Monthly Archives: April 2015

What, us worry?



So we are, after all, a rollicking, jolly bunch. We stick our fingers in our ears and sing “la…la…la”. We believe in the power of positive thinking and even giggle appreciatively when some curmudgeon suggests we’d be better off sticking our digits in the fiscal dam that’s just about to break in this province.

Oh well, what shall do about the inveterately “happy” amongst us?

Give them all a kiss, a slap on the back, a high-five?

Sure, why not. After all, summer is the best two-and-a-half weeks of the year in these parts, and the rumors are that it didn’t actually die in 2015, after plummeting into a pothole sometime between the first snowfall and the last.

Maybe it’s time to accept the fact that despite what nature and man throw at us in this often-benighted corner of the world, we refuse to be sad, morose or even (gasp!) realistic about our present circumstances. Maybe it’s time to take the win, for a change.

According to a Statistics Canada survey released last week Saint John and Moncton are the fourth and seventh happiest cities, respectively, in Canada. This, despite the fact that downtown development in both bustling metropolises is moribund, house prices are plummeting, for-sale signs are springing up like tulips in an April downpour, and municipal mothers and fathers are just about at the end of their wits trying to figure out how to keep the figurative wheels from falling off their metaphorical trucks.

Still, reveals StatsCan, “Many factors account for differences in life satisfaction, and there is a growing body of international and Canadian research in this domain. This includes work that examines the role played by the physical characteristics of geographic areas, such as urban size and population density, natural endowments, economic opportunity or deprivation, and access to, and quality of, infrastructure, amenities and services.”

Sure, and why not jump aboard the “happiness” train? It goes to Pleasantville by way of the big, rock candy mountain. There, at that mythical depot, we will meet all who went away from us, and all who will return someday – just as soon as we can invent and sustain good, long-term jobs for them upon their arrival.

This “happiness” garbage is a pug’s game, played by the powerful to rook the penurious. If we spent more time genuinely examining that for which we are grateful, we might discover the joy that’s mere illusion to a vast swath of our fellow men and women, under the influence of daily propaganda.

I am, for example, grateful for a democracy in which periodic voting is not always a pro-forma exercise designed to establish and enable despotism.

I am grateful for knowing that I can still count on my neighbours ­– even some elected representatives of my province and country – to boost me when the economic chips are down.

I am grateful for my parents, siblings, wife, daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren and for the fact that they are alive and kicking against the bleak and black of daily imbecilities that seem to proscribe everyone’s life these days.

I am grateful for the home I can offer to them, for the absurd amounts of snow I shovel, for the weeds I pull, for the lawn I mow, for the people I meet at the local Sobeys and liquor store, for the guy I greet at the corner of Main Street and Robinson Court – the guy who needs a coin or two to continue singing and playing his acoustic renditions of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” and “Old Man”.

Am I happy?

Ask me after the next federal election.

For now, I’m merely waiting, with ears wide open.

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Downtown events centre as political football


Condescension, thy name is Brian Gallant.

With breathtaking gall, the premier of New Brunswick delivered a message to Moncton last week from the river-soaked banks of Freddy Beach where, apparently, rising flood waters cannot stem the tide of execrable political rhetoric.

In a commentary published by The Moncton Times & Transcript, Mr. Gallant intoned, “Much has been said about the Moncton Downtown Centre. . .To create jobs and have strong social programs we must invest our money strategically. . .This principle is an important one that requires us as a government to do our due diligence when making decisions. This includes the decision on whether or not to financially support the Moncton Downtown Centre. . .It isn’t responsible to rush into a $107-million project.”

Furthermore, the premier noted, “I have personally met with Downtown Moncton Centreville Inc., and a number of our caucus members have spoken and met with mayors and city councillors numerous times to discuss the project. The provincial government’s Jobs Board also met with approximately 15 Greater Moncton business leaders and municipal councillors. . .The decision will not be made based on a marketing and lobbying campaign aimed at putting pressure on us to ‘hurry up’.”

What workmanlike spin. What politics as usual. What utter tripe.

To be clear, much has not only been “said about the Moncton Downtown Centre”; much has already been done. For years, successive economic impact studies and public opinion surveys have shown, definitively, that not only would such a facility be inspirational – it would be a generator of economic benefits on orders of magnitude that far exceed its design and construction costs.

