Monthly Archives: April 2016

Chickens in every pot?


New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant seems to have no problem functioning as the province’s “Minister of Everything”.

After all, he’s not only the youngest provincial leader in the country (at age 33), he’s President of the Executive Council, Chair of the New Brunswick Jobs Board, Minister responsible for Innovation, Minister responsible for Intergovernmental Affairs, Minister responsible for Women’s Equality, Minister Responsible for Rural Affairs, and Minister responsible for the Premier’s Council on the Status of Disabled Persons.

Now, he purports to become the go-to guy for a new and vast job creation and economic growth fund in a province that can barely find clean socks to darn before it dons decades-old Birkenstocks with which to impress international bondholders.

No matter. Though he remains the second-handsomest man in New Brunswick (the first honour apparently belongs to one Jason Betts, 39, of Moncton, who has advanced to the final round of First Choice Hair Cutters’ campaign to locate the nation’s one and only Adonis), he persists as its most ambitious and implacable.

Indeed, he’s committing one billion bucks over the next few years on an “education and the new economy” fund.

Sheesh, boy, where have you been hiding all these years? Or, perhaps, the better question is: Where has the money to pay for all of this in a province that lurches from a $13-billion long-term debt to roughly $500-million in annual deficit financing been, well, hiding?

Mr. Gallant now takes a page from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s policy playbook. As federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau described his recent budget for the country, “Our plan will recapture the hope and optimism for the future that existed in previous generations, and put it to work for the next. Real change is about revitalizing the economy in the years and decades to come.”

What, then, does Mr. Gallant offer? At a press conference in Fredericton last week he said, “I will be working with ministers in the departments responsible for the different programs and initiatives of the fund to ensure that the parts are co-ordinated, complementary and realize maximum benefits.”

Furthermore, he stated, “This fund will support and coordinate new and existing programs in areas of jobs and education. . .For the 2016-17 fiscal year, our government will invest at least $261 million to support students, entrepreneurs, businesses, scientists, and New Brunswickers as they look to build an innovative economy here in New Brunswick.”

The question, though, is: How?

How will this new fund offer any more opportunities to the people of this province than any other promised and variously delivered by previous governments? How will it depart from its predecessors? How will it improve on, say, the “opportunity” agendas of the old Lord and Graham governments? How, specifically, will it build the “new economy” it promises? No news on this, yet.

The problem with a provincial premier who has his finger in every pot of his administration is that the details of his overarching agenda conveniently get forgotten, shelved or otherwise ignored by those who must, ostensibly, execute them. After all, why take the risk of running afoul of the king, even though you might hold the keys to the castle?

Mr. Gallant is evidently smart, educated, ambitious, and implacable. He’s young, energetic and well intentioned. He’s also an acolyte of the current federal program to breath new life into the national economy by spending liberally.

Fair enough. But to be successful, he must delegate his responsibilities to those under his command – those whom he has appointed to decide which chickens are delivered to which pots.


Fracking, we hardly knew ye


It was fun while it lasted, but the people have spoken. So have New Brunswick’s all-but-departed, hydraulic-fracturing development and production companies. Now, we can declare it: Dear fracking, rest in peace.

You were the bad boy of the oil and gas industry in these parts. With your exploitation of sedimentary rock, your hidebound determination to squeeze every last drop of fossil fuel from the ground, your propensity for threatening supplies of drinking water, and your potential for causing the odd, situational earthquake, you were Marlon Brando or James Dean to our Julie Andrews or Jean Simmons. We, you and I, were never matches made in economic heaven, after all.

Even a rebel with a cause needs a willing audience to survive. Without this, casual affection – let alone love – fades, withers and eventually dies.

That happened a few weeks ago, when a special commission of the provincial government sent down its report, declaring that elected officials had but two options: proceed with building an environmentally responsible industry around tight plays of onshore reserves of natural gas, or forget the whole thing.

Through its silence on the issue, the Brian Gallant government has chosen Door No. 2, though this hasn’t prevented the province’s energy minister, Don Arseneault from jamming his foot in the stoop for what’s likely to be one last time. “At the end of the day,” he told Brunswick News Inc. last week, “there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“Even if I lifted the (provincial government’s standing) moratorium (on hydraulic fracturing) tomorrow, there’s still not going to be any fracking because no one from industry or the municipalities has stepped up to give us a plan on how to treat wastewater. So a lot of things are unresolved.”

Well, not really. As Jim Emberger of the New Brunswick Anti-Shale Alliance noted, not unreasonably, last week, “It’s hard to fathom a case for shale gas in (this province). It is an industry that is shedding jobs by the thousands. How will it bring jobs here? It is an industry that has seen dozens of bankruptcies and is in debt up to its neck. Who will be making major investments in those companies, many of (which) may not survive the next year due record low prices (for oil and gas) and record high debt?”

