Category Archives: Economy

Some kind of wonderful

Given the torrent of nonsense that masquerades as rational debate these days, it’s a miracle that anything useful ever gets done.

After all, when some random troll requires only a Twitter account to convince an alarming number of otherwise reasonable people that a certain U.S. president, who habitually equates lying with statecraft, is a breath of fresh air in a “post-truth” world, it’s tempting to flee the public square and hunker down for the coming dark age.

Still, despite evidence to the contrary, all is not lost: Not everyone is either running for cover or gorging on low-hanging fruit from the tree of absurdity. Consider a couple of recent and nearby examples.

Decades ago, Moncton’s burgermeisters decided, in their wisdom, to approve the construction of a causeway to join their city with communities on the other side of the Petitcodiac River. It seemed like a good idea at the time: Commuters would love the faster traffic; businesses would appreciate the more reliable and timely delivery of goods for sale. What could go wrong?

Within scant years, the answer was plain to see. The river – once home to dozens of aquatic species, and a recreational fishery worth, according to estimates, as much as $75 million a year – had become a muddy, silt-choked parody of its former self.

Following a quick stop with her family in the 1980s to observe the Petitcodiac’s world-famous tidal bore – historically, a meter-high wall of surf that ran twice a day – American humorist Erma Bombeck stood on the river’s banks and watched a meagre ripple wend its way toward the head pond. “What the heck?” she quipped. “I retain more water than that.”

Over the years, attitudes about the river cleaved and hardened. For one camp – notably, those who had purchased property along the waterway and who, therefore, had skin in the real estate game – the status quo was just fine. For another more progressively minded cohort, the Petitcodiac’s sorry condition was economically embarrassing and environmentally shameful. Tear down the fixed link, this group insisted, and let the water flow the way nature intended.

By the mid-2000s, you could illuminate the dark side of the moon with the degree of daylight that shone between these two factions – thanks, in part, to the use of social media (what else?) as handy platforms for off-the-cuff fulminations.

Then, something happened – something extraordinary.

People actually started talking to one another. In coffee shops and council rooms, they exchanged ideas – real, considered (gasp!) ideas. Eventually, a consensus began to take shape.

What if members of the community compromised? Environmental and economic assessments were clear. Replace a portion of the causeway with a partial bridge that would allow the river to recover. Bank-side properties wouldn’t be negatively affected. If anything, their values would increase.

That was two years ago. Today, with the provincial and federal governments contributing about half, each, to the cost of the $62 million project, the renewal is underway. As for the fish, they’re back, and so is the tidal bore. Since 2013, surfers have come from as far away as California to ride the wave. Thousands gather along the banks to cheer. As for motor traffic, it, too, still flows.

If there is a lesson in all of this, it is not as rare as many might lament.

Would Halifax’s state-of-the-art Central Library, which opened in 2014, have stood a ghost of chance without the spirit of multi-sectoral cooperation – from community groups and educational institutions to businesses and municipal planning officials?

In fact, according to the library’s website, the effort involved “five large public meetings (while) staff and architects met with a number of special focus groups to ensure that (they) heard the voices of a wide cross-section of customers and citizens: African Nova Scotians, cultural organizations, persons with disabilities, First Nations, new Canadians, the literacy and learning community, parents and young children, and teens.”

Of course, the new library never was, and is not now, everyone’s cup of tea. But as a product of rational debate, collaboration and cooperation, it is pretty convincing proof that, despite the nonsense regularly issuing from the meme merchants among us, useful things actually do get done.

Call that wondrous in this fractious age. On the other hand, the finest miracles are still the ones we work together.

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An Atlantic Canadian field guide to surviving recessions

The one thing Atlantic Canadians manage better than almost anything else is recession.

When the economic wind blows cold, we throw another log into the wood stove and cinch our collars.

When our spending money runs short, we whip out a tin of beans and tighten our belts.

When others across the country tremble at the mere thought of stock markets circling the drain, we cast a rueful eye to the storm clouds gathering on the near horizon and mutter, “Yeah, what else you got?”

Of course, we’ve had plenty of practice. Recessions – or weathering them – are kind of our thing. After all, two consecutive quarters of what experts call “negative growth” is, relatively speaking, a permanent way of life along the East Coast. It’s certainly no reason to panic.

But just tell that to the chattering class.

In times of yore, when the mighty wanted to know the shape of things to come, they would instruct an augur to read the entrails of a small animal. Today, they’re more likely to consult an economist.

Are we, in the western world, barrelling toward another recession?

Yup, says Martin Feldstein, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and a professor at Harvard University. “Ten years after the Great Recession’s onset, another long, deep downturn may soon roil the U.S. economy,” he wrote in a recent edition of the Wall Street Journal.

Maybe or maybe not, thinks The Toronto Star’s David Olive, who wrote this fall, “The Canadian financial system is among the world’s most stable. . .

But that is small comfort for Canadians. The global financial system is intimately interconnected. . .At all times, the world’s 300 or so biggest banks, including Canada’s Big Six, have enormous short-term loans outstanding to each other. Which means that the failure of just one giant financial institution could bring them all down.”

Anyone ready for a second helping of entrails?

Never mind. Here are some hard-won – if not exactly failsafe – tips for surviving the next recession in Atlantic Canada:

Avoid obvious and precarious flights of fancy. I once worked for a guy in the United States who truly believed that starting a magazine in the middle of a downturn was a grand idea. After all, there’d be no competition. Advertisers would surely flock to his venture, begging to spend their marketing budgets. The lesson learned? Don’t start a magazine in the middle of a downturn.

Still, don’t be afraid to embrace the big, wide world. If we have jobs, we should do everything we can to keep them. But if we don’t, because, well, we just don’t roll that way, we ought to double-down on our enterprising instincts. Is there a promising, new revenue stream just waiting for our particular talents and experiences? Are there two or three or even four? Indeed, when the world finally comes up for air again, our bank accounts will thank us.

Be pennywise, but not essentially miserly. It’s important to know the difference, which is sound advice even when good times roll. Ask ourselves whether the dollar we’re planning to spend will vanish like rain on a sun-caked riverbed, or germinate the seeds of new growth. We might take a course that will upgrade our suite of professional skills. But, unless the world’s supply of wicker suddenly dries up, we should ensure that course is not applied basket weaving.

Finally, float like a boat. If history teaches anything about Atlantic Canada it’s that periodic highs and lows in the regional economy are like Fundy tides: They come, they go, and there’s nothing we can do about them.

So, we throw another log on the fire. We crack open a tin of beans. We wait for the light.

Meanwhile, we manage.

We always do.

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As the world of work turns

(This column originally appeared in the Halifax Chronicle Herald on November 19, 2018)

I may have dodged a bullet.

A report by the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship – a Canadian think tank established in 2015 to predict, among other things, when the Great Robot Uprising will upend us all – suggests that professional journalists are only 11 per cent likely to be “affected by automation in the next 10 to 20 years.”

By “affected”, of course, it means eliminated, eradicated, annihilated, or otherwise extinguished. That means my peers and I in the scribbling trade still have an 89 per cent chance of surviving the coming artificial-intelligence insurrection with our livelihoods more or less intact.

Not so, sadly, for accounting clerks, technicians and bookkeepers, 98 per cent of whom will be as extinct as the Dodo bird. And consider the impending plight of administrative officers and assistants (96 per cent), or air transport ramp attendants and aircraft assemblers (99 per cent and 88.5 per cent, respectively), or aquaculture and marine harvest workers (87 per cent) and real estate assessors (90 per cent), or fishermen and fisherwomen (83 per cent), or fish processing plant workers (73 per cent) or food and beverage workers (90 per cent) or general farm workers (87 per cent), or, for that matter, actors and comedians (37 per cent).

Here’s who, the Institute says, is in virtually no peril of loosing their jobs to automation: advertising, marketing and public relations managers (2.27 per cent) and lawyers (3.5 per cent).

Yeah, no kidding Sherlock.

All of which is to say I wouldn’t want to be an average worker in a currently mainstream industry located in Anytown, Nova Scotia.

Here’s the skinny on this eastern Canadian province’s major contributors to annual GDP in 2017, in descending order of economic importance, according to one website:

Real estate, rental and leasing (think assessors); public administration (think administrative officers and assistants); health care and social assistance (think, again, administrative officers and assistants); and manufacturing (think aircraft assemblers). Fourteenth on the list is agriculture, forestry and hunting (think marine harvesters, general farm hands and fish processing workers).

Of course, there’s always something called “survivor bias”, which The Economist defined, earlier this year, thusly:

“In South Korea, for example, 30 per cent of jobs are in manufacturing, compared with 22 per cent in Canada. Nonetheless, on average, Korean jobs are harder to automate than Canadian ones are. This may be because Korean employers have found better ways to combine, in the same job, and without reducing productivity, both routine tasks and social and creative ones, which computers or robots cannot do. A gloomier explanation would be (that) the jobs that remain in Korea appear harder to automate only because Korean firms have already handed most of the easily automatable jobs to machines.”

I once believed that if this whole writing thing didn’t work out, I could always sweep floors in a warehouse or greet shoppers at a big-box, discount store. Ah, how naïve of me.

So far, not even Robby the Robot can do what I do. Not yet, at any rate.  As I said, I may have dodged a bullet.

For now.

Alec Bruce is an author and journalist who lives in Halifax.

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HAL, are you out there?

To read press releases issued recently by federal and provincial government operatives, Atlantic Canada is poised to become the next North American hotbed of ‘artificial intelligence’. But does the reality live up to the billing?

The answer is as complex as a coding exercise. The phrases that come to mind are ‘maybe’, ‘not yet’ and, quite possibly, ‘no’. That’s a subtle ternary calculation that only human brains can, thus far, fathom (some more effectively than others, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s morning tweets on just about anything and everything).

Still, according to a recent piece in the Memorial University Gazette of St. John’s, NF/LA, Ottawa and that province’s investments will enable the institution “to undertake a three-year research initiative focused on. . .systems (which) teaches AI systems how to make decisions based on past experience and deep neural networks focused on learning about large data sets by creating AI based on the human brain.”

Added Dr. David Churchill, assistant professor in the department of computer science at Memorial: “Artificial intelligence at its core is about developing computer technologies that make intelligent decisions – to help us solve problems not only in academia, but in many industrial sectors as well. AI is predicted to become one of the largest economic sectors in the world, and I believe that establishing a state-of-the-art AI research lab at Memorial University will help promote innovation, motivate future students, and have long-term benefits for our province.”
That’s fair enough. I’m all for the type of innovation that will wean this region from the debilitating and downward spiral of our expectations. At the same time, though, the thoughfully sceptical among us must recognize that artificial intelligence is a denominator, not a numerator. And if you, dear reader, do not understand my point, then you have made mine.

The bottom number in a fraction (the denominator) will grow as AI technology receives increasingly more money). The top number (the numenator) must increase in tandem to extract maximum economic benefits from the largest number of people possible (experts who will apply their skills in this region to solve, in their own ways, innovation gaps, economic adversity and, ultimately, social dislocation).

Look at it this way: For every ten dollars invested in any form of AI innovation, you will need an equivalent number of professionals operating at top efficiency to produce one new job. In that event, what’s to stop the companies involved from moving to places where they might get 20 dollars of investment to produce two new jobs? Does this feel like a good deal?

Beyond economics, though, does AI acutally live up to its hype?

A wonderfully written piece, by Ian Bogost, in The Atlantic last March makes the following points:

“In science fiction, the promise or threat of artificial intelligence is tied to humans’ relationship to conscious machines. Whether it’s Terminators or Cylons or servants like the ‘Star Trek’ computer or the Star Wars droids, machines warrant the name AI when they become sentient – or at least self-aware enough to act with expertise, not to mention volition and surprise.

“What to make, then, of the explosion of supposed-AI in media, industry, and technology? Autonomous vehicles, for example. . .deploy a combination of sensors, data, and computation to perform the complex work of driving. But in most cases, the systems making claims to artificial intelligence aren’t sentient, self-aware, volitional, or even surprising. They’re just software.”

That’s right. And we are the wetware that created them. The question is only whether we remain the truly intelligent ones in our midst.

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Invest in kids, period

Sometimes, I feel as if I’m banging the drum slowly. What better use of public money is there than spending bucks on early childhood education? After all, the evidence is plastered on the faces of every citizen in this democracy of ours.

New Brunswick is doing its level best to reconcile education with cost. Still, policy makers here have not yet recognized that the price drops later when the investment arrives earlier.

Here’s what a recent Conference Board of Canada report says, according to the nation’s public broadcaster:

“Canada is lagging the world in spending on early childhood education – and it’s going to cost the economy in the long run, a new report from the Conference Board of Canada suggests.

“In a paper published (late last month), the think-tank argues that for every dollar spent on early childhood education programs, the economy gets about $6 worth of economic benefits down the line. Not only do such programs give kids a head start, but they free up parents to work and increase the family’s income, too. ‘The science is unquestioning,’ said Craig Alexander, the group’s chief economist and one of the authors of the report. ‘There’s clear evidence that kids develop better and stronger essential skills,’ he said, ‘and we can basically show that this does act to reduce income inequality.’”

Empathy, that linchpin of the bonds that keep society from running off the rails, has taken a beating over the past few years. One needn’t spend much time scrutinizing the headlines for evidence of spreading spiritual unease.

We saw it in the financial meltdown of 2008, and in the subsequent, public-sector fiscal crises that afflicted the world’s leading economies. We saw it in cutbacks to social services and poverty reduction programs. We saw it in our communities, on our streets and, perhaps, even in ourselves.

“What, Me Care? Young Are Less Empathetic,” blared a headline in Scientific American in 2011. “Empathy is a cornerstone of human behavior and has long been considered innate,” the article began. “A forthcoming study, however, challenges this assumption by demonstrating that empathy levels have been declining over the past 30 years. The research found that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years. To make matters worse, during this same period students’ self-reported narcissism has reached new heights, according to research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University.”

Does this sound oddly familiar at this time in the recent history of western civilization?

“The ability to see the world through the eyes of others is an economic imperative,” Todd Hirsch, a Calgary economist wrote in the Globe and Mail two summers ago. “If empathy were given the attention it deserves, companies would find new ways to please their customers. Innovators would dream up systems that save time and money. Conflicts would be resolved more easily. And maybe – just maybe – engineers would design products that are simple to use.”

But if empathy is such an important social, economic and technological enabler in productive adults, it is a quality that’s best and most easily acquired early in life, when the mind is young and supple.

In fact, one of the tenets of comprehensive, play-oriented early childhood education is teaching empathy to preschoolers: Putting oneself in another person’s shoes; coping with strong emotions; understanding and respecting different points of view, needs and desires. All are essential lessons to learn in a safe, positive, nurturing environment.

We become what we learn in this province. Let’s make that lesson endure.

The ‘Big Smoke’ – Part II

IMAG0604We walk down to the municipal park, my grandkids and I, past the garbage bins and recycle containers and into the broad, well-tended expanse of splash pools and basketball courts. These recreational areas are everywhere in some parts of Toronto. In a city of this monumental size, the idea is to get the kits and pups out of their tiny, fractional backyards.

It’s a downtown development strategy no one talks about in the burg that Drake named. Here, in Moncton, maybe that’s a conversation we should have. In every other respect, though, we don’t know how lucky we have it.

Late last month, the CBC reported, “All three levels of government (will) meet Tuesday in Toronto to figure out ways to cool the red-hot real estate market in the region, where average home prices have shot up 33 per cent in a year.

Immediately after figures revealed the average home in the Greater Toronto Area cost $916,567 in March, Finance Minister Bill Morneau called for the meeting with his Ontario counterpart Charles Sousa, and Toronto Mayor John Tory.”

As Mr. Morneau fretted that he is “concerned that dramatic price increases will have long-term implications for housing affordability and housing market stability,” Mr. Sousa added that he was almost scornful of those with “deep pockets. . .crowding out families who are trying to put down roots.”

Indeed, as the Globe and Mail reported in February, “Bank of Montreal is not backing down from a call that residential real estate prices in the Toronto area are moving too fast: economists at the bank are comparing prices to a runaway train. BMO recently urged market watchers to drop the pretense and acknowledge that Toronto’s housing market is in a bubble.”

The piece continued: “Chief economist Douglas Porter explains he made the bold call to reinforce the message that the market has lost contact with economic fundamentals and has the potential to become dangerously overheated. ‘This is not a near-term call on the market,’ he stresses, “in fact, given the outlook for interest rates and an improving underlying economy, there’s nothing obvious to meaningfully slow the market at this point,’ Mr. Porter says in a note to clients.”

