Tag Archives: David Alward

The less promised, the better

DSC_0033Holding politicians to account for their various pledges, promises and vows is a little like extracting fecal matter from a public swimming hole. It can be done, but not without extraordinary cost, bother and nasal congestion.

Nevertheless, the New Brunswick government has introduced new legislation that would penalize parties running for office when they don’t fully explain and account for their spending platforms. Ironically enough, in doing so, Premier Brian Gallant’s Grits have torn a page from their Progressive Conservative nemeses, which had proposed something quite like this bill when David Alward ran the roost in Fredericton in 2014.

At that time, Blaine Higgs, the current Tory leader in this province, had this to say when he was merely his government’s finance minister: “Elected representatives must be accountable for taxpayers’ dollars, not only when making commitments to voters, but also when making decisions at the cabinet table.”

Even then-NDP Leader Dominic Cardy agreed. He avowed that the PC bill was “a pretty good idea”. Specifically, he said, “I think there is a responsibility for parties that if we are going to be getting access to public money, as all the parties in New Brunswick have, including the government, that we have got to get out in front of the public and present platforms that have some connection to reality. And that has been a problem for all the parties in the past.”

Indeed, it has. But this proposed legislation by the Liberals – much like the one fronted by the Progressive Conservatives three years ago – is a waste of time, energy and ultimately money. After all, what, in this scenario, prevents a triumphant government from dismantling its commitments once it assumes office? What, exactly, assures honesty, transparency and accountability post-election facto?

Thinking about governing even a province as small as New Brunswick is a far different project than actually executing policy. Inevitably, incoming administrations inherit a storm of problems they couldn’t possibly have anticipated when they resided in the political wilderness. There, buried in the bureaucracy of office, are priorities, prejudices, jealousies, and fundamental structural problems in the public accounts.

In New Brunswick, that amounts to this: Health care is underfunded, poorly delivered and, so, broadly ineffective; social services, which still lay a heavy burden on municipalities, are perilously close to local collapse; education. . .well, ditto. Meanwhile, the province’s civil-service workforce (non-education, non-health related) is absurdly inflated, given the shrinking size of the general population and the anemic state of economic growth within the private sector.

Fiscally, our condition could be worse, but not much. With 750,000 individuals in this province, the unemployment rate hovers, at best, around nine per cent – about three per cent above the national average. Our annual deficit is about $260-million. Our long-term debt has now just skyrocketed through the concrete ceiling of $14 billion.

So, then, what does a piece of legislation requiring potential political leaders to account for their pledges actually do? Raise even more expectations within an already distrustful public arena? Pit one party against another for no apparent purpose except to feed red meat to the electorate?

Far more useful and efficacious is something that still remains unthinkable in this province, country and most of the democratic world: Good will, consideration, critical thinking, cooperation, collaboration, and multi-partisan negotiation.

If we really want change in this province, we might consider dismantling the ancient party system that has dominated politics since before Confederation.

If we want to hold politicians to account for their pledges, promises and vows, don’t clean the swimming hole.

Just drain it.

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Polling for the truth


If you are New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant, reading in a provincial newspaper that a recent poll indicates he’s no longer the flavor of the month among voters, you might be tempted to issue your own press release sardonically headlined, “alert the media”.

Except, oh yeah, they already know.

The relationship between the public, per se, and public opinion surveyors (and purveyors) is both close and ancient. It started sometime back in the 18th Century when a guy with a quill and piece of parchment stopped a passerby on a fetid London street and queried, “What ho, young man; what say you about the Jacobites? Aye or nay?”

Naturally, the results of such straw polls quickly traveled far beyond the coffee houses and gin dens and eventually made their way into the hands of the era’s pamphleteers who dutifully reported that, according to popular opinion, the king was a fool, the queen was a harlot and that even the most educated man couldn’t spell the word ‘Jacobite’, let alone venture an opinion on what it signified.

Thusly, dear reader, was born what we affectionately, if somewhat ruefully, refer to as popular democracy. As a member of the modern Fourth Estate who spends altogether too much time parsing opinion polls in the interest of hearing himself talk, I have. . .ahem. . .only one thing to say, a rare example of concision, if you will, amongst my ilk: You’re welcome.

Specifically, you are welcