Monthly Archives: May 2016

Whole ‘loto’ money


Candour is one of Blaine Higgs’ more endearing qualities. As finance minister under the former Progressive Conservative government in New Brunswick, he was always good for a quote that would, as often as not, knock you back on your heels. “Did he just say that?”

So, it should come as no surprise that when asked to explain his department’s use of $14 million in payments for shared gaming revenues made in error to the province’s First Nations communities years ago, he had this to say to the Saint John Telegraph-Journal last month:

“It was there as a potential bargaining tool to say if we get satisfaction in other areas we’ll discuss (the more than $14 million in overpayments). But if we don’t we’ll go after the$14 million.”

Mr. Higgs further explained that his government was prepared to let the largess stand only if it could obtain undertakings to stamp out illegal video lottery terminals, alcohol and cigarette sales on First Nations. It also sought to renegotiate broader revenue-sharing agreements that, it believed, benefitted only a few of the 15 aboriginal communities in the province.

Arguably, none of this would have come to light had the T-J failed to embark on some truly enterprising reporting. But now that the cat’s out of the bag, should we be surprised by the revelation that at the root of politics-as-usual is, frequently, real politick as deal making?

It’s hard to fault Mr. Higgs and his finance department operatives for attempting to make the most of a useful mistake they, themselves, did not commit. (The blame for the overpayments lies squarely with the Atlantic Lottery Corporation, which, apparently, first made the accounting error back in 2003).

On the other hand, someone owes the province’s taxpayers – a point that New Brunswick Auditor-General Kim MacPherson is all too happy to emphasize. Recouping the funds from the recipients, she told the T-J last month, “would definitely have to happen over a period of time in consultation with the First Nations given it’s a very significant amount of money and recognizing it would definitely impact the First Nations. It happened over many years, so it stands to reason that it would take quite a period of time to negotiate repayment terms. But the thing is there was no authority to make those payments and that’s why we say it needs to be corrected.”

On the face of it, she’s right. But it seems broadly unfair to expect those who unwittingly benefited from a clerical error to shoulder the burden of redressing the mistake. That would be a little like demanding that a taxpayer return his refund years after the money had been spent.

The other logical option is to require Atlantic Lottery Corporation to dig into its own corporate pockets. Still, that, too, is fraught with difficulties. As the gaming company is actually owned by the governments of the four Atlantic provinces any repayment would amount to a zero-sum exercise in futility. Or, as our favorite quote-maker Mr. Higgs said last week, “It’s kind of like taking your wallet out and paying yourself. It may not be a net gain.”

All of which suggests that the former finance minister’s solution – to make the best of a bad deal – might not be such a weird idea, after all.

If the current government can figure out a way to cost out $14 million in savings to the province from a better bargain with First Nations, then the matter might be resolved without further strife and with one benefit that’s been sorely missing from this whole debacle: transparency

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A sweetly wonderful life in the Hub City

In the interest of full disclosure, growing up as a callow and ambitious youth Moncton never nestled into my top-five list of places to live. To be candid, it didn’t even reach the lower echelons of my top 50.

Why would it?

The Hub City and I first became acquainted during a blizzard in January 1975. Here, my father and I landed on a tarmac at the airport, en route to somewhere else. Ours was to be one of those dad-son adventures – a take-your-kid-to-work day for the peripatetic pater familias, whose writing career kept him jaunting from place to place, port to port.

Stranded under blankets of snow, there was nothing to do but arrange for a truck ride back to Halifax – a journey that in those days and under those circumstances took ten, teeth-clenching, white-knuckled hours.

Arriving more or less safely home in body and soul, Father Bruce poured himself a stiff drink, turned to me and asked whether I was still interested in becoming a commercial pilot.

“Sure,” I replied. “But not if I have to fly out of Moncton.”

Of course, today, some 40 years later, it seems everyone wants to fly in and out of Moncton. The Chinese send their most promising aviators to the flight academy here; Calgary-based WestJet has just announced a new training facility at the international airport; and sun-starved travellers leave daily from these environs for points south.

And, of course, that’s the point: Wait a few years and the Moncton of old becomes the Moncton of new.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of my permanent residence in this vibrant, changing city. According to some, that still makes me a Johnny-come-lately, a come-from-away. But if you know anything about my family, or me, I’ve become the Rip Van Winkle of my kinder.