Of course, for big cities around the developed world, there’s nothing new in any of this. Vancouver has, for years, been hobbled by absurdly high house prices. Rental markets have also been squeezed to the point where some reasonably paid workers have been forced to bivouac – if only temporarily – in their cars and trucks.

Still, affordability is one social measure of income and labour market stability, and it speaks directly to the equitable distribution of wealth. According to a Statistics Canada report, based on 2011 data, for example, “the population of Moncton census metropolitan area (CMA) was 138,644, representing a percentage change of 9.7 per cent from 2006. This compares to the national growth of 5.9 per cent and to the average growth among all CMAs of 7.4 per cent. . . In total, there were 58,294 private dwellings occupied by usual residents in Moncton in 2011. The change in private dwellings occupied by usual residents from 2006 was 13 per cent. For Canada as a whole, the number of private dwellings occupied by usual residents increased 7.1 per cent.”

Moncton is not yet in any credible danger of travelling down Toronto’s path. But safe, affordable housing is an issue that’s becoming urgent in almost every urban area of Canada. Wise political moves and intelligent social policy should mitigate the effects of runaway market forces – if we have enough foresight.

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Surviving ‘The Big Smoke’

DSC_0153Toronto was, once upon a fanciful time, one of the least assuming major cities in the western world. Affordable, polite, even deferential, it stood there on the North American landscape with nothing to offer but its reputation for blurting to the world: “Sorry, eh?”

Times have changed. I now walk through the neighbourhoods of my youth and witness the full-scale transformation of tiny shacks, which may have cost hopeful, young couples all of $12,000 to buy in the early 1960s; today they’ll set you back about a million bucks.

How do I, a Toronto boy, reconcile my kid memories, growing up in the city’s once-gritty, amazingly fun Yorkville district with the recent news?

“The average selling price of all homes in the Greater Toronto Area skyrocketed last month, climbing 33.2 per cent from a year ago to $916,567,” blared the Toronto Star last week. “The latest data from the Toronto Real Estate Board comes as policy-makers mull potential measures to slow the rapid pace of price growth. Here are some of the factors believed to be playing a role in the upward trajectory of house prices in Canada’s largest city:

The arrival of newcomers to the city is a frequently cited reason for rising prices. Roughly 120,000 people immigrated from outside of Canada into Ontario from July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016, according to Statistics Canada, with a sizable portion of them landing in the Toronto area. ‘(The city) is a magnet for both other Canadians and for people from other countries, and it’s the economic engine of the entire country,’ said Dianne Usher, senior vice-president at Johnston and Daniel, a division of Royal LePage.”

Then, there’s this from the same news source: “One of the culprits often fingered for soaring prices in the GTA is the lack of developable land. In 2005, the Ontario government introduced the Places to Grow Act, a piece of legislation aimed at protecting the Greenbelt and curbing urban sprawl. However, the legislation is often also blamed for escalating real estate prices, as some argue there isn’t enough land to build homes. Usher says the two land transfer taxes that Torontonians have to pay have also discouraged many from selling their homes, further exacerbating the supply problem. ‘It’s stopping people from moving up,’ says Usher. ‘They’re renovating and adding on instead of moving.’”

As we endure another round of ‘he-said-they-said’ nonsense in New Brunswick’s everlasting controversy broiling over property-tax assessments, we might remember that other municipalities in this grand nation of ours remain absurdly overpriced. That shouldn’t render us sanguine about our own circumstances, but nor should we jump to conclusions about the putative land of milk and honey that Toronto – ‘The Big Smoke’, ‘The Six’ – has always represented.

A place is only as accommodating as its citizens decide it must be. For my money – both figurative and literal coin – Moncton has been the most welcoming burg in my getting-younger life. It routinely opens its hearts and minds to newcomers. It may struggle with the condition of its downtown, its cultural cohesion, its frequently challenging school system and educational amenities, but it has never failed to improve, evolve and remain essentially liveable.

Sadly, I can no longer say that about the city where I was born, some 1,000 kilometres due west, up the track.

Shortly, my better half and I will board a plane to visit our daughter, son-in-law and their two beautiful kids in the gritty heart of TO.

You can bet that city won’t be blurting: “Sorry, eh?”

Moncton’s resurgo redux

 

If there’s anything supernatural about the much-ballyhooed ‘Moncton Miracle’, it’s that the city manages to thrive despite itself. That could be said about almost all successful municipalities, of course. But one look at this community’s downtown core, and you would not necessarily detect the urban energy and drive bubbling beneath the surface.

That, fortunately, may be changing. The city lifted the lid on its new plan at a public gathering at the Capitol Theatre last month, and the future of the downtown appears brighter than it has for years. As Mayor Dawn Arnold told the CBC, “We need to be intentional about that development,” she said. “We need to have a plan so that things work together. We need more people living in our downtown.”

Naturally, this is not the first time civic engineers and other assorted boosters have talked gamely about a downtown renaissance, within a broader economic development context. The city’s website currently carries this message attributed to Mayor Arnold:

“Earlier this year (2016), Moncton City Council participated in a strategic planning session to discuss priorities for the next four years. This session was key in helping Council to focus on our most significant issues, and shed light on what we must do to move Moncton forward. During our lively conversations, several key themes resonated loud and clear. We need to cut the red tape; we need to grow our economy; we need more economy. We must continue to leverage our existing investments and collaborate with our diverse private sector partners to make smart investments in the future. We are a community of dynamic entrepreneurs and skilled workers – we must take every opportunity to tap into the talent we have right here.”

Presumably, that means building and maintaining a vibrant downtown area. The fundamental problem, however, has had less to do with money and resources to get the job done than with a persistent, if not pervasive, ambivalence among some segments of city society. Even the late Reuben Cohen was a quiet sceptic. “I was born on top of a pool room in a cold-water flat on Main Street,” he told me a few years before his death, at 93, in 2014. “My father owned a grocery store next door to it. My mother would take me to Sunbeam bakery to buy cream puffs at five cents a pop. That was amazing. The big-wigs in the city would always head downtown to get their daily shaves at the barbershop. That was, I believe, 15 cents a pop.”

Still, he averred, “You can’t compare one time with another. You can’t compare an age when the only commercial games in town were, in fact, located downtown, with an age when cars and trucks take so many people so far away for their shopping and eating. That’s just the way things happen.”

Discussions about downtown cores always provoke existential debate. Should they cater primarily to pedestrians or drivers? How much and what type of parking should be available. Who constitutes the target market: businesses and office workers or cultural organizations and urban dwellers?

In fact, healthy, thriving downtowns typically accommodate all modes of life, work and transportation. That is the essential challenge of crafting a city’s personality beyond the big box stores, shopping plazas, strip malls and triple-lane expressways that make the outskirts of Fargo, North Dakota – visually, at any rate – no different than Halifax, or St. John’s or even Moncton.

As a fan of bustling urban cores, I’m heartened by this city’s latest attempt to reinvent its own for new generations of residents.

Bye, bye Gritty Beach

Well now, isn’t this a fantastic story of democracy in action?

First, property owners in New Brunswick complain about inexplicable hikes to their land taxes. The public broadcaster (CBC) investigates and finds evidence of incoherent policies. The premier of this province finally announces a new regime to prevent social unrest over this issue in the future. And one of his ministers apologizes fulsomely for any inconvenience.

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Who says I’m not happy?

All of which to say is that New Brunswick’s Liberal government is now busy instructing its acolytes and hopefuls on the best, most precise way to lose the next provincial election.

What could possibly have inspired Service New Brunswick to issue unverified property tax assessments to more than 2,000 homeowners in the province? Or, as Robert Jones of the local branch of the public broadcaster reports, “An internal Service New Brunswick email obtained by CBC News shows senior provincial government assessment officials invented renovation amounts for 2,048 homeowners with large assessment increases this spring, allowing the province to evade a legal 10 per cent cap on the homes’ property tax bills.

“The email, written on Feb. 9 by SNB’s residential co-ordinator Matthew Johnson, to 11 mid-level and upper-level assessment officials, says because there was not enough time to have professional assessors find out what, if any, renovations the properties might have undergone before tax bills were issued March 1, it was decided to invent renovation amounts for each home.”

All of which inspired Premier Brian Gallant to lament (again, according to the CBC last week): “The elected officials of government were not aware of what had transpired. We were made aware yesterday.”

Naturally, that prompted Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs to fume: “Not being aware means nothing was happening to protect the citizens of the province. Not being aware is not an excuse. No one cared.”

No, he, she and they did not. And that’s enough to upend a formerly popular, youthful, energetic premier even before the next election campaign fully leaves the station.

