Category Archives: Government

Real action on climate change

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We can debate the merits of New Brunswick’s new climate action plan until we raise the amount of hot air in the atmosphere to dangerously toxic levels. But, in the end, we are forced – some of us kicking and screaming – to agree that as government proclamations go this is a pretty good one.

Sure, it lacks specificity on what to do with the coal-fired generating station at Belledune (apart from acknowledging a phase-out sometime between 2030 and 2040). And it makes no promises on precisely which form of carbon pricing scheme it intends to adopt (an outright tax or a cap-and-trade system).

But where it falls short in some areas, it compensates in others – a fact that has not escaped the attention of normally arch critics of the provincial Liberals. “The premier needed to go the first minister conference with a good pan in his pocket and he’s got it,” said David Coon, leader of the Green Party of New Brunswick, last week. “It’s a plan he can put on the table alongside the ones the premiers of Ontario, Quebec and Alberta have put together – it is in that league.”

Others, of curse, are not so sure. After all, no one in politics gets a free ride in the plaudits department. As Kevin Lacey, regional spokesperson of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation told the Telegraph-Journal, “No matter what mechanism they choose to price carbon, it will be borne by the average worker who will end up paying the costs. A carbon tax is another in along line of cash grabs by this government. First the HST hike and now this carbon tax will make it harder for working families already struggling to make ends meet.”

Still, the mantra of this government – and, now, every other across the land – is that greening the economy and economic development are not mutually exclusive concepts. As some costs and prices increase, new opportunities for business and job creation emerge. Says Premier Gallant in the statement that accompanied the plan last week: “This will help us combat climate change in a way that respects New Brunswick’s economy, challenges and opportunities.”

In fact, the document is refreshingly declarative on the subject of environmental relief and economic development. “The provincial government will design and implement a clean-technology acceleration strategy that: Builds on early-stage innovation research, development and demonstrations (RD&D); accelerates clean technology commercialization; fosters greater clean technology adoption; and enhances connections and collaboration between business market needs and research expertise to accelerate the development and use of clean, low-carbon technology solutions.”

It will also “Create the conditions for growth and job creation in the areas of clean technology, products and services related to climate change in all sectors such as housing, agriculture, forestry, manufacturing, energy efficiency, renewable energy, information technology and transportation.

It will “Support a culture of innovation to pursue economic opportunities presented by our changing climate such as tools and approaches to adaptation developed in New Brunswick that are marketable elsewhere.”

Meanwhile, it will “Work with the tourism and recreation sector to pursue new opportunities presented by our changing climate and to promote New Brunswick as a world class destination. . .(and) take advantage of the large financial opportunities that exist through reducing energy costs and the potential for reinvesting the savings into New Brunswick’s economy.”

Naturally, there will come a time when this government – should it persist into a second term – will be held to account for its promises of greener pastures and jobs. But for now, the plan to get us there appears both prudent and possible.

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New Brunswick in the post-truth era

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In an age when opinions, belief and faith trump (pun, fully intended) facts, evidence and even reality, itself, it’s not surprising that the Oxford English Dictionary should induct “post-truth” as its duly designated word of the year.

Other frontrunners in 2016 were, in no particular order: “alt-right”, signifying an ideological predisposition towards right-wing nuttiness; “chatbot”, referring to a computer program with pretentions to humanlike interactions; and “Brexiteer”, indicating an individual who just can’t wait to rip up every trade agreement that tethers the United Kingdom to continental Europe.

Methinks, I discern a developing meme in all of this. As for post-truth, it’s an adjective the OED defines thusly: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

What’s next? “Thinkiness”, defined as the condition in which a person only appears to be weighing “objective facts” on his or her way to ultimately concluding that the world is flat, dinosaurs were God’s little joke 6,000 years ago, and Donald Trump will be an enlightened reformer from his perch in the penthouse of the mid-town Manhattan hotel that bears his name?

In fact, in New Brunswick, we can observe our own versions of post-truthiness rearing their angry, squalling heads.

There is, for example, the persistent supposition that governments (of both political stripes) don’t work, never did and never will. I call this the Kelly Leitch syndrome. You know her. She’s the presumptive candidate for the federal Conservative Party of Canada, who likes to sprinkle phrases like “average guys and gals on the street” into her regular discourses on the despicable “political and media elites”. Funny thing, that. Dr. Leitch earned a MD from the University of Toronto and an MBA from Dalhousie University. She was a fellow of clinical paediatric orthopaedics at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles in 2002. Today, she’s an orthopaedic paediatric surgeon at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. She’s also a member of parliament.

Can you spell E-L-I-T-E? Still, droves of New Brunswickers buy her brand of populism and believe, in their hearts, that, despite her academic pedigree and evidently comfortable affluence, she’s one of them. She “gets” them in the same way a billionaire real estate developer from New York “gets” the poor, benighted, unemployed factory worker in Flint, Michigan. All hail the rhetoric and campaign tactics of the practiced politicos among us. As for the facts. . .well, let us deliver a pox on all the houses where these reside.

What about refugees and immigrants in post-truth New Brunswick? Recent public opinion surveys suggest that this province’s long-standing willingness to accept and welcome newcomers into its mix is corroding. Only two years ago, Atlantic Canada led the rest of the country in tolerance and acceptance. According to a CBC report at that time, “In the Atlantic provinces, 86 per cent said they would be comfortable if someone of a different ethnic background married their best friend, while in the prairies that dropped to 71 per cent. In B.C., 72 per cent of respondents ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ that they are proud of Canada’s cultural mosaic. In another illustration of regional variation, 86 per cent of respondents in the Maritimes said they would feel ‘comfortable’ or ‘very comfortable’ if ‘someone with a different ethnic background moved next door to me.’”

Now, in the post-Brexit, pre-Trump world, these numbers are deflating in this region, in this province, thanks almost entirely to fake news – engineered by the gut – published on social media.

Thinkiness? No, just think.

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Raging rhinos of New Brunswick

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We, in this province, have grown accustomed to the deafening silence in the rest of the country that routinely follows those increasingly rare moments when we speak up about the shape and function of our shared democratic adventure.

Eyes in Ottawa roll languidly. Alberta just wants us to shut up. And British Columbia invariably asks, “Where’s New Brunswick again?” That’s likely to change if opinionated fellows like the nation’s auditor-general Michael Ferguson and award-winning policy expert and academic Donald Savoie have anything to say about matters pertaining to the Great White North.

Both are articulate, intelligent, accomplished gentlemen who have reached the apex of their respective crafts. Guess what? They are also fully bred New Brunswickers, accompanying others in a long line of folks from the picture-perfect province who, throughout history, have made a durable habit of happily upsetting apple carts in other parts of this 9,300-kilometer-wide country.

Consider First Nations leader and historian Joseph M. Augustine, Hollywood-based actor Donald Sutherland, poet Alden Nowlan. Consider world-champion boxer Yvon Durelle, singers and songwriters Edith Butler and Shirley Eikhard, and the globally successful food-industry entrepreneurs Wallace and Harrison McCain. Naturally, the list goes on.

But, lately, Messrs Ferguson and Savoie have emerged, in their own ways, as the preeminent emissaries sent from the Maritimes to the centre of the Canadian universe on missions of lecturing, hectoring and general gad-fly biting into the rind of the rhinoceros that is national politics.

Says a Postmedia report, published last week and titled “Mad-as-hell auditor general not taking it anymore”, Mr. Ferguson, “after five years of making no headway and having his words fall on fallow ground. . .had finally had enough. Tired of punching out reports and seeing them gather dust, tired of banging his head against bureaucracy walls, and tired of all the political dodging of his recommendations, Ferguson’s frustration came to a head with a riot-act lecture to government. Stop making the same mistakes over and over again, he all but yelled at the ruling Liberals. Start treating taxpayers with respect. Stop thinking of taxpayers last.”

The writer of this piece also observed: “Ferguson. . .reminded politicians, and the bureaucrats who serve them, that every dollar in their salary and the foundation of their pensions come from taxpayers who foot every bill, and that respect for them is rarely extended. So he challenged federal departments to start focusing on the needs of people, not their own internal processes. . .It was magnificent to watch, and to hear.”

Meanwhile, Moncton’s very own éminence grise on all things political, Donald Savoie, had this to say in his book, “What is government good at?”, published in 2015: “Though politicians from all political parties are talking about the importance of the middle class to social cohesion, it is not at all clear what they are proposing to do about it. The problem and solutions. . . are likely to be found beyond Canada’s borders. . .The work of Thomas Piketty and others suggests that growing income inequality is a global problem. . .As is the case with many economic challenges, dealing with. . .inequality is beyond the reach of Canadian politicians and political institutions, a reality that precious few Canadian politicians are prepared to explain. The goal is to win political power: making political promises and playing the blame game offers far greater potential than trying to explain why the middle class is shrinking.”

Oh, you raging rhinos of New Brunswick, tell it like it is until the ears of the country, deafened to our New Brunswick voices, finally open again.

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Open season on public servants

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As you scroll through certain toxic sectors of the Internet, the narrative is both acidic and familiar. Watch for them, you are told. You will know them to see them: lazy, wasteful, incompetent and, most importantly, egregiously acquisitive.

They are, of course, civil servants, public-sector employees, blithely leaching the economy of its essence, its ineffable grace. As the argument goes, never have so many done so little for so much moola.

But, wait, what about a fellow like Michael Ott? He’s a federal government scientist currently on leave from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. According to news reports, his bosses have erroneously paid him something like $30,000. What does he do? Pocket the cash with a wink and a nudge? In fact, a CBC item reports, “Ott has been putting aside every penny the federal government is mistakenly paying him.” His reasoning: “I’m more worried about the fact that in six weeks, if I haven’t paid it back, it’s going to be mess on my tax return.”

In other words, Mr. Ott is chiefly interested in doing his job and the right thing at the same time, which is the default position of virtually every civil servant in this country, in this region of Canada, I have ever known. And I have known more than a few.

Still, public-sector employees are the easiest targets in society for governments seeking to shift the blame for their own shortcomings and cowardice. They use words like “efficiency” and ugly tropes like “right-sizing” to justify their measures to voters who have been led to believe, staggeringly, that cutting jobs in one sector will help generate new ones in another.

“The Gallant Liberals will forge ahead with planned cuts to the number of people working for the New Brunswick government, believing there is still work to be done to ‘right-size’ the public service,” a Brunswick News item reported last week. “That’s despite a report that has found recent efforts have been successful in slimming numbers below the national average, defying a regional trend of a ballooning public service, and saving the province roughly $100 million in the process. . .The current Liberal government has already announced a plan to cut roughly another 1,300 positions from the civil service over the next five years.”

Why? Because it’s easier to pander to the popular and politically productive myth of the overfed public employee than it is to grapple with the inconvenient truth of a private sector that is no longer producing the good, sustainable jobs it once did.

Is this what’s behind the Nova Scotia government’s bizarre treatment of its teachers of late? The CBC reports: “All public schools will be closed Monday (yesterday) as the Liberal government throws a wrench into teacher plans to take job action over recently failed contract negotiations. Education Minister Karen Casey has decided to close schools province-wide but teachers are still expected to report to work. The Liberal government says it intends to try to impose a contract on the union.”

Added Casey with what must be the most disingenuous rationale by an elected official in recent memory: “Job actions could put students in unsafe environment. That’s unacceptable.”

Rejoined the province’s teachers union president Liette Doucet: “I would characterize (the move as) a means to create some division with the public. . .to make it seem like teachers were not going to ensure student safety. We’ve made it pretty clear that our first priority was student safety.”

And so it goes in this winter of our discontent: open season on public servants.

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Trumped on trade

Following the first presidential debate between The Trumpster and The Hillanator, Saturday Night Live staged a bit in which the comic playing Mrs. Clinton suddenly broke down and wept tears of joy.”

“Tell me, what’s going on,” the fake moderator asked.

“Oh,” said fake Hillary as fake Donald paused briefly in his bloviating, blustering and cartoonish posturing, “I just wish we could have the election tonight, right after this debate Do you think that’s possible? Could we?”

Millions of Americans can be forgiven for seriously wanting to be rid of this goon show unfolding before them with nauseating relentlessness. But those who think Canadians, and New Brunswickers in particular, have no skin in the game south of the border (apart from the sort of awful fascination that sometimes overcomes one when passing a car wreck on the highway) should think again.

Until it became clear, only recently, that Mr. Trump was unlikely to recover from the serious case of foot-in-mouth disease he’s managed to contract, some odds makers had the man neck and neck with the former first lady. A few were even predicting a win for The Donald. Now, New Brunswickers, who actually understand something about how our economy works, are breathing easier.

Mr. Trump’s opinions about immigrants (he doesn’t like them), Muslims (he doesn’t trust them) and women (he likes them just fine as long as they submit to his masculine irresistibility) are well known. Less so are his views on international trade involving the United States.

On that, the Republican presidential candidate had this to say in a major speech in Detroit last August: “Trade has big benefits, and I am in favour of trade. But I want great trade deals for our country that create more jobs and higher wages for American workers. Isolation is not an option, only great and well-crafted trade deals are.”

Regarding NAFTA, Mr. Trump declared, “A total renegotiation is what I want. . .If we don’t get a better deal, we will walk away. . .Americanism, not globalism, will be our new credo.”

Give the man credit for his talking points, but dismantling NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and installing an even more American-friendly trade framework would be a disaster up here in the Great White North.

Since the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement launched in1989, the volume of import-export activity in good and services between the two countries more than tripled. According to Trade and Investment Canada’s web page, “Thanks to this agreement and the North American Free Trade Agreement, the trading relationship between our two countries is so strong that we exchanged approximately $2.4 billion in goods and services every day in 2015. Canada is the U.S.’s largest customer, purchasing US$338 billion in goods and services in 2015. Canada buys more from the United States than does any other nation – including all 28 countries of the European Union. Canada and the United States are the world’s largest trading partners.”

Where does New Brunswick stand in that mix? In 2012, the United States was this province’s most significant export destination, with the value of inbound/outbound goods and services estimated at nearly 13 billion. The U.S. accounted for 86.3 per cent of the value of this province’s exports in that year, compared to 88 per cent in 2007.

Perhaps it is already occurring to certain Americans that what happens in their country’s political system has ramifying effects virtually everywhere else. A Trump win could ruin New Brunswick’s economy. That his chances grow increasingly unlikely is cause for shedding the odd tear of joy.

 

The take on clean tech

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Assuming my personal pantheon of household gods – including the one that lords over my bank account – continues to gaze affectionately at my ramshackle abode in the west end of Moncton, I can imagine one day installing solar panels on my roof’s southern exposure.

I can even divine a day when a compact, ridiculously efficient wind turbine installed against my back fence feeds power to my smart-grid controller, which, in turn, tells my fridge when to run and my furnace when to start. Meanwhile, my spiffy, new Tesla Model S sits happily in my driveway fully charged until its next trip to the neighbourhood electrical boosting station.

Flights of fancy are the territories of the future. But, in important respects, the future might be just around the corner if certain federal and provincial officials in Atlantic Canada have anything to say.

The extent to which New Brunswick may expect to participate in what’s being billed far and near as the nation’s “clean technology revolution” depends entirely on public and private-sector willingness to get out in front of these developments. That this province – which needs all the innovative economic opportunities it can digest – should not hesitate is an obvious no-brainer.

Not long ago, while making a speech in Alberta, Navdeep Bains, the federal minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, announced more $206 million in funding for 36 clean technology projects across the country.

In a prepared statement, department officials stipulated that “Investing in innovation, supporting clean technology and encouraging sustainable practices will help create jobs, expand access to international markets and make Canadian companies more competitive in the global economy.

“The minister announced the investment in Sustainable Development Technology Canada,” which will, among things, provide “support for clean technology companies at a critical point in the innovation spectrum: it allows innovators to develop and demonstrate their technologies prior to entering the market. . .To stay competitive, Canada must lead the way in innovation and must embrace opportunities to create the clean jobs of the future. The Government of Canada will continue investing in innovative clean technology projects that grow local economies and promote environmental sustainability.”

Minister Bains, himself, stated, “Now is the time for Canadian companies to capture their share of the global market for clean technology. From waste management to biofuels to greener solutions for the oil and gas industry, these Canadian companies are leading the world in intelligent, environmentally responsible and economically sound solutions in a number of key economic sectors. . . Canadians understand that a healthy environment and a strong economy are not competing priorities.”

He’s right. Canadians do understand this – or, at least, they’re getting the picture. A study released last month by the group, Clean Energy Canada, found that spending on this sector in 2015 amounted to $10 billion. 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.

The trick, of course, for this region will be learning how to transform its traditional industries even as it embraces new, cutting-edge ones. It’s encouraging that this process seems to be underway.

My hunt for solar panels might not be so whimsical, after all.

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Away in a manger

It’s a sign of the times, perhaps, that federal and Atlantic provincial leaders chose to meet in a barn the other day. After all, as any farmer will testify, barns are where the action is.