Almost from the day of my birth in downtown Toronto, we’ve been a rambling bunch – some or all of us bivouacking in southeastern Ontario hockey country, Ottawa, Halifax, Prospect Bay (NS), Port Shoreham (NS), Vancouver, Victoria, Los Angeles. (Family lore has it that I was actually conceived on a mountain pass somewhere in the Swiss Alps, or maybe Santa Monica. Who can tell? It was the 60s, for crying out loud).

But since May 1996, I’ve installed myself in Moncton and have been almost bizarrely happy to do so.

No, I don’t speak French the way I should. No, I don’t recall, off the top of my head, the history of every founding family in this community. And heaven forbid that I should go to church every time the bells ring along Gordon and Queen Streets (and they ring a lot).

Still, I feel at home here.

I feel at home in the cruddy, defiantly optimistic urban core. I feel at home with the constant existential angst over the fate of the Petitcodiac River and the causeway that bisects it and the wastewater treatment plant that tries not to defile it. I feel at home amid the plethora of open hands – and in the absence of clenched fists – that greet me wherever I go.

God willing, I’ll be here another 20 years, extolling it, criticizing it, observing its progress, forgiving its periodic failures, and defending its achievements against all detractors.

Nowadays, the Hub City nestles into the number one slot of my Top 50 places to live.

I’m not alone. KPMG routinely tells the world that Moncton is the place to be for business, quality of life, educational opportunities, and a little thing called hope.

You say it, come-from-away.

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Bridge over troubled waters


Monctonians, God bless them, sometimes forget their uncanny ability to embrace several municipal development opportunities and simultaneously push for support from higher levels of government.

After all, even provincial and federal office holders occasionally remember how to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Liberal MP for Beausejour Dominic LeBlanc – who is also government house leader – managed to raise both hopes and eyebrows the other week when he indicated that Ottawa is completing plans to replace part of the causeway that connects Moncton and Riverview with a bridge.

According to a Moncton Times & Transcript report, “LeBlanc notes that the bridge project, that would allow a freer flow of the Petitcodiac River, has been underway for more than a decade. An ongoing environmental impact assessment analyzing the effects of the permanent opening of the causeway gates started in 2004. The gates were opened so that scientists could study the effect of the partial restoration of the tidal flow of the river in anticipation of some day taking out part of the causeway and building a bridge.”

Said Mr. LeBlanc in an interview: “The province has spent $55 million or $60 million doing a lot of the work to prepare for the removal of the causeway and the installation of a bridge. . .The exciting piece that will capture the public imagination is to restore the full tidal flow to the river. That’s something I was working on when Mr. (Jean) Chretien was prime minister 12 years ago. That’s the piece that, for me, is unfinished.”

Some have interpreted Mr. LeBlanc’s comments to mean that, for now, a much-needed, $90-million upgrade to the municipal sewage treatment system might have to proceed without federal government help. But David Muir, chairman of the Greater Moncton Wastewater Commission, thinks the refurbishment should be the first order of business. So does Riverview Mayor Ann Seamans.

Noted Mr. Muir: “Certainly we’d like to see all MPs support our project as the number one priority.” Added Ms. Seamans: “The deadline of 2020 (for the upgrade) makes the (plant) project foremost. It’s the federal government which imposed that.”

For his part, Mr. LeBlanc hasn’t ruled out providing funding for both causeway and treatment projects. “We’re going to spend a lot of money on green infrastructure, and I know the sewage commission project is very expensive,” he said last week. “It is also needed, and that will be looked at in the context of these other projects. In the normal course of infrastructure investments, the sewage commission project should be looked at as well.”

Still, he says, he doesn’t think the two capital developments “have to be linked.”

Actually, they do or, at least, should be.

In reality, the federal government is both morally and legally obliged to support both projects. Indeed, from a practical standpoint, it doesn’t make much sense to proceed with one without the other.

A freer-flowing Petitcodiac River fulfills the intent of sections of both the Fisheries and Environment Acts, which seek to protect marine habitats and secure ecological integrity – especially where human agency has caused, or threatens to cause, harm. So does, it could be reasonably argued, a waterway that’s absent of pollution.

