Monthly Archives: May 2015

A voice from the wilderness

Permanent winter for a Moncton events centre?

Permanent winter for a Moncton events centre?

Was it only a stitch in time, a hiccup in history, a diaphanous dream, or did Greater Moncton once actually believe that its downtown was worth preserving, protecting, even pampering?

Or were we always determined to be Fargo, North Dakota, where the ribbon developments and strip malls make Detroit look like heaven on Earth?

A couple of years ago, Moncton economic development consultant David Campbell (now chief economist of the Province of New Brunswick) and university economist Pierre-Marcel Desjardins put numbers to the proposition of rejuvenating Moncton’s urban core.

According to Mr. Campbell, in a report to City Council, a new centre would annually “attract between 317,000 and 396,000 people. . .generating between $12 and $15 million in spending.” In the process, it would “support retail, food service, accommodation and other services in the downtown,” where it “should also support residential growth.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Desjardins estimated that the construction phase, alone, would generate $340 million worth of “economic impacts” for New Brunswick and other parts of the country, as well as nearly $17 million in taxes for the provincial and federal governments.

But the crucial point, which Mr. Campbell argued rigorously and cogently, is that a new centre is not – as some have proposed – a luxury; it is quite nearly a necessity.

“Downtown – only 1.5 per cent of the city’s land area – generates nearly 10 per cent of the total assessed tax base and over 14.4 per cent of property tax revenues,” he noted in his report to City Council. 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.”

Yet – though it plays host to 800 business, 3,000 bars, restaurants and cafes 18,000 workers, and anywhere from 1,200 to 5,700 residents (depending on how one fixes downtown “borders”) – the area is in a state of disrepair.

“The economic engine is showing signs of weakness,” Mr. Campbell lamented. “There is currently over 350,000 square feet of vacant office space in the downtown. Office space vacancies across Greater Moncton have risen from 6.6 per cent in 2011 to an estimated 13.5 per cent in 2013. Residential population in the core declined by 9.1 per cent between 2006 and 2011. Including the expanded downtown, the population dropped by 3.3 per cent. (This) compared to a robust 7.7 per cent rise across the city.”

A new centre that hosts a wide variety of events, with enough seats to compete for top shows, will incontestably revitalize the downtown area.

The real question is whether that’s still a priority here.

It’s a question that Adam Conter appears to ask daily. At a Moncton City Council meeting a couple of weeks ago, the former Haligonian – a transplanted real-estate professional – testified that such a centre is “good for the province. . .the conversation over the past couple of weeks has been that this centre seems to be the divining rod. . .We are going to run a $479-million deficit (in this province), of which (the centre costs the province) $24 million. (That) represents 0.5 per cent (of the budget). If we were to have a rounding error, we could build the centre for that money.”

Of course, he is entirely correct and in preaching to Moncton Council he is, against few notable exceptions, preaching to the choir.

But this thing of ours will only get done when we finally decide whether or not we want a downtown area to nurture our diverse cultures, our economic potential.

Otherwise, the ribbons and highway malls of Fargo beckon.

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Biting the hand that hits

 

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Government watchdogs are constitutionally bred to be independent, objective, honest, and, of course, funded. How else can they protect the people’s business from the occasional, sometimes unwitting, predations of their political caretakers?

But, every so often, when its collar is fixed too tightly and its leash is tugged too quickly, even the best-behaved terrier of truth will snarl, spit and promptly defecate on the shoes of its hapless walker.

And so, we witness New Brunswick Auditor-General Kim MacPherson playing “bad dog” in Premier Brian Gallant’s four-year obedience class.

To be sure, Ms. MacPherson insists that her province-wide road show explaining what she does for living, why it’s important, and how it helps democracy from slipping into the black hole of ambivalence has nothing to do with politics.

Forget the fact that her budget’s been frozen at $2 million a year, that she needs staff to finish the work she’s legally obligated to complete, and that her cries to obtain these resources might as well be dog whistles falling on the ears of deaf ministers.

No, no, she says, her new “outreach program” has everything to do with –for lack of better words – proactivity and positivity. (Lord knows, children, we need more of that in the spin-cities of Canadian governance).

Let me make myself perfectly clear, she told Saint John Telegraph-Journal legislative scribe Chris Morris, this week, “It (the speaking tour) stems from the fact that in the past year we have a new strategic plan, and one of the strategic objectives is to increase public awareness of the role of the auditor general and the reports. It is to make people more aware of our work.”