To his credit, Mr. Gallant said this earlier this week: “There is clearly a problem and we are going to fix it”. He added that Appeal Court Justice Joseph T. Robertson will head a “review of all policies and procedures related to recent assessment processes.” He also vowed that government factotums will be out of the property assessment business for good. Specifically, he said, “There was clearly a failure of process and communication within Service New Brunswick, and that is why we will be having an independent review to ensure we learn exactly what happened and it can be corrected in the setup of the new independent assessment agency.”

As for Mr. Doherty, he avowed this: “All New Brunswickers need to have confidence in the quality, the accuracy and the transparency of the property tax assessment process.”

No kidding, Sherlock. Still, he continued: “I sincerely apologize to all New Brunswickers. This is a very, very serious matter and as government we will do everything we can to rectify the situation.”

Will heads roll? Not likely. Will government officials be held to account? You know the answer. Apparently, dear reader, we a have a problem here. Will anyone in the province’s public service or legislative and executive branches answer for it? If you believe in miracles, then I have a fantastic offer on the Brooklyn Bridge just waiting for your crowd-sourced bids.

Is this an object lesson of laziness and lassitude in politics as usual? The next election in this province might very well answer that question.

This is, after all, democracy in action.

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Subatomic ambitions

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NB Power’s thoughtful CEO, Gaetan Thomas, is probably right to downplay the possibility of building a second nuclear power plant in New Brunswick. At the moment, such a massive project doesn’t make much economic sense.

As he told the Telegraph-Journal in an interview the other day, “I’ve had some discussions with the province. I know that our premier is favorable to the idea, but at this stage, there is no business case yet.”

Still, if the Gallant government wants to resuscitate the province’s ambitions to become a Canadian energy hub, other options are available and are becoming increasing practical and attractive.

Some months ago, Clean Energy Canada found that spending on the clean technology sector in amounted to $10 billion in 2015. That was the second-best performance on record. Said the group’s executive director, Merran Smith, in the report: “We’re living in a new era of political resolve to tackle climate change. . .Spending on clean energy will likely grow again in the years ahead.”

Intriguingly, Clean Energy noted, spending on the sector in Atlantic Canada last year jumped by 58 per cent to just about $1.2 billion. Given the region’s relatively small population, that result compared favourably to Ontario’s $5.3-billion investment in renewable energy in 2015.

Now, rip a page from a recent report by the International Renewable Energy Agency. It found that the sector “employed 7.7 million people, directly or indirectly, around the world in 2014 (excluding large hydropower). This is an 18 per cent increase from the number reported the previous year. In addition, IRENA conducted the first-ever global estimate of large hydropower employment, showing approximately 1.5 million direct jobs in the sector.”

Moreover, “The 10 countries with the largest renewable energy employment were China, Brazil, the United States, India, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, France, Bangladesh and Colombia. . .The solar PV industry is the largest renewable energy employer worldwide with 2.5 million jobs, followed by liquid biofuels with 1.8 million jobs, and wind power, which surpassed 1 million jobs for the first time. The employment increase extends across the renewable energy spectrum with solar, wind, biofuels, biomass, biogas and small hydropower all seeing increases in employment.”

What this should tell us is that there is a good life beyond fossil fuel without complicated benefits of nuclear energy. Of course, none of it will be easy. As the IRENA report notes, “In the coming years, renewable energy employment growth will depend on the return to a strong investment trajectory, as well as on continued technological development and cost reductions. Stable and predictable policies will be essential to support job creation. Finally, in a year when negotiators aim to carve out a global climate agreement, the broader policy framework for energy investments will also move to the forefront.”

Then there is the Donald Trump factor. He’s on record as a climate-change sceptic and his determination to speed up the clock on coal-fired power plants could present a competitive disadvantage to Canadian sources of renewable energy, especially in export markets. Sustainability costs money; and the return on investment is more often a long-term proposition for governments.

On the other hand, back in 2015, the CBC reported that NB Power would encourage small-scale green energy. At that time, Keith Cronkhite, NB Power’s vice-president of business development and generation said, “The beauty of community energy projects is that they would enter into a power purchase arrangement with NB Power. The revenues that we would pay toward those projects stays within New Brunswick and that’s an important part of any renewable program.”

Hope, it seems, does spring eternal.

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