The issue, now, should be logistical, not financial.

If both projects are, in fact, designed to improve the health of natural and human environments, what steps are necessary to properly coordinate their execution? The last thing this tri-city area need are the unintended consequences of siloed development along a contiguous waterway.

Coordination might even save some money.

How’s that for walking and chewing gum?

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Teaching our children well


It is an article of faith in public-policy circles that pigs fly more reliably than do governments seeking to improve the educational systems under their aegis. Sometimes, though, porcine wings do flap and take to the sky.

A rare case in point was last month’s announcement in Fredericton that, henceforth, the New Brunswick government will cover the cost of tuition not already insured by the feds for students attending post-secondary institutions in the province – those whose families earn $60,000 or less in any given 12-month period. Enthused Premier Gallant: “We, as a province, will be able to tell those children, ‘Work hard, do what you can to get into a university or college and we’ve got you covered. . .Of those New Brunswick students who apply for student financial assistance, it is estimated that more than 50 per cent will qualify for this program.”

Indeed, this measure, at a cost of roughly $25 million to taxpayers per academic year (at least, initially), effectively delivers something akin to free higher education to as many as 7,100 aspiring scholars in humanities, sciences, business, and trades in 2016-17 – not quite, though, given that the new Tuition Access Bursary doesn’t pay for books, fees and living expenses.

Still, it’s better than a kick in the pants. And, as the former CEO of my own private bank of student bursaries, I’m not alone in thinking so.

Says Travis Daley, vice-president external of the University of New Brunswick’s student union: “This is a momentous move forward by this government. It allows for higher education to be a reality for students who might not have considered it before.”

UNB president Eddy Campbell agrees with the student advocate. (When, in fact, does that ever happen in the fractious arena of organized academe)?

“Roughly half of the students at UNB today are the first in their family to go to university,” Dr. Campbell told reporters after a news conference. “We know those are the students who often need extra help to be here, and I have no doubt a whole bunch of those students will qualify for this program. . .(The government) is doing the right thing.”

University of Moncton economist and author Richard Saillant also concurs with the prevailing opinion. In a radio interview, he noted, “We’re talking about enhancing participation in post-secondary education and we’re talking about fairness and future prosperity. . .I don’t think we can afford to dither any longer on that file. . .This measure will enhance participation in the labour market, so it’s good economic policy, it’s good social policy and it’s also good educational policy.”

Here, here!

Still, enlightened public policy is one thing. Effective program delivery is quite another. The difference between the two is what usually keeps pigs firmly rooted to the ground.

What protocols and protections have the Gallant government installed to ensure that low-income students need not wade through myriad bureaucratic pens before they receive their benefits? What red tape and paper-burden have public officials decided are in no one’s best interest?

The history of student funding in Canada is a litany of nightmarish anecdotes, invariably invoking both federal and provincial funding agencies and, in the worst cases, the big banks and the Canada Revenue Agency.

Will the New Brunswick government accompany its new, well-intentioned policy with the streamlined apparatus to keep from harm those it now purports to help – the most economically vulnerable, attempting to dream, to do, to achieve, perhaps beyond even their own expectations?

Let us hope so.

Let us hope that pigs fly.

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How are we feeling?


Is there some sort of correlative relationship between the health of a population and the condition of its economy?

We’ve known, for decades, that New Brunswick is becoming increasingly geriatric. Now, it seems, we’re also getting sicker, and in ways that are not exclusively linked to the ravages of aging.

A stern and alarming report from the New Brunswick Health Council concludes that this province “ranks last among. . .ten. . .on the percentage of the population that perceives their general health or their mental health as ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’. As for having pain or discomfort preventing activities, it ranks nine out of 10.”

Adds the Council’s CEO Stéphane Robichaud: “The proportion of the population with a chronic condition is growing and chronic conditions are appearing in younger age groups. The current trend is that a growing proportion of people are developing additional conditions as they age. The demographic trends have not taken the system by surprise; they have been expected and should have been better taken into account during planning efforts.”