This, of course, doesn’t stop the diminishing, increasingly marginalized cohort of shale gas’s die-hard fans from praying for a comeback in New Brunswick. Says Colleen Mitchell, president of the Atlantica Centre for Energy: “Since the (provincial) commission released its report, we haven’t seen any action taken towards lifting the (government) moratorium.”

Nor shall we, I warrant. Still, Ms. Mitchell persists, “We want to get a number of groups together, stakeholders, to indicate that there is strong support for lifting the economic situation (in New Brunswick) and having the (shale-gas) companies still interested in exploring for natural gas onshore continue.”

Still, who are those companies? SWN and Corridor Resources? Where, exactly, is the “strong support” for this industry in New Brunswick? For four years or more, we’ve had a chance to weigh the pros and cons at the expense – in time, money and distraction – of considering other, durable means of rebuilding the provincial economy consensually. During this time, we have failed to make any significant progress beyond occasionally mitigating the toothache of useless ideological debate.

Fracking in New Brunswick had its pale moment in the sun. The sun has now set. It’s time to move on and consider all the other options for economic development. Dear fracking, RIP.


Whistling a nasty tune

Few issues loom larger in New Brunswick than the condition of the provincial economy. But one that’s gaining traction is the increasingly spiteful tenor of public debate.

I’m not talking about placard-waving protesters or media-savvy talking heads. They’re playing a fair game in front of the cameras, greasing the wheels of democratic action.

I’m talking about actual politicians who would rather shoot from the hip than focus their sights on real targets.

None of this is especially new. Neither is it restricted to one party or another. Our system of government is deliberately adversarial. It should be. That’s one way we hold elected officials to account.

Still, human nature insists that at some point we almost always approach the line that signifies we have gone too far – in this case, the place where vigorous debate becomes needlessly acrimonious and, therefore, utterly useless as an instrument of change.

We’ve not quite reached this particular boundary in New Brunswick. We cannot, for example, hope to compare our political arena with the cage matches now underway in the U.S. election.

Would a New Brunswick politician utter the following Donald Trumpism just to sway a few nutbars? “You talk about George Bush, say what you want, the World Trade Center came down during his time. He was president, the World Trade Center came down during his reign.”

Would a New Brunswick politician talk about immigration in this province the way Mr. Trump “discusses” the issue in his neck of the North American woods? To wit: “The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Would a New Brunswick politician get cringingly personal the way Mr. Trump did about his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s bathroom break during last year’s televised debate? “I know where she went,” the real estate mogul and reality-show star told a crowd of his fans. “It’s disgusting, I don’t want to talk about it. No, it’s too disgusting.”

Clearly, we don’t sink to these levels. Yet, we can detect a rising churlishness in New Brunswick’s political discourse. Indeed, it’s been rising for years.

When the Liberals were in opposition, they routinely, even reflexively, hammered away at the Tory government’s dismal track record on job creation, even though most reasonable opinion concluded that playing that particular card was a mug’s game. After all, despite their campaign rhetoric, governments don’t, in fact, create jobs.

Now that the Conservatives are out of office, they’re returning the favour. Said Opposition Leader Bruce Fitch the other day: “There are a number of crises the premier needs to address. (He) disappeared, came back and did his tour delivering a couple of job announcements. They are fine in themselves but there is a bigger question to be answered here. In the last 18 months, there has been a dismal failure in job creation under the Gallant leadership. He promised 5,000 jobs, we are down 6,000 jobs, so that is 11,000 less than promised.”

Mr. Fitch is not wrong about the state of the provincial economy. But the argument about the condition of his rival’s leadership actually goes nowhere if we still expect a government that hasn’t created jobs to suddenly become an employment-generating factory.

Now might be a good time to retire the lashing tongues, and explore ways to target the reasons for New Brunswick’s economic maladies together.

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Are our universities failing?


In the seven years I spent at Dalhousie University, fairly sailing through my class load, I took my share of ‘bird courses’, never thinking about a job.

I spent some time examining the effect of Beatles’ music on popular culture. I worked on an essay about the geography of J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Middle Earth’ and how this represented the Bible’s ‘End Times’.

No one in my cohort of students in the 1970s shall ever forget the ‘nature versus nurture’ arguments that dominated the lecture halls of academe.

Now, a University of Prince Edward Island professor of religious studies posits some fascinatingly angry points about the condition of his craft, his institution and his passion.

Says Ron Srigley in a recent edition of The Walrus: “I teach mostly bored youth who find themselves doing something they neither value nor desire . . . in order to achieve an outcome they are repeatedly warned is essential to their survival. What a dreadful trap. Rather than learning freely and excelling, they’ve become shrewd managers of their own careers and are forced to compromise what is best in themselves – their honesty or character – in order to ‘make it’ in the world we’ve created for them.”