In fact, this particular barn was more of a renovated convention space located on federal Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay’s bucolic property in rural Prince Edward Island, but the significance of the location wasn’t lost on anyone observing the rare conclave of government officials. They had come, ostensibly, to get things done. And, by all accounts, they succeeded.

According to a news release, “The Government of Canada and the governments of the four Atlantic Provinces are working together to build a vibrant economic future for Atlantic Canada by focussing their efforts and resources to stimulate the region’s economy, support the middle class and address both long standing and emerging regional challenges.”

Specifically, the group – which included premiers Stephen McNeil, Brian Gallant, Wade MacLauchlan and Dwight Ball, and federal ministers MacAulay, John McCallum, Scott Brison, Dominic LeBlanc, Navdeep Bains, and Judy Foote – announced a new plan to “stimulate the region’s economy, support both innovative and resource-based industries, and increase job opportunities for Atlantic Canadians.”

High on the list was a commitment to boost immigration to the region. According to the post-meeting communiqué, “The first area of action focuses on skilled workforce and immigration with the introduction of a new three-year immigration pilot project aimed at addressing the unique labour market challenges in Atlantic Canada.

“When in place, the pilot project will help to better match the needs of local employers with the skill sets of immigrants while helping to improve the attraction and retention of newcomers in Atlantic Canada. Through this project the Government ‎will admit up to 2,000 immigrants and accompanying families in 2017, with rising numbers in the following years depending on performance. This is a substantial increase, amounting to almost half the current number of provincial nominees in Atlantic Canada. The federal and provincial governments will continue to undertake cooperative actions that will bring stable and long-term economic prosperity in Atlantic Canada and additional joint actions will be unveiled over the coming months.”

This is eminently good news, and for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, it demonstrates, for the first time in a very long time, that federal and provincial leaders are both able and willing to work together. Gone, one hopes, are the days of table-thumping and hand-wringing that were so unproductively numerous during the years of Conservative reign in Ottawa.

Secondly, and even more importantly, the decision to actively increase immigration to the region – a crucial bulwark of long-term prosperity for each of the Atlantic Provinces – is a clear indication that our elected officials not merely understand the key challenges facing the economy, but are actually equipped to do something about them.

Said Wade MacLauchlan, Premier of Prince Edward Island, in a statement: “To build on our successes and create sustained prosperity for Prince Edward Island, we must grow our workforce and continue to foster an environment of innovation and entrepreneurship. Working together with our Atlantic, federal and community partners, we will grow our population and create economic opportunities for the Atlantic Region.”

This might not sound like much. But consider the rising tide of acrimony, anger and outright hate welling in other parts of the world. The Atlantic region, and Canada as a whole, stands in sharp contrast to the vicious anti-immigrant rhetoric in the United States and Europe – a beacon of light, as it were, from a barn by the bay.

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The HST bogeyman

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Okay, I get it. Everyone hates taxes. But there are taxes and then there are taxes – a distinction that certain business groups and assorted advocates routinely refuse to make as they stir their various pots of public outrage.

Here’s the background, courtesy of Chris Morris, who works the Legislature Bureau of the Saint John Telegraph-Journal: “According to numbers obtained from the provincial government through a right to information request, the (Canadian Taxpayers Federation) said (last) Monday promised tax credits won’t cover the additional costs for average working families.”

She continued: “The harmonized sales tax in New Brunswick will increase by two percentage points on Friday, Canada Day, to 15 per cent from 13 per cent. Kevin Lacey, Atlantic director of the taxpayers federation, a not-for-profit citizens group that lobbies for low taxes, said figures obtained from the Finance Department show that of the 331,309 households in the province, 225,361 – or 68 per cent – will pay more tax even after HST credits are factored in.”

As for Mr. Lacey, here’s what he told Ms. Morris in an interview: “If you are an average, middle-class working family, you are still going to pay big dollars under this HST increase. That is on top of income tax increases brought in three years ago. New Brunswick is going in the wrong direction with regard to taxes. Taxpayers are shelling out more and more every year.”

I understand that Mr. Lacey has a job to do, and more power to him. But a couple of things occur.

Firstly, the income-tax hike in New Brunswick came after a sustained period of income-tax reductions. So, as economists like to quip, it’s a zero-sum game. That said, taxes on income must be the most inequitable way possible to separate a middle-class family from its money.