Certainly, there’s a great deal of truth in this. But aging demographics do not entirely explain why health problems are cropping up with morbid persistence in ever-younger people in the province. Nor is it clear how a health care system that’s more concerned with palliation than prevention can fight the trend.

Recent research by Statistic Canada shows that the incidence of smoking in New Brunswick is the third highest among provinces in Canada – 20.9 per cent, just behind Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia.

A separate study by the numbers-crunching agency shows that as a percentage of the population, New Brunswickers tend to imbibe more heavily than their fellow citizens in other parts of the country.

When it comes to obesity, this province is also a national trend leader, especially among males.

In a CBC website commentary a couple of years ago, Gabriela Tymowski, who was identified as an associate professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of New Brunswick, wrote, “ While the numbers vary between surveys, recent indicators reveal 63 per cent of adult New Brunswickers and up to 36 per cent of New Brunswick children to be overweight or obese. At the most extreme classifications of obesity, New Brunswick adults have the highest rates in all of Canada.”

What’s more, she noted, “Obesity comes with personal, health and economic costs for individuals and societies, and here in New Brunswick we are heavier, more sedentary, smoke and drink more and eat fewer vegetables than most other Canadians.”

The economic costs of poor health seem self-evident. Absenteeism, short- and long-term disability bleeds skills and productivity from the labour force. According to a Conference Board of Canada report some years back, “There is a wide range of potential impacts of aging and poor and declining health on individuals and businesses. The indirect costs of poor health, including lower productivity due to short- and long-term disability and loss of future income due to mortality, provide some indication of the effects of poor health on productivity and, in turn, how well the economy can supply health care. For ten selected health conditions and chronic diseases, the economic burden (nationally) from indirect costs is estimated at $119 billion in 2010, up from $79 billion in 2000.”

All of which convincingly points to the link between the health of a population and the condition of its economy.

In this regard, Mr. Robichaud properly rings an alarm about a crisis in New Brunswick that’s not only humanitarian; it’s also distinctly and observably practical.

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Word power in the picture-perfect province


Never underestimate the propensity of the human mind to concoct new terms to express its latest preoccupations – or, in this case, its ability to find them perfectly suited to a place like New Brunswick, where two official languages provide plenty of linguistic elbowroom for clever word play.

What, for example, do we call people who belong to a certain social class that enjoys neither job security nor any real expectation of a safe, predictable retirement? I am tempted to answer: An increasing number of New Brunswickers. But we’re not alone in this western, industrialized economy. Forget the shopworn reference to the proletariat. Does “precariat” ring a bell?

How do we describe that workplace condition in which swaths of employees show up for their appointed rounds, after having pulled double shifts, too tired to keep their eyes open let alone focus on their keyboards? It’s not absenteeism. Enter the age of “presenteeism” – as in present in body only.

And when one of these members of the precariat, suffering from, say, periodic bouts of presenteeism, decides, in his desperation, that he needs a break from the daily grind but also realizes that the state of his bank account precludes a trip to some exotic locale, what form of vacation remains open to him? All hail “microtourism”.

Oddly enough, I have direct and personal experience with all three of these expressions, coined by others, in the course of my duties.

As the self-employed owner of my very own writing factory (with a workforce of precisely two), I have been an upstanding member of the precariat for more than a quarter of a century. I can couch what I do under the mantle of entrepreneurship and boldly go where so many men and women have gone before. But, if I were to be completely honest with myself, I would have to say that, in reality, I’m just a journeyman odd-jobber – no different, at least in terms of economic security, than a carnival barker in a travelling road show.

Indeed, my occasional struggles with presenteeism have manifested themselves at certain times of the year when two or more contracts conspire to throw up concurrent deadlines. This invariably requires me to pull a few ‘all-nighters’, which can be fun if you’re a college student. When you’re a guy in his mid-fifties. . .well, not so much.

Still, there is something ennobling about surviving the hour of the wolf, between 4 and 5 am, just as early-bird workers rouse themselves to trudge off to their various hamster wheels. I am reminded of the old U.S. army recruitment ad from the 1980s: “We do more before 9 am than most people do all day.” Oh yeah, semper fi my fellow mutant mole people.