The good professor worries that kids, insuffienctly equipped to embrace the arduous task of actually learning something worthwhile, will become the new vanguard of blunt, meaningless mediocrity in society. Worse, we parents, educators, university administrators are grinding down the edges of their intellects with every utterance we make about “relevance” in higher education.

“A couple of years ago, I dimmed the lights in order to show a clip of an interview,” Professor Srigley relates. “I was trying to make a point about the limits of human aspiration, a theme discussed in one of our readings, and I’d found an interview with Woody Allen in which he urged that we recognize the ultimate futility of all endeavours. The moment the lights went down, dozens and dozens of bluish, iPhone-illumined faces emerged from the darkness. That’s when I understood that there were several entertainment options available to students in the modern university classroom, and that lectures rank well below Twitter, Tumblr, or Snapchat.”

Frankly, nothing in this 5,000-word piece is unfamiliar to me. This stuff was happening with nauseating frequency when I was an undergraduate 35 years ago. What’s troubling, if we are to believe Mr. Srigley, is that conditions in academe have deteriorated to the extent that young ‘scholars’, their parents and university administrators now regard faculty members with advanced degrees as nothing more than handmaidens to the callow, vapid career aspirations of those who hold enough coin to buy a piece of commencement paper.

If Mr. Srigley overstates his case, it’s not by much.

The last time I suggested, in writing, that this region’s university presidents (read: CEOs) were more interested in the condition of their institutions’ bottom lines than they were in the state of their students’ capacity for critical thinking, I was called on the plush, red carpet of the Association of Atlantic Universities (The Inquisition’s bureaucratic arm, perhaps?)

In the seven years I spent at Dalhousie University working to understand Socrates, Aristotle, Hobbes, Mill, Hume, Bloom, Faulkner (and not Tolkien or C.S. Lewis), I learned how to think and, in my own way, how to teach.

I also learned how to tell the truth to myself and to my children about the way the world – sometimes corrupted, always promising ­– works.

So has, in his own life, Professor Ron Srigley.

Time will tell, of course, if he still has a job.

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Towards a “carbon-lite” future?


As the government of New Brunswick’s Brian Gallant earnestly attempts to deliver the spirit, if not yet the reality, of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s climate-sensitive, clean-technology economy, the obvious question is: How will the former make nice with the latter without dismantling what remains of the provincial economy?

Certainly, the speculation mills now grind. According to a Brunswick News Inc. report earlier this week, Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters is now questioning the motives of the provincial government concerning gas taxes. “I think a lot of people were wondering,” said the organization’s New Brunswick vice-president Joel Richardson.

“A gas tax wasn’t even part of the (provincial budget) conversation. . .I think it was off the table because the provincial government was in collusion with the federal government to wait until (the) Paris (climate) talks happened and Vancouver happened and then gas taxes are going up.”

All of which points to a public policy framework that is likely to become every bit as fraught with controversy as was the recent tussle over hydraulic fracturing. Then again, how could it be otherwise?

Transitioning traditional economies to a “carbon-lite” future is extraordinarily tricky business. On the other hand, it can be done. Consider, for example, Finland, which the CleanTech Finland website states, “tops the  that ranks the greenest countries in the world. Finland is followed by Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and Slovenia.

“EPI ranks the performance of 180 countries on high-priority environmental issues in two areas: protection of human health and protection of ecosystems. The index is created by Yale and Columbia universities along with the World Economic Forum. EPI is constructed through the calculation and aggregation of nine categories that include more than 20 indicators: agriculture, air quality, biodiversity and habitat, climate and energy, fisheries, forests, health impacts, water and sanitation, and water resources.”

The 2016 report says that “Finland’s top ranking is mostly based on country’s societal commitment to achieve carbon-neutral society that does not exceed nature’s carrying capacity by 2050. The report indicates that Finland has actionable goals and measurable indicators of sustainable development. Finland performed well especially in the areas of health, water categories, air quality, and climate and energy. In the forests category, measuring tree cover loss, Finland has its lowest ranking.”

Finland’s experience suggests that only a concerted effort to coordinate and impose specific measures on the New Brunswick economy will effectively align the province with Ottawa’s climate-change targets and policies. Is one of these measures a gas tax or some other clutch of responses?

Mr. Richardson has a point when he notes that the best way to change people’s behaviour is offer them incentives for doing so.

Still, whatever approach eventually surfaces, a new type of logic must begin to take root here. If we can’t quit fossil fuels altogether, and we soon won’t be able to live with them as we do today we should stop thinking about them as commodities to burn and begin to appreciate them as strategic assets to employ in the effort to build a largely clean, broadly renewable future?

In other words, if we train ourselves to use them as inputs for new manufacturing technologies that more effectively capture and distribute in-situ wind, solar and tidal sources of energy, we might just start the long, arduous process of diversifying the economy.

Use them to power research into cleaner forms of short- and long-range transportation systems. Use them to, in effect, evolve away from them as anything but the necessary evils they are for advanced research and development and clean-technology commercialization.

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