years to continue harmonizing apprenticeship certification in 10 trades, and strengthen immigrant recruitment and retention in Atlantic Canada. This focus on demographic growth and skills enhancement builds on Atlantic Premiers’ commitment to increase the competitiveness of the region.

“Atlantic Premiers confirmed common priorities, including stable, adequate and predictable fiscal arrangements, Labour Market Development Agreements, immigration and energy.”

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

It’s not as if any of this is invigorating or even novel.

For at least a generation, Atlantic Canada’s premiers have barked madly about “closer cooperation” on what should be shared initiatives in the region – immigration, trade and labour mobility, procurement, social transfers from Ottawa, and federal-provincial protocols governing natural resources development.

And, this year they came together long enough to, as the St. John’s Telegram reported, “support the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador in pursuing a resolution to the ongoing dispute with the federal government over a proposed. . .package of fisheries-sector funding, tied to the Canada-European Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).”

Still, as the newspaper noted, “taking questions on the heels of the latest meeting of the Council of Atlantic Premiers, Stephen McNeil (N.S.) Robert Ghiz (P.E.I.) and Brian Gallant – with Newfoundland and Labrador premier Paul Davis beside them – stopped short. . .of offering full and unfettered support for the province’s position in the dispute.

The premiers generally restricted themselves to expressing support for the province’s ability to seek a correction to perceived wrongs.”

But, of course, what would we expect them to say?

Historically, as group, the Atlantic premiers’ collective interest in forging closer economic ties among them, as a bulwark against Ottawa’s policy of regional divide-and-conquer since Confederation, has evolved only glacially.

Each province has nourished its own, private interests with the feds even as each has nurtured its own, private grievances.

That’s how our rooked system has worked and continues to work in the second decade of the 21st Century. This is our fine and familiar balance – one to which all parts of the country have become inured.

And yet, at least, Mr. Gallant – who apparently enjoys being quoted – told the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, prior to the Council’s assembly, “It is a very good time to focus on our priorities vis a vis the federal government. Certainly, we hope that not only the federal government will take note but all of the political parties that will be vying for the support of Canadians during the next few months will listen as well.”

All of which is to say that New Brunswick’s premier can properly step off that tightrope without fear of bruising his knees – for now.

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Oh, what a messy slick we spill


Oil has a nasty way of sticking to everything it touches, including the best-laid plans of men, governments and hired gunslingers in the spin-rooms of the nation.

Not so long ago, black gold was Canada’s economic salvation. It was better than  manufacturing, technological innovation in the non-resource sector, and even financial services at generating long-term jobs and huge dividends for high-flying investors.

Indeed, so went the fairy tale, oil was the last, best hope to power these industries and aspirations and return the country to its always mythological status as the world’s next, big superpower of opportunity.

Oh well. Easy come, easy go – which has become, in New Brunswick, our preferred provincial slogan, beating out such bromides as “Be in this place” and (my personal favorite) “Hell, it could be worse, though we don’t possibly see how”.

Still, Alberta’s blackened, big sky country may want to rip a page from the picture-perfect province’s sloganeering songbook as it begins to send thousands of expat Maritimers back home to their sea-bound coasts.

With oil hovering below $50 a barrel – down more than 100 per cent since mid-October – and no discernible bottom to the price plunge, the West’s formerly gilded streets are about to be lined with foreclosure notices, each prettily packaged in recyclable envelopes, courtesy of your friendly, neighbourhood big, Bay-Street bank.

Oh, how the ironies abound.

To Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, oil meant certain reelection in October. That’s because royalties from this resource enabled their utterly fantastical predictions of surplus, their wholly irresponsible promise to permit income splitting among families that could well afford to pay the tax man that which is properly due to him, and their cynically calculated (and needlessly costly) diversions regarding the Child Tax Credit.

Now, they’ll be lucky to muster enough cash to cover the cost of the laces for the finance minister’s new shoes come budget time some months away.

As it is, they can’t work fast enough to fit themselves for boots of clay.

According to a Globe and Mail report last Thursday, “The Conservative government will not release the federal budget until at least April, a delay meant to give Finance Minister Joe Oliver more time to assess the impact of plunging oil prices on the Canadian economy.”

As Mr. Oliver told a press conference in Ottawa, “Given the current market instability, I will not bring forward our budget earlier than April. We need all the information we can obtain before finalizing our decisions. . .“This new reality poses a great, though not entirely unprecedented challenge. . .It represents the third largest price decline in the last four decades, exceeded only by the 1986 OPEC collapse and the sharp decline and rapid recovery we saw during the Great Recession. . .Given the current volatility, there is no consensus about how low will prices fall and how long they stay there. Nevertheless, every knowledgeable person I have spoken to believes, and history tells us, that prices will eventually move well above (the) current level.”