All of which makes microtourism a necessity. According to one official definition, a microtourist is someone who enjoys “collective, individual or family-identified/driven tourism that focuses on the unique attributes of your community – both commercial (smaller off-the-commercial-track farm-stays, B&Bs, tours and tour-routes, camping/fishing/farms/lodges etc.,) and especially non-commercial attributes (such as historic sites, flora and fauna, ecological assets and uniqueness).”

I’ll buy that. Still, I prefer my own variant, which I’ll call “backyard tourism”. Here, all the monuments are familiar and lovingly tended with compost. The entrance fees are waived and the tours are short. And, if you care to, you can spend an entire day digging, with your hands, into the good earth, listening to the birds warble, and engaging in the best sort of presenteeism any card-carrying member of the precariat has a right to expect.

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Attacking the roots of unemployment


Despite pockets of ‘jobfulness’ in New Brunswick, the more familiar phenomenon, joblessness, continues to haunt the highways and alleyways of the province like a pestilence against which no political or economic vaccine has yet truly worked.

This is not, of course, for lack of honest trying.

Consider the government of former Progressive Conservative Premier Bernard Lord. It had thought that it would lick the problem in a couple of years if only it could articulate a five-point “prosperity program”.

Consider the administration of former Liberal Premier Shawn Graham. It had believed that it would secure job-creation funding within its first (and only) term in office if only it could sell the major assets of NB Power and, in so doing, retire as much as 50 per cent of province’s long-term debt.

Consider the reign of former Tory Premier David Alward. It had assumed that a careful, deliberate approach to managing the public purse during its single, four-year mandate would restore confidence to the private sector if only it could stay the course.

Indeed, if only.

In fact, none of these approaches to job creation were, on the face of them, intellectually bankrupt. They stemmed from genuine desires to right the ship of state, which was (and still is) listing badly.

A recent Statistic Canada labour force survey confirms that New Brunswick remains jammed on the shoals of economic perdition. In March, the provincial unemployment rate nudged up above 10 per cent, 0.3 per cent higher than the previous month. Of all Canadian provinces, only Saskatchewan posted a similar decline (though its overall joblessness rate stands at a mere 6.2 per cent; while the national average hovers around the seven per cent mark).

It’s tough to fault New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant for asking the province’s citizens to be patient. After all, this blight descended when he was still a senior in high school. “We are investing in things that will help us have the best climate for economic growth,” he now says almost poignantly. “It will take time. . .to make a difference.”

Lamentably, time is another resource we’ve managed to squander. We should have begun the “Save New Brunswick From Its Own Stupidity” project a generation ago.

Let us assume, however, that the hourglass has not finally run down on us. Where do we go from here?

The lack of jobs in New Brunswick is not the problem. It is merely the most obvious symptom of the problem. Attacking a symptom of an underlying disease might afford temporary comfort and respite from the ravages of illness, but it won’t cure the patient.

The root of this province’s jobs crisis runs deep into social mores that have kept an unacceptably large proportion of New Brunswickers functionally illiterate, unable to operate with even basic math skills and broadly unaware of their own diverse, ethnically rich heritage.

Within this context, jobs have become large corporations’ and governments’ duty to supply; they are not, as they should be, the productive outcomes of innovative entrepreneurs working diligently to make their neighbors and family members competitive with everyone else in the world.

If we are determined to excise the joblessness disease from the body politic in New Brunswick, we must ensure that every kid here gets a Grade A education in both official languages; in math, science, history, economics, and tcrucial mechanical trades.

We must insist that cultivating the next generation of thinkers, doers and entrepreneurs is our collective “Job No. One” in this province.

Only then can we truly start talking rationally about New Brunswick’s ‘jobfulness’.

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Compensating the compensators


A recent conversation I conducted with my very attractive, always persuasive in-house accountant at The Bruce Mansions went a little like this:

Me: “It has come to my attention that I earn less than a sparrow stealing bird seed from a pigeon on my own feeder. What are you going to do about this?

She: “Well, I can shoot the pigeons, but that’ll cost you.”

Me: “How much?”

She: “About twice as much for buckshot as birdseed.”

Me: “What about setting up more feeders around the backyard?”

She: “Yup. . .That would work, if you want to attract more pigeons and, of course, spend more money on buckshot.”

