No more Mr. Nice Guys

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In a hotel room in downtown Moncton, I interviewed former Progressive Conservative Premier of New Brunswick David Alward, mid-way through his mandate, and found him to be genuinely interested, engaged and, more importantly, authentically decent.

He was as he appeared in video captures on the nightly news: an “everyman” of a certain middle age who was a little paunchy, a little red in the cheeks, a tad prone to wipe his brow when he noticed that the tie he was wearing was doing a workmanlike job of restricting the supply of oxygen to his lungs.

Naturally, as premier of a province that he had sworn to save from the so-called predations of his Liberal predecessors, he would never think to loosen that tie (not for a moment). No, he would endure the slings and arrows of outrageous haberdashery just to get his point across.

And his point, specifically, was this: “Let’s look at where we are right at the moment. We were left with a billion-dollar-plus projected deficit by the previous government. Initially, we came forward with a projected deficit of under $450 million. Now, after the second quarter (2011), we are over by somewhere around $100 million. A significant chunk of that was thanks to revenue reductions. We were also dealing with higher expenditures. . .in pensions, but also in social development and health programs.

“It is clear we need to get our house in order. And, just staying on taxes for a moment, when they are needed we raise them through (levies) on gasoline and diesel, and also on tobacco and liquor.”

He continued: “But the real point is we need to go and understand what services we need to provide. . .We need to know what our core values are, what our core services are and focus on those services. We need to find ways to deliver them more efficiently. . .It’s about how we can reorganize government. . . .In the last four years there has been a growth in the public service of 8,000 (positions). We have to look at the long term.”

How predictably appropriate it is that Mr. Alward’s Tory end game in 2012 so closely resembles current Grit premier Brian Gallant’s in 2015. How do you measure a political transformation when nothing actually changes, when nothing important happened today?

The awful and trite phrase “going forward” substitutes in all recent governments for bold policy. Its shameful connotation is the language of the dejected and fearful in public office: We’ll try, sort of, but don’t count on us to get anything worthwhile or meaningful accomplished.

And so, the differences between the Alward and Gallant governments on fiscal policy are perishingly small. Neither had, or has, the stomach to raise the HST on items the actual buying public chooses to afford, because to do so (political expediency dictates) would signal the end of the world as we know it.

Meanwhile, the long-term debt in this province remains just about where it was when Mr. Alward left office ($12 billion and holding). The cost of health care delivery and public education, though nominally static this fiscal year, will inevitably rise in the next three. And the possibility of raising real revenues from natural resources for public coffers is as remote now as it was when Mr. Alward confidently predicted a boon for New Brunswick back in 2012.

I have had friendly email exchanges with Premier Gallant and I have found him to be, like his predecessor, genuinely interested, engaged and authentically decent.

Still, I’m thinking, maybe it’s time for a barracuda at the end of my smart phone, for a good, long change.

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