How, then, is anyone “rushing into” the project or putting pressure on the Province to “hurry up” after more than a decade of disgraceful, official foot-dragging (albeit by previous Grit and Tory administrations)? At most, Monctonians simply want government types, for once, to evacuate their bureaucratic bowels or get off the thrones they so dearly cherish.

What’s more, if, as Mr. Gallant warrants, he has personally met with leading proponents of the events centre, how, then, do we accept the implication of his argument that he is somehow being pressed into service without sufficient information to make a “responsible” decision on behalf of all taxpayers in New Brunswick?

Shall we convene yet another panel to investigate?

The premier wants solid information to justify a thumbs up or a thumbs down. And yet, he has it. He must know he has it because one member of his worthy Jobs Board, the freshly minted senior economist of the province, David Campbell, literally wrote the book on Moncton’s mythological downtown events centre.

Specifically, in 2013, Mr. Campbell – an independent economic development consultant at the time – had this to say to the Hub City’s council: A new centre will annually “attract between 317,000 and 396,000 people. . .generating between $12 and $15 million in spending.” In the process, he declared, it will “support retail, food service, accommodation and other services in the downtown,” where it “should also support residential growth.” In fact, the urban core “generates nearly 11.5 times as much property tax revenue, compared to the rest of Moncton, on a per hectare basis.” What’s more, “the cost to service the downtown is much lower compared to many other neighbourhoods and commercial areas around the city.”

Any more questions for the jury? Only one, perhaps.

Why does Mr. Gallant conclude his commentary with a partisan attack on local Conservative Member of Parliament Robert Goguen, who’s done nothing (and I mean absolutely nothing) to advance or retard the event centre’s cause?

Answer: Because that, friends, is what hauteur tends to do in the aromatic springtime of a premier’s ever-shortening life.

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Canada gets gassier and gassier


It’s hard to decide wether Prime Minister Stephen Harper deserves applause for his candor or jeers for his revelation.

In either case, for the first time in 20 years, Canada, he says, will not match the United States in greenhouse gas reduction targets. “It’s unlikely our targets will be exactly the same as the United States, but they will be targets of similar levels of ambition to other major industrialized countries,” he declared publicly last week.

That, of course, worries environmentalists who note that several developed countries – the ones, presumably, the prime minister now wants to emulate – are relaxing their standards and setting lower goals in the wake of tough economic times.

“We believe three Rs should define Canada’s approach to climate protection: Respect, Responsibility and Restraint,” reads a recent note on the Climate Action Network Canada’s website. “Respect requires humility in accepting the scientific facts that tell us the atmosphere has a limit to the amount of carbon pollution it can take before shifting in ways that put people and the environment we rely on at risk. Responsibility requires accepting that we should care about the harm climate disruption will bring, especially to the most vulnerable at home and around the world, and to doing our fair share to stop it. Restraint requires that we accept that we must set ambitious, enforceable targets to manage carbon pollution at home and to invest around the world to help others reduce their carbon pollution and to adapt to climate change.”

None of which, it’s safe to say, the “federalistas” appear particularly interested in pursuing, despite their protestations to the contrary. “The Government of Canada is committed to addressing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while keeping the Canadian economy strong. We are achieving success from 2005 to 2012, Canadian GHG emissions have decreased by 5.1 per cent while the economy has grown by 10.6 per cent. The 2014 Canada’s Emissions Trends report estimates that, as a result of collective action to reduce GHGs since 2005, Canada’s 2020 GHG emissions are projected to be 130 megatonnes (Mt) lower than if no action was taken, an amount roughly equivalent to one year’s worth of GHG emissions from all of Canada’s road transportation.”

And yet, according to Carl Meyer, writing in Embassy News earlier this month, “A new National Inventory Report from Environment Canada released April 17 shows the amounts of greenhouse gas emissions in the previous report have spiked upward by megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in every comparable year now assessed.” 

In fact, “Canada’s GHG emissions, which contribute to climate change, stood at 726 megatonnes in 2013, up from 715 megatonnes in 2012. That increase is equivalent to the annual emissions from over two million extra cars on the road, according to a calculator provided by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.” 

Mr. Myers observes that, “in the prior report, the department reported the 2012 number was at 699 megatonnes. The result is that Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 18.43 per cent from 1990 to 2013. The previous report had an increase of 18.27 per cent from 1990 to 2012. Canada has redone its inventory submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change following revised reporting guidelines, the report says.”