Me: “So, what’s the solution? I’m out of money.”

She: “Have you ever considered running for Moncton City Council? I hear the birds there have just awarded themselves a massive raise in salaries and perks – to the tune of $100,000 this year. Of course, all things considered, clay pigeons and plastic, pink flamingos might be a worthier investment in downtown development.”

Me: “You had me at $100,000.”

I must have been snoozing – having just consumed the great news about OrganiGram’s and WestJet’s job-creation expectations, about an expansion to the planned downtown events centre – when this news report, courtesy of the CBC, passed across my screen:

“Currently, Moncton councillors earn $24,789.72, but that amount will increase to $33,494.53 on Jan. 1, 2017. The deputy mayor makes $28,539.72, which will jump to $37,244.53. The city’s next mayor will receive the largest pay increase, getting an increase of more than $14,000 that boosts the mayor’s salary to $83,736.33.”

All tallied, that amounts to a 20-35 per cent pay hike in a single year – at a time when middle-class salaries in this city (population: 70,000), province, region, and country have nudged upwards by mere fractions since 1981.

Is this egregious? Frankly, the optics could not be more embarrassing to a city that bills itself as a lean, mean, fighting municipal machine.

The City of Toronto, with a population approaching 4 million, pays its mayor, annually, $184,666. It pays its councillors an average of $110,000 a year. The hourly rates it maintains for councillor staffs hover between $15 and $47.

The Halifax Regional Municipality, with a population of about 400,000, will soon pay its mayor $163,000 a year and its councillors $74,000 apiece annually. (This, after that city council recently approved cutbacks in the salaries it approves for its members).

All of which only indicates that, compared with their counterparts in other urban centres in Canada, Moncton’s elected officials were making pretty decent change before they gave themselves dramatic raises just in time for the upcoming municipal election. Now, some of them even bloviate on the hard work they must sustain whilst prosecuting what are, officially, part-time jobs.

But let us entertain that these positions are part-time in name only; that they are, in fact, more full-time than those of us outside city hall are prepared to admit.

That’s fair enough. But can’t some mechanism be found to award hard-working councillors with regular, annual bumps in their compensation packages that actually track those of the people they purport to represent?

Must we forever endure these public-relations disasters in the halls of government?

As for me, my in-house accountant advises me to hold off four more years before running for mayor. By then, she says, the good citizens of Moncton might be all too willing to allow me to roll in their dough for a good, long stretch of cutting ribbons and talking out of both sides of my splendid mouth.


Cybernauts in New Brunswick?


In his well-documented piece for Maclean’s magazine in March, Martin Patriquin – who japes that he “writes about Quebec and sometimes everything else” – makes a distressingly large number of good points about the tattered condition of New Brunswick society.

Naturally, we in “the picture-perfect province” bristle whenever a major, national magazine sets out to shine a light on our evident flaws – just as enthusiastically, perhaps, as we cheer when said magazine periodically rewards our universities with top-of-class status in Canada. (Yeah, go figure).

But Mr. Patriquin’s analysis is bolstered by several instances of “et tu Brute then fall Caesar”, all of them rather, well, revealing.

As quoted by Maclean’s, for example, Mount Allison President Robert Campbell apparently said: “You’d think small would be simple, but New Brunswick is the classic example of how that really isn’t true. For a little province like this, we just can’t get our act together.”

In fact, I know Dr. Campbell a little bit, and he has never effused anything remotely like that about this province to me. Of course, if accurate, his incendiary revelation doesn’t mean he’s now wrong; perhaps he’s simply discerning about whose lap on which he decides to spill the beans.

The same goes for former provincial, Liberal cabinet minister Kelly Lamrock, who Mr. Patriquin reports said this: “We’ve targeted our policies on just getting re-elected and so we prop up failing industries and we bail out failing companies. Atlantic Yarns went under and lost an $80-million loan. The government I was a part of lent $70 million to (Miramichi-based) Atcon, a failing construction company that went under a year later. The Marriott call centre closed. It turns out they were subsidized to the tune of $20,000 a job and just left when the subsidies ran out. And the list goes on. We have generally been about keeping the majority of people comfortable rather than attracting new people.”