The poor pay little or no taxes on their earnings. The rich have, at their disposal, plethora schemes (legal and otherwise) to avoid levies on their fat hauls. It’s the poor slobs in the middle (meaning, most of us) who bear the brunt of satisfying the taxman.

Secondly, virtually every economist in the world agrees that taxes like the HST, which is a consumption claw-back, is vastly more efficient and fair than an income one, as long as the former is not regressive – that is, it doesn’t hit the poor disproportionately hard, as they tend to spend most of what they earn.

As Laval University economist Stephen Gordon wrote in the Globe and Mail a few years ago, “The basic idea comes down to the role of taxes in determining the rate of return on investment. Higher returns generate higher levels of investment and – as investment accumulates – higher levels of productive capacity. That increased capacity in turn generates higher levels of output, employment and wages.”

On the other hand, he noted, income and corporate taxes reduce rates of return to the point where stuff doesn’t get done and people don’t get employed. Consumption taxes, meanwhile, levels out the playing field: You pay on what you buy. Again, though, they only work fairly if those who have little money to purchase anything qualify for timely rebates.

If the middle class does exist in New Brunswick (and the jury is still deliberating that point), Mr. Lacey and his ilk should advocate for rollbacks in taxes on income, not cuts to a regulated, humanely applied regime of consumption levies.

Even more useful might be pushing for a system that does not slip into regressive HST charges on the very people the Taxpayers Federation represents.

After all, some taxes are better than others.

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Canada Day in Mariexit

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It is July 1, 2036, ten years after Maritime economic union prompted the full political amalgamation of Canada’s former east-coast provinces.

The regional nation still maintains what its political leaders insist is a strong and productive relationship with the Great White North, though tensions over energy agreements with the newly formed Republic of Newfoundland and Labrador occasionally flare.

Overall, however, the consensus in this sea-bound jurisdiction is that life is pretty good. Since the Mariexit from Confederation, the area has become a dynamic tourism destination for people who actually have money. It’s one of North America’s leading purveyors of geriatric care. Its manufacturing industries – dominated by artisanal outfits specializing in bespoke booze, recreational marijuana, all-weather outdoor clothing, and ceramics (lots and lots of ceramics) – generate almost enough tax dollars to pay off a fraction of the government’s debt every year.

Who cares that it hasn’t been able to afford its universities and colleges in years, or that its export trade in homegrown technology has all but ground to a halt, or that virtually no one under the age of 45 lives there anymore?

It cherishes its independence above all things.

Now, if it could only figure out where to locate its national capital region.

A good flight of fancy is always a useful way to address the question, “Where are they now?” In this case, whatever happened to Maritime Union?

Not too many years ago, a version of it cropped up on the convention floors of vision conferences. The assembled participants called it Atlantica, a crucial feature of which would be a cross-border partnership with New England. Writing recently in Progressmedia, Perry B. Newman, the president of an international business development and consulting firm based in Portland, Maine, reflected on those heady days.

“More than a decade has passed, and much has been done to advance the notion of a cross-border region whose economies are linked, and whose assets might take their place (in) the world” he wrote. “But it’s clear that more needs to be done, and it’s equally clear that we need our vision to evolve.”

He added: “Of course, it must be said that we’re not working (or thinking) in a vacuum. Even as we advocated for better connectivity and the reduction of barriers to trade and the movement of goods, during the intervening years the world turned upside down in ways that directly affected the vision and realization of a cross-border economic region.”

Indeed, it did. In fact, it’s still turning. Brexit is proof of that. And this raises an interesting paradox. At what point does successful economic integration among like-minded nations, states and provinces lead to their political separation from existing arrangements, such as, for the sake of argument, Canadian Confederation?

Most experts insist that this extrapolation is absurd. Still, most experts were fatally wrong about Britain’s decision to leave the European Union last week. Admittedly, that move was the reverse of migrating from economic tethers among countries to a single political entity incorporating all. (No United States of Europe is ever likely to emerge). But the principle is the same. When people are invited to think about their economic fortunes and conditions, they are prone to consider their political ones as well.

At its heart, though, the tenets of economic union in the Maritimes are sound – even if they only extend to a full examination of the often-pernicious effects of inter-provincial trade barriers.

We need not worry about a dystopian Mariexit as we forge ways to band together in our joint interest along the East Coast of Canada.

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Whole ‘loto’ money

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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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