In reality, the federal government now appears broadly enthusiastic about what it jauntily refers to as “adaptation”, which is the policy wonk’s version of “if you’re stuck with lemons, better make lemonade” (especially as the summers grow hotter). Apparently, this involves helping Canadians make “adjustments” in their “thinking” to “reduce harm” or even exploit “new opportunities” from global warming.

And why not? Such promise of new enterprise might actually argue for higher, not lower, emissions. Bravo (and boo), indeed.

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Chilly relations in a cold country

We could sell the snow. There's plenty of that

One of the Harper government’s fondest conceits is Canada’s sovereign claim over the Arctic – or, least, that portion of it perched just above our heads. Now, it seems, a goodly number of the prime minister’s fellow citizens aren’t quite so sure.

According to a  piece, reporting on the latest Ekos Research Associates opinion survey on the matter, “support among Canadians is collapsing for Ottawa’s long-standing but dubious claim that the Northwest Passage belongs to Canada.” In fact, “Less than half of Canadians – 45 per cent – still believe the Northwest Passage is ‘within Canadian waters,’ a dramatic drop from the 74 per cent who held that view only five years ago.”

I’d like to think that our latent lack of interest in this cold country has something to do with an abiding resentment of Old Man Winter over the past few, unreasonably rough seasons. But, as the Globe writer speculates, it may have more to do with the fact that the Canadian government truly stands alone in the international community when it insists it owns the Northwest Passage – a fact which might becoming a source of some embarrassment.

In any event, said Frank Graves, president of Ekos, in an interview with the Globe, “It doesn’t help the case that whatever the legal complexities, the vast array of [international] public opinion is offside.”

Public opinion notwithstanding, of course, it seems that nothing will cool the federal Tory enthusiasm for all things Arctic. Only two weeks ago, for example, the Department of Defence issued a news release entitled, “Harper Government re-affirms Canada’s Arctic sovereignty with Operation NUNALIVUT 2015.”

The presser went on to assert, “The Honourable Julian Fantino, Associate Minister of National Defence, today visited Operation NUNALIVUT 2015, one of the Canadian Armed Forces’ (CAF) premier High Arctic military exercises, to highlight the Harper Government’s commitment to protecting Canada’s northern borders. Minister Fantino met with Canadian Armed Forces personnel, who demonstrate Canada’s readiness and ability to operate in the challenging Arctic environment to counter any threat to Canada’s Arctic Sovereignty.

“The large scale military exercise brings together Canadian Armed Forces members from the Third Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (3 PPCLI), the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), the Royal Canadian Air Force, and Canadian Rangers. During his trip, Minister Fantino will also visit the headquarters of the Joint Task Force (North), as well as the 1 Canadian Rangers Patrol Group, in addition to visiting the ice dive site of the HMS Erebus.”

As for Mr. Fantino, he appeared delighted to dish the chest-thumping propaganda with the best of them: “Seeing the remarkable men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces – including our Canadian Rangers – operate in Canada’s high Arctic has been an honour. Our Government has never been more committed to our CAF personnel and we will continue to support them as they protect our northern borders and assert our sovereignty in the region.”

I’ve never quite understood the ferocity of the Harper government’s claims on the Arctic. Clearly, global warming, which is affecting northern climes more dramatically than other places on Earth, is opening up the region for increased shipping and oil and gas exploration. But, this should be reason for caution and circumspection, not jingoistic belligerence.

Besides, if the greatest threat is posed by Russia, what are Canada’s tin-pot armed forces supposed to do against that nation’s nuclear powered submarines and ice breakers? “The Obama administration has been very clear that Arctic co-operation must continue,” Michael Byers, a professor of international affairs at the University of British Columbia, told the CBC last week.

Good luck with that.

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Doubling-down on government waste


For a government that appears to believe that duplication is the mother of perdition, New Brunswick’s Grit regime has a funny way of sticking to the guns of its political principles.

As Premier Brian Gallant’s cabineteers defund and dismember the province’s energy institute – a creature of the former Progressive Conservative government, established to provide scientific research on the effects of hydraulic fracturing on soil, water and air – they convene a panel of non-experts in these matters to do precisely the same thing.

Granted, the New Brunswick Energy Institute began under crossed stars (its original head was forced to resign after it was revealed his curriculum vitae fudged his credentials), but the group has, by all accounts, conducted its work over the past two years with circumspection and objectivity.

But now a triumvirate composed of a former university president, a former board chairwoman of the province’s community college system, and a former provincial Chief Justice, are being asked to determine whether hydraulic fracturing is safe, socially acceptable and economically viable.

It bears mentioning that none of these fine, upstanding citizens – John McLaughlin, Cheryl Robertson, Guy Richard – are geologists, hydrologists, or mining engineers (unlike those who lately worked for the disbanded institute). Yet, they are tasked with determining whether “clear and credible information about the impacts of (fracking)” are even possible. Stranger still, their mandate insists that they discover how and under which circumstances these effects are perceptible in “a New Brunswick context”.

Politics, of course, is never about telling the truth; it’s about spinning the plates on which you serve your own version of veracity. The proof of life in this dictum is in the current government’s utter disinterest in the work Institute members have already performed. Apparently, and for no sensible reason, we begin again.

According to the provincial government’s terms of reference for its new panel, released to the Saint John Telegraph Journal earlier this week, “the specific role of the Commission will be to study each (of the province’s conditions) in a New Brunswick context and report its evidence based findings directly to cabinet. Government has set a period of up to twelve months  for the Commission to complete its report.”

Meanwhile (and in some trick of political mastery), “the Commission will be independent of government, transparent in all its activities, open minded. . .and accountable for all government assigned resources.” What it won’t be, likely, is informed by the research and findings that actual scientists have already produced.

Findings like this, published this week: “The first research project funded by the New Brunswick Energy Institute and carried out by the Canadian Rivers Institute has been finalized and released for public consumption. . . .‘The document serves as a scientific review to provide background information on environmental flow assessment approaches and on the current status of environmental flow guidelines used in jurisdictions across Canada and internationally,’ according to Allen Curry the scientific lead on the project.

“The project was funded by the New Brunswick Energy Institute because there are currently no federal guidelines regarding determination of holistic environmental flows in Canada, i.e., guidelines to safeguard the wellbeing of aquatic life and maintain ecosystem integrity. ‘While New Brunswick has not experienced serious pressure related to surface water abstraction to date, that will change as the Province develops more of its natural resources, therefore we see a need to define policy guidelines and best practices for New Brunswick’s environmental flow needs,’ Dave Besner, Chair of the New Brunswick Energy Institute said in releasing the study.”

Forgive my obtuseness, but is this not exactly the sort of perspicuity this government needs, and has already inherited?

Must we always follow good dollars with bad ones in this province?

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How hawks and doves circle


The move was as much symbolic as practical. How better to prove to Canadians that the federal, Tory regime is on the right, fiscally hawkish course than by selling its last, remaining stock in the giant auto company it bailed out when it was on a far more fiscally dovish flight path?

With that, Finance Minister Joe Oliver proclaimed the end of an era this week, authorizing his government’s divestiture of 73 million common shares in General Motors to Goldman, Sachs & Co. “We have eliminated a market exposure for Canadian taxpayers and returned GM to private-sector ownership, having supported its continued contribution to the Canadian economy,” he declared in a statement.

What a difference eight years makes to the leadership sensibilities of the governing classes. We may recall the bad, old days of global, financial collapse in 2008 and the Great Recession that followed, when the still tender-footed Harper majority was, like the normally counterpoised Obama administration, committed to economic stimulus not austerity, spending rather than restraint.

At that time, allowing the big automakers, GM and Chrysler, to fail was unthinkable on either side of the 49th parallel. Indeed, less than a year after Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park banded together to drop a combined $14 billion on the crippled manufacturers, then-federal Industry Minister Tony Clement declared, “This was not a decision we took lightly. But, at the end of the day, we knew that if we did not participate, what was at risk was not just the (direct) jobs but all the other parts manufacturers and other industries that go into having an auto sector in this country, and that has been estimated to be over 400,000 jobs that were at risk.”

He was probably, if frustratingly, correct. Now, it appears, the nation’s economy has recovered well enough to justify liquidating the government’s auto assets (reportedly worth about $3.5 billion) just in time to balance the budget later this month, roughly half-a-year before the next general election.

All of which may only prove that hawks and doves really can occupy the same airspace, depending on which way the political wind blows.

Still, the larger issue that concerns many economists in this country is whether a hell-bent rush to book a balance in the public accounts, come what may, is rational (or even possible) in the medium-to-longterm. The GM cash-out may not be, technically, a windfall, but something about it feels awfully like found money (“Don’t worry, Mabel, we’re saved from perdition; I just found Uncle Harry’s collection of gold nuggets buried in a coffee can down by the river).

Meanwhile, storm clouds are once again gathering in the broader economy – which is expected to grow only fractionally over the next quarter – a point that Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz made clear in an interview with The Financial Times last week. “When the oil shock came, it was clear we would no longer be able to close the output gap by 2016, but by 2017,” he was reported to have said.

“Since we had some firepower, we took some insurance and cut rates. . .The first quarter of 2015 will look atrocious, because the oil shock is a big deal for us. . .

In theory lower oil prices mean (putting) more money in consumers’ pockets, but. . .if an oil company cancels (an investment) project, laying off a worker, that guy will not have the money to buy a new pickup truck.”

A balanced budget is a desirable objective for any lawmaker, but not when there are girders in the economy to support – and certainly not when all such book entries are manufactured for more symbolic than practical reasons.

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The Great Nice North

 Resurgo is action in latin. And that's a dead language. Get 'er done boys and girls

American writer Eric Weiner thinks it’s nice to be nice to the nice. And by “nice” he means Canadians. Writing for BBC Travel recently, he reported that our “niceness” hits him like a blast of polar-bear breath (the branded Coke variety; not the real thing that’ll rip your lungs out, Jim) just as soon as he approaches the 49th Parallel.

“We experience Canadian nice as soon as we reach customs,” he notes. “The U.S. border guards are gruff and all business. The Canadians, by contrast, are unfailingly polite, even as they grill us about the number of wine bottles we’re bringing into the country. One year, we had failed to notice that our 9-year-old daughter’s passport had expired. They, nicely, let us enter anyway. The niceness continues for our entire trip, as we encounter nice waiters, nice hotel clerks, nice strangers.”

What’s more, he observes, “Canadian niceness is pure, and untainted by the passive-aggressive undertones found in American niceness. It’s also abundant. Canada is to niceness as Saudi Arabia is to oil. Researchers have yet to analyse Canadian niceness empirically, but studies have found that Canadians, perhaps in an effort not to offend, use an overabundance of ‘hedge words’, such as ‘could be’ and ‘not bad’. Then there is the most coveted of Canadian words: ‘sorry’. Canadians will apologize for anything and to anything.”

Actually, Mr. Weiner, Canada is to oil as Saudi Arabia is to. . .well, oil. Except we’re colder, our streets are lined with glaciers and, occasionally, mud. And in the long, dark, winter night that is Fort McMurray, Alberta, I dare you to find one transplanted Maritimer riding the derricks of the tar sands who will say “sorry” for anything.

It’s all about frame of reference, Mr. Weiner, frame of reference.

For example, long ago an American tourist drove me off the road somewhere between Belleville and Cornwall, Ontario. He was in a hurry and, so in no time, I was in the ditch about 100 kilometers from where I once played pee-wee hockey and had once hurt the feelings of a juvenile competitor (from Buffalo, no less) by deriding his ill-fitting jersey.

The traveller stopped his car, railed at me for holding him up and kicked my tires. In return, I thumbed my nose at him, called him a “gosh darn yankee”, and phoned the cops for moral support and a tow. They obliged; no questions asked. (We Canadians are “nice” that way).

Once in Fargo, North Dakota, I met an official from the local tourism authority who refused to tell me the location of the mighty Mississippi River. I informed him that if he persisted with his typical American rudeness, I’d be forced to lodge a formal complaint with his supervisor. He laughed and queried, “What are you? Some sort of Canadian?” When I smiled and murmered, “sorry, eh?” he turned ghost-white and hired a limo to take me all the way to Brainerd, Minnesota, where the Old Miss begins as a mere trickle. I returned the favor by resisting the temptation to mock his midwestern accent. (Again, we Canadians are “nice” that way).

Still, Mr. Weiner does have a point. As he quotes my old acquaintance, Michael Valpy – a journalist, formerly with the Globe and Mail – our national politeness is a “defence mechanism” that “stems from inferiority and an awkward awareness that our clothes don’t fit properly and we always have bad haircuts and really don’t do anything great.”

Yeah, Mike, that’s “nice”, real “nice”. But let’s just keep that between ourselves from now on. I know where you live, pal.

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The winter of our discontent

We could sell the snow. There's plenty of that

“Atrocious” is the adjective that Canada’s central banker, Stephen Poloz, chooses in order to characterize the effects of low oil prices on the Canadian economy in the frigid months ahead. Sort of like the weather, which is, on the East Coast, equally vile.

Four-hundred-some-odd centimeters of the white stuff alighted on fair Moncton this winter. A good 350 cms of it still perches stubbornly on the ground. The long-range forecast calls for another 40 in the days ahead, bringing us right into daffodil season. It’s a safe bet we’ll beat our 1974 record and top the scales at more than 18.5 feet of dirty, frozen water before the deluge is finally over. If it will be over.

Atrocious, indeed.

I’m taking safe bets that the last of Moncton’s cheerless snow mountains will not be gone before Canada Day, and while the rest of the country celebrates the arrival of summer by beach-combing with ice-cream cones, we’ll be repurposing our shovels as snowboards (having abandoned our gardens to the inevitable effects of short- and long-term climate change).

Oil and gas production, we are told, has something to do with this anomalous circumstance. As David Suzuki writes in a recent blog post, “Rising average temperatures do not simply mean balmier winters. Some regions will experience more extreme heat while others may cool slightly. Flooding, drought and intense summer heat could result.”

He’s kidding, right?

In fact, according to the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change, he’s onto something. It writes: “Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. The period from 1983 to 2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years in the Northern Hemisphere, where such assessment is possible (medium confidence). The globally averaged combined land and ocean surface temperature data as calculated by a linear trend show a warming of 0.85 (0.65 to 1.06) °C 2 over the period 1880 to 2012, when multiple independently produced datasets exist.”

So what accounts for this (and last) winter’s brutal encroachment into spring along the northeastern seaboard of North America?

Blame it on the “polar vortex”. Here’s what has to say about the lately observed phenomenon:

“Some researchers suggest that. . .kinks in the jet stream that allow. . .cold air to spill out could actually become more common in a warming world because of changes to the environment where that cold air originates – the Arctic. Rutgers University sea ice researcher Jennifer Francis was one of the first to suggest a link between the steady decline of Arctic sea ice caused by warming and the extreme twists and turns that the jet stream – the fast-moving river of air miles up in the atmosphere – can take northward and southward. (At the same time that a dip in the jet stream sends polar air southward, a corresponding ridge can push warmer conditions up into the Arctic.)

“The idea is that as white, reflective sea ice has been increasingly melting to lower and lower areas in the summer, there is more dark, open ocean that can absorb the sun’s rays. As sea ice begins to reform as fall progresses, the water releases that heat into the atmosphere. That added heat could be pushing atmospheric patterns in a way that destabilizes the polar vortex.”

Lovely! Or is the proper word “atrocious”?

In any case, the oil and gas chickens in this country may have finally come home to roost. I’m buying a Canada Goose parka in July, when Moncton’s snow mountains of 2015 might just be gone – just in time for winter.

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No teen left behind


Out of the goodness of its vote-conscious heart, the federal Conservative government has made child care a sturdy plank in its election platform this year. Noting that mum and dad are the “real experts” in raising a rug rat, the Tories have enhanced the Universal Child Care Benefit and Child Care Expense Deduction in 2015.

But what, in fact, does this mean?

In a report, released on Wednesday, Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Frechette, explains that “the value of child care benefits grew from $0.6 billion in 2004-2005 to approximately $3.3 billion in 2013- 2014. This amounted to three-fifths (59 per cent) of what Canadian families were spending on child care in 2013-2014.”

What’s more, he added, “Families with young children (less than 13 years of age) spending money on child care received two-thirds (66 per cent) of these benefits. The remaining 34 per cent was distributed to families with no child care expenses and families with older children. As a share of households’ aggregate child care expenses, federal benefits represented roughly 42 per cent and 247 per cent, respectively.”

Now, Mr. Frechette finds, following the government’s so-called improvements to the programs, “if Parliament approves. . .PBO estimates the fiscal impact of federal child care policies will increase to roughly $7.7 billion from the 2013-2014 value of $3.3 billion. By 2017-2018, it will grow to roughly $7.9 billion.”

Fair enough, perhaps. But here’s the kicker, says the PBO:

“These proposals would also change the allocation of benefits. In 2015, 49 per cent of these benefits would go to families with child care expenses and young children, and the remaining 51 per cent to families with no child care expenses and families with older children. Since families with young children spend more on child care, their share will only cover 67 per cent of the amount they will spend on child care. Conversely, benefits that families with older children will receive from the government in 2015-2016 will represent nearly eight times the amount they will spend on child care.”