Still, in the midst of this completely understandable ‘self-loathing-palooza-festiva’ comes word that all may not be lost to the furies of chance and negligence in this province. For one thing, we always have the cybersecurity industry – hacking the hackers ­ – on which to fall back. Don’t take my word for it. A guy from Israel was scheduled to say as much at a conference in Fredericton just last week.

Actually, Roni Zehavi, who runs something called CyberSpark, said it first in a pre-event interview with Brunswick News: “The first thing is to have a dedicated entity within the province. In our (Israel’s) case, it was establishing a non-governmental organization like CyberSpark that is in charge of establishing a logistical system and serves the table with the people around it and dedicated to growth.” His bottom-line message: “The government made a decision.”

Back to New Brunswick, where governments make decisions all the time – some of which are wise, even prescient.

The cybersecurity industry, or something like it, is not new to New Brunswick. Government-enabled investments here in the 1990s installed some of the most sophisticated IT infrastructure anywhere in the western world. Clusters of technology excellence soon developed around the province’s major cities. These persist, and with a little intellectual elbow grease they can take a bite out of a global industry that is, according to credible sources, expected to double in size from current values to $170 billion.

As Mr. Zehavi says, “I look at cyber like health care.”

New Brunswick might well look at cyber as a lifeline to long-term economic health, before the next major magazine in this country pronounces us all but brain dead.


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Biting the watchdog


When governments and their duly appointed protectors of public probity begin to feud, the result is always, lamentably predictable: The poison infects the body politic, and no one is safe from the vile cynicism that now, too often, afflicts our democratic institutions.

What, for example, are we to make of the on-again-off-again dispute between the New Brunswick government and its auditor general Kim MacPherson about their proper, respective roles in the province?

The former wants to clarify what she should be able to do, to whom she should be able to talk, and how she should be able to investigate matters that cross her desk as the province’s chief forensic accountant.

The latter wants to clarify what that actual clarification means.

The issue is the new, proposed Inquiries Act, a bill the Gallant government hopes will settle any lingering confusion about the operational independence of its legislative watchdogs (the auditor general, the provincial ombudsman and a handful of others).

But was there any real confusion, until now?

A report in Brunswick News states that the new bill, “introduced by the Liberal government last week includes specific provisions that could restrict reporting on public hearings and even exclude the public from attending. . .Now, the province’s auditor general is questioning the changes.”

In an interview with the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, Ms. MacPherson declared that she has concerns with one section of the proposed legislation – specifically the one that removes her authority as a provincial “commissioner”, a position which currently endows her with the same powers as a Court of Queen’s Bench judge to launch investigations and inaugurate hearings on her own steam.

As she said, “I have concerns with repealing that section (of the existing Act).” Furthermore, she stated, she worries about the coupling of one line in the legislation that gives the A-G genuine commissioner authority with another that appears to insist that these powers, nevertheless, defer to government direction. In other words, Premier Gallant and his relevant cabinet ministers seem to be saying: Investigate, but only if we initiate and approve the object of your scrutiny. “For independence reasons, I thought that section should be decoupled so that the auditor general, when and if (he/she) thought it was necessary, only in very, very extreme circumstances, would invoke the powers of inquiry,” Ms. MacPherson noted.

What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with an independent officer of the government – mandated to keep a watchful eye on all things the public is owed a right and a need to know about the fiscal apparatus of its society – asking important questions, and getting answers?

Conversely, what’s right about an elected political regime curtailing the scope and effectiveness of these duties simply because these duties remain, without partisan or bureaucratic meddling, independent?

Now, as if to add further mud to the spring run-off around Freddy Beach, the Gallant government has decided, in estimable wisdom, not to decide. It’s sent the whole issue off to the law amendments committee where bills of this sort go to be remodeled, or, as often as not, to die.

Says Attorney General Serge Rousselle: “This is not a priority for our government. . .That said, in the spirit of collaboration and to listen to what everyone wants to say, I will propose an amendment to refer the Inquiries Act to the standing committee on law amendments.”

Not a priority for this government?

Who, then, wins under these circumstances? Ms. MacPherson? The provincial government?

Certainly, it can’t be the voters who, witnessing these shenanigans, might be forgiven for the cynicism they feel rising daily and all around them.

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