Funny, that. Back in March before the snow melted and the dog parks opened, Ms. MacPherson had this to say: “I feel that out office is under-resourced. We’re barely scratching the surface. There is much more that we could and should be doing.”

Now, she tells Ms. Morris, “I am conscious of the fact that these are difficult fiscal times, and it is difficult to come up with new money to add to anyone’s budget.”

Still, the A-G is angling to become a particular animal that no sitting government of any political stripe ever wants to see: a political watchdog that’s determined to issue regular, scheduled reports throughout a given year rather than one, annual omnibus piece that’s doomed to obscurity. In this she’s counting on the media to wag her tail (your welcome, auditor).

As Ms. Morris quotes Ms. MacPherson as saying, “It is too much content all at once – about 1,000 pages in one day. We have decided to stagger the content. We are now working on a report to be tabled in mid-June.”

Can’t you just hear the factotums in the Premier’s Office now grind their canines at night? Oh wonderful, they are chomping, how exquisite. How, on earth, did we get ourselves into this particular kennel?

For her part, the A-G has found her freedom by digging under the cage that trapped her. She’s in the wind, happily barking and yipping, paroling the boundaries between official, government bafflegab and the numbers that tell at least some version of the truth about public spending.

According to Ms. Morris: “MacPherson said that when she is in St. Stephen (her first public appearance on her provincial tour), she will talk about the fiscal situation of the province, and some of her office’s recent performance reviews, including the report on the now-defunct Atcon group of companies.”

Bark! Bark!

Bad dog!

Ouch!

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In praise of laziness

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Cathy Rogers, MLA for Moncton and the province’s social development minister, is exactly right when she says, in so many words, that hiking the provincial portion of the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) is the easy way out of New Brunswick’s fiscal fiasco and economic swamp.

So what’s wrong with that?

Why must we endlessly review our options through the nearly Calvinist lens of public sacrifice (do better, be better, go forth and die in penury and virtue), rather than embrace the rather obvious, less dramatic proposition that a two-percentage point hike in the HST – boring though it may be – would, in four years, help balance the budget and send our international creditors into a well-deserved, deep and abiding slumber.

Ms. Rogers, by contrast, would rather we first figure out how to run ourselves as a proper citizenry than pay the bills. As for the HST, she says, “it’s like asking for a bigger allowance without first learning how to manage our allowance better.” Calling it a “quick fix” and a “lazy way to find a solution”, the minister would rather we put our shoulders to the wheel just as the wheels fall off the semi-tractor trailer that is the rusting, heaving, wheezing truck of state.

Of course, she’s not the only one in this Liberal cabinet who’s willing to stand in the middle of the road, proclaiming loudly, only then to skirt to the curb, squeaking quietly.

There’s also Donald Arseneault, Minister of Energy and Mines, who thinks that a year-long examination into things we already know about shale-gas development in the province is a profoundly responsible use of public money and time, (though he has allowed in his quieter moments that just such an exercise might actually hurt New Brunswick’s economic prospects).

Ms. Rogers’ conundrum is, however, particularly perplexing. On the one hand, she declares that she is opposed to raising the HST today, but is willing to consider the prospect a year from now. Meanwhile, so-called “wealthy seniors” should be prepared to pay more for their nursing home costs to. . .you know. . .help balance the books before the government musters the political courage to do the smart thing: boost consumption taxes for everyone on discretionary items (not food, not fuel oil, not shelter, not kids’ clothing or daycare).

Still, who are these “wealthy seniors” of whom she speaks?

“We know that based on income 87 per cent of seniors cannot afford the daily cap (of $113 a day),” the Saint John Telegraph-Journal quoted her saying last week. “We can take something from this, but not everything. It is an indicator. We have to wait until we get more data to get more details on liquid assets.”

And while we wait for “more data”, New Brunswick’s new, wholly invented, politically contrived demographic – the wealthy senior – lives in fear of a government that has not yet determined who or how best to bilk him.

Nice work, if you can get it.

Always trust Government of every ideological stripe to render the straightforward, complicated; the clear, obfuscated; the fair, inequitable.

It’s called spin and it stinks.

More than this, it depends, for its effectiveness, on enormous amounts of energy, busy work and low cunning. In other words, it’s the opposite of “lazy”.

Somehow, in this universe, the sin of lassitude means telling the evident truth, doing the obviously right thing without breaking a sweat, and smiling easily without ever worrying about night terrors.

If these are my choices, I’ll take lazy man’s way out every day of the political week.