So, while millions of Canadian families that might legitimately need some federal help to defray the costs of raising their pre-adolescents, millions more that don’t are getting a free ride on the taxpayers’ dime.

This, of course, makes perfect sense – but only in an election year. Under any other circumstance it’s a travesty of sound, sensitive and useful public policy.

None of which actually addresses the larger issue, which is: In what sober version of reality do the benefit and expense deduction, which transfer, at most, a couple of thousand dollars a year, per kid, to families’ household budgets, constitute rational social policy when the annual cost of effective, professionally delivered child care can, and does, runs 14 or 15 times the current federal contribution?

Seven or eight billion dollars would go a long way towards inaugurating a universal system of affordable (to families) early childhood education and pre-school programs. It’s certainly not brain surgery. No one is asking the feds to reinvent the wheel. Apart from the United States, effective models of this sort of thinking exist productively and happily across the developed world – even here in Canada, where Quebec’s $9-dollar-a-day child-care system has both enhanced educational outcomes and reduced systemic rates of poverty in that province. The more kids enrolled in such programs, the more mums and dads provide for their families’ material needs.

Of course, that’s a hard sell, especially as political campaigners begin to beat the drums loudly.

After all, 14-year-old junior needs his Xbox.

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Soaking the rich


In a sense, a province’s budget is less a definitive statement of a particular government’s approach to number-crunching than a metaphor for society’s broader tolerances and expectations. That’s why these annual exercises always manage the simultaneous tricks of going too far and not quite far enough.

So it is with the Gallant government’s first budget, released Tuesday, a scattershot of spending and revenue decisions all putatively designed to address New Brunswick’s fiscal morass; just not right away, or in any aggressively uncomfortable manner, thank you very much. Indeed, emerge from its pages with a reasonable sense of the Liberal government’s vision for the province: Go ahead, I dare you.

To be fair, we do know a few things that, before this week, we may not have fully appreciated. We know, for example, that the department of finance likes building “rainy-day” funds almost as much as it does picking the pockets of the well-heeled. We know that the Grits – who deploy a rhetorical arsenal that brims with bon mots about “fairness” – only really expect rich, older folks to pony up to the plate (at least for the time being; next year, we are told, will be whole new ball game). And we know that, despite these and other measures, an estimated $477 million deficit in 2015-16 is just about as bad as it gets (though, not quite), even while the province’s long-term debt balloons to $12.6 billion.

“It would be easy to avoid making difficult decisions and leave the problems we face to the next generation,” Finance Minister Roger Melanson told the Assembly. “We are not going to do that. Our government was elected to lead and this means making difficult and sometimes even unpopular decisions.”

That, presumably, is why, anyone who earns between $150,000 and $250,000 a year in New Brunswick will now pay 21 per cent provincial portion of income tax (those earning more than $250,000 will face 25.75 per cent), up from about 18 per cent.

As the Saint John Telegraph-Journal reported, “Seniors who have managed to accumulate liquid financial assets will see those included in calculations of how much they must pay for long-term care in places like nursing homes. . .On the plus side, the Liberal government is establishing a New Brunswick Seniors Home Renovation Tax Credit. It will give seniors a tax break on home renovations. ‘We want our seniors to be able to stay in their own homes as long as they can,’ Melanson said.”

All of which is code for: Stop cluttering the province’s increasingly costly hospital wards and emergency wings. And that’s a message even the geriatric and infirm among us can get behind.

Fundamentally, though, the most these tax increases are expected to raise annually is $30 million, a comparatively paltry sum when you consider the obvious alternative: a modest hike in the HST. In fact, a one-percentage-point boost in this consumption tax would generate about $126 million. It would also be cheaper to manage and easier to collect than income taxes. Moreover, when properly executed, with due regard for the impoverished and working poor, it’s far fairer than any current brand of income tax. 

Of course, few governments arguing the affirmative in this country have ever won that particular debate. For their part, Mr. Gallant and Mr. Melanson are clearly not ready to test these tolerances and expectations in New Brunswick

Still, that’s the wonderful thing about a provincial budget. Every 364 days, or so, we all get another crack at going too far or not quite far enough in our public and private economies.

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