In fact, though oil’s price may not have yet bottomed, there is, evidently, a point at which the Canadian economy’s ability to compensate for its clear and utter dependence on the stuff simply fails.

Only a week ago, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne all-but bragged about the coming resurgence in her province’s manufacturing sector. Low petroleum prices, she noted, meant a lower valuation of the Canadian dollar against its U.S. counterpart. Since south of the border is where more than $300-billion of this country’s good wind up each and ever year, logically the boon to exporting ought to be commensurately marvelous. Read: Who needs oil?

Well, apparently, we do; and the sticky, messy stuff is not cooperating.

Says former finance department deputy minister Scott Clark, in a separate Globe piece last week, “If the government tries too hard to show a surplus, in other words twists and turns in the wind and does everything to show a surplus, I think you lose political and professional creditability. . .The reality is a lot has changed and if I were the Conservative government, I’d be saying ‘that’s the fact.’ Things have changed and we should just realize that and deal with it.”

Of course, that makes just too much sense for this country’s leadership, almost more enamoured of its own talking points on oil than it is with the sticky stuff, itself – if that’s even possible.

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Monkey see, monkey do when we ignore democratic institutions

The gorilla in the Senate is biding his time

By all means, throw up your placards, raise your standards high, moisten all the blowhorns your lips desire. Still, know that without the public institutions a free and open society demands democracy is as brittle as an oak leaf in a January wind.

Five million people marched across the streets of major capitals in Europe last week to support the laudable and necessary principles of free speech and expression. They locked arms – jews, muslims, christians and atheists, alike – to send a message to the brutalists of the world that they will not be silenced by threats or bullets. They chanted the mantras of democracy lovers everywhere: all must be heard and heard must be all.

But when they returned to their cozies and alcoves, to their apartments, flats and houses, to their mansions and villas, they faced the same conundrum they had left only hours earlier: a growing and appalling gulf between those who have and those who have not; and, even worse, a conviction that the mechanisms and apparatus of the democratic principles they cherish are hopelessly ruined.

And the spiritual disease is spreading rapidly and everywhere.

“As each U.S. election cycle rolls by, public life seems to grow more rancorous, frayed and fragmented, with the 2014 midterms being no exception,” writes Pooja Gupta  in a recent online number of the Journalist’s Resource (which bills itself as a project of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Centre and the Carnegie-Knight Initiative. . . an open-access site that curates scholarly studies and reports).

“There is a palpable sense that something deeper is at work in America, some sea change in the underlying patterns of life. . .A 2014 study published in Psychological Science, Declines in Trust in Others and Confidence in Institutions Among American Adults and Late Adolescents, 1972-2012, (finds that) trust in other people has sharply declined since the 1970s, reaching historic lows in 2008 and in 2012. In 1972-74, 46 per cent of American adults reported that they trusted most people. This dwindled to 33 per cent in 2010-12. Conversely, 51 per cent of American adults reported skepticism in others in 1972-74, increasing to 62 per cent in 2010-12. These results were mirrored among high school seniors, whose trust in others dropped from 32 per cent in 1976-78 to 18 per cent in 2010-12.”

What’s more Gupta reports, “Confidence in institutions also hit an all-time low in 2012 for both adults and high school seniors, after highs in the late 1980s and early 2000s and lows in the early 1990s, late 2000s, and early 2010s, with trust in the military being the only notable exception.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that Canadians’ confidence in their own Parliament has been dwindling for years. Data, current to January 2013, from the Conference Board of Canada suggest that citizens of this country believe their politicians deserve nothing better than a “gentleman’s C” in the performance of their duties. This represents a precipitous drop from heady levels recorded in the 1960s.

What accounts for the malaise? Apparently, your guess is as good as mine.

Or, as the Conference Board blue-skies, it could be that over-educated young ones – you know, the ones who can’t find jobs thanks to an economy that’s monolithically geared to produce oil, gas and low-paying retail jobs – are pissed off.

It could be that too many people are otherwise engaged updating their social media profiles hoping that their legions of followers give a hoot (they don’t).

It could be that all these factors, both social and economic, have left a bitter taste in the mouths of those who have been, over the past decade or two, sold a bill of goods by politicians who like to think they know what they’re talking about, but who are, all too often, only lightly interested in the good of the many at the plausible expense of their own meagre reserves of power and influence.

But if these factors have soured us on our system, then it remains to us, and only us, to rebuild it or replace it.

Our public institutions – a sound and principled bureaucracy, a sage and independent judiciary, a Commons and Senate ever vigilant against incompetence, prevarication, waste and corruption – are the monkey bars of our democracy. They are the skating rinks and splash pads of our civic commitment.

By all means, raise your standards high for our shared principles of justice and liberty. But don’t ignore the social architecture that will raise them even higher and, in fact, keep them there.

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