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What’s in a Tory name?

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Dear youth caucus of the New Brunswick Progressive Conservative Party: I heartily endorse your proposal to drop the word, “Progressive” from your title.

Henceforth, you and your fellow travellers ought to be known properly by those principles you truly espouse. As one of your own explained to the CBC recently, the time has come for change and history is a slave driver.

“A group of young Tories are looking to remove the word ‘Progressive’ from the party’s name at the upcoming annual general meeting,” Mother Corp. reports. “Adam Pottle, a youth executive member of the Progressive Conservative Party of New Brunswick, says the name change is long overdue.

“Pottle said dropping ‘Progressive’ would better reflect reality. ‘The PCs are a bit more to the right end of the spectrum than every other party in New Brunswick and we just felt the word progressive no longer really matched our party,’ he said. Members of the Progressive Conservative Party will vote on the idea on May 23 at the annual general meeting that is being held in Fredericton.”

What’s more, “Pottle said the name change will connect the party to its past. ‘Honestly, we’ve been thinking about it for a while, a few of us. We wanted to bring the party more in line with history – before the early ‘30s, it was just known as the Conservative Party – and also to bring us more in line with our federal counterparts,’ Pottle said.”

As the CBC piece explained, “The federal Conservative Party was formed in 2003 when the Progressive Conservatives merged with the Canadian Alliance. The term ‘progressive’ was not added to the new party’s name.”

Heaven only knows what might have transpired had it been retained.

We might, for one thing, employ a civil service that’s not afraid of its own shadow, not looking for enemies and spooks behind every corner of its ever-shrinking cubicles.

We might, for another, enjoy a political culture that encourages open and honest debate, instead of one that shuts doors and windows as soon as the aroma of principled dissent subsumes that of microwaved popcorn at high noon.

We might also remember, if not always revere, the actions of men like Robert Stanfield, Brian Mulroney and Richard Hatfield, of women like Pat Carney, Flora MacDonald and Barbara McDougall. In their own progressive ways, these “PCs” changed the country without letting the country turn them into simulacra of Liberal presumption and entitlement.

But, sure, youngsters, go ahead. Reinvent yourselves. Recuse yourselves. Be all that you can be. Just don’t kid yourselves about the influence your re-branding efforts exert.

The Conservative Party you seek to emulate – seek to join – gives less than a nanosecond of time to anyone outside the inner circle of Canadian politics. (Frankly, they way things are going, neither do the federal Grits).

In any case, yours is not the Reform party; yours is the Establishment party. And it really doesn’t like party crashers from the youth wing stumbling into its dessert bars and piano soirees long past their bedtime.

A Wiki entry stipulates that Progressive-Conservatism in Canada had a bonafide lifespan. “The Progressive Conservative Party of Canada (1942–2003) was a Canadian federal political party with a centre-right stance on economic issues and, after the 1970s, a centrist stance on social issues,” it says.

Now comes your better times in this fair province, if you can trump your elders. On this score, be as bold as youth demands.

Call yourselves the “Regressive Conservative Party of New Brunswick”.

Dudes, you can hardly go wrong.

True that.

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As the fracking follies continue. . .

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It’s always heartening to realize that those we elect to high, public office hold each other to the same standard of comportment as do the rest of us. After all, if we can’t count on the statesmen among us, we can surely depend on the ready, nearly endless, supply of clowns.

And so it was last week when New Brunswick’s Tory energy critic, Jake Stewart, had this to say in the House about the Liberal government’s decision to extend a partial, four-year payroll refund, reportedly worth $150,000, to internationally based Clean Harbors’ Saint John operation:

“I am sure that the minister of Energy and Mines and the premier are very excited to have this company, one of the leading suppliers of hydraulic fracturing waste treatment and disposal services in the Bakken, Marcellus, and Utica shale formations, established in New Brunswick. . .It is interesting to learn that this government is providing taxpayer-funded assistance for existing staff to a company that has such a high level of expertise in the treatment and disposal of hydraulic fracturing waste when the same government, just months ago, implemented policies that actually prohibit this industry in which Clean Harbors is a leading service provider.

To which Premier Brian Gallant gamely responded, “I understand his (Mr. Stewart’s) frustration. I understand why he is so confused. The members opposite are so fixated on fracking that they cannot fathom that we can create jobs, even though there is a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. The member cannot fathom. . .that a business like Clean Harbors can create jobs in the province, even though there is a moratorium.”

With which, in turn, Gary Kelly, vice-president of business sales for Clean Harbors, naturally agreed (of sorts). He told the Saint John Telegraph-Journal: “We felt that there was a need here. A few years ago one of the competitors closed up shop, so we felt there was an opportunity.”

Added Economic Development Minister Rick Doucet: “The company is tied in very well with the industrial sector in Saint John – with the pulp and paper industry and with the oil industry. . .Any company, especially a world-class operation such as this, located in 50 places around the world and with 13,000 people working for it, that stands and wants to open up shop in New Brunswick and wants to represent New Brunswick is a bonus for us.

“Clean Harbors has a very broad range of services that it offers in the sectors – the cleaning services and products, the recycling of oil into base, the blending of lubricating oils, the high-pressure and chemical cleaning, and the disposal of hazardous waste.”

In other words, for a polluting province, such as New Brunswick, Clean Harbor is an economic, jobs-generating boon. Its record is apparently sterling; its knowledge about these matters, exquisite.

So, then, the path seems clear: Ask this company what it would do to meet one or more of the provincial government’s requirements for lifting the ban on hydraulic fracturing. It couldn’t hurt, and it might even work to ease this absurd toothache that is the shale-gas debate.

It might, at least, serve to bring Conservative and Liberal interests in Fredericton closer together on what must surely be their joint interest, which is nothing more or less important than the economic and social integrity of the province both groups profess to love and cherish.

Or, perhaps, I am finally, fatally naïve, after all.

Maybe all we in the peanut gallery terminally expect of our so-called democracy are the clowns masquerading as statesmen.

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Under pressure, he’s still “Gallant”

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Apparently, the premier of New Brunswick and I are on a first-name basis. He’s 32. My daughter will be 34 this year. I’m turning 55 and feeling every inch the old scold these days.

So, Mr. Premier, you can call me “Dad”, though I don’t believe I’ve ever had the pleasure of actually meeting you directly. Still, at least you managed to get my name right (it’s not Alex, or Aleck, or Ozymandias) when you penned this remarkably courteous and circumspect note before emailing it to my personal inbox the other day:

“Hi Alec – I hope all is well. After reading your blog commenting on the Moncton Downtown Centre and my commentary, I just wanted to clarify why Mr. Goguen (i.e., Robert Goguen, MP for Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe) was mentioned in my commentary.”

I’m listening.

“The GMCC (Greater Moncton Chamber of Commerce) announced it’s going to mount a lobbying campaign against myself and our government. I was completely surprised that its campaign would solely focus on us and not also target the federal government.”

Yes, yes. Do go on.

“The reason one may say the target should be only our government is because Mr. Goguen has said he is supportive of the project. But I haven’t heard Stephen Harper say his government is supportive. I haven’t heard the regional minister Moore say his government is supportive. And even if one of them did make comments to confirm support, the next question would be why is the federal government not providing a letter to the city confirming funding that would be conditional on the province being at the table? That is how any project like this would work.”

Hmmm. And how does that make you feel?

“The point I was, therefore, trying to make was why is the GMCC focused on just us and not the federal government since neither of us are at the table officially at the moment?

“That was my only point regarding Mr. Goguen. Perhaps I didn’t make that point clearly enough. I will try to do a better job in the future, and hopefully this email will clarify it for you. All the best. . .BG.”

Indeed, “BG”must be the most solicitous premier New Brunswick has ever enjoyed hosting (although history suggests Richard Hatfield and Hugh John Flemming were also pretty fine gents).

But this does not excuse Mr. Gallant from his responsibility to avoid partisan politics when the issue is nothing less than the future of economic development in New Brunswick’s urban jobs’ dynamo.

Personally, I don’t concur with every word that issues from Mr. Goguen’s mouth. He’s a Harper man, trained and true. When he insists that the feds are willing to invest in a Moncton events centre, he likely means that they are prepared to divert necessary federal infrastructure funds from sewers, roads and bridges in the tri-city area to fulfill their end of the bargain. Then, just watch them step through potholes to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony, plaudits and honorifics in hand.

But you, dear Brian (if I may be so bold), are better than that. You are already known for taking stands (fracking comes to mind, though we clearly don’t agree).

Take a stand on this one. You have the research. You have the evidence. Does a Moncton downtown events centre make economic sense? Of course, it does. Now say so, and make the project yours.

I hate to be a scold, my son, but at my age it comes with the empty territory where a brilliant meeting place, a gathering space, waits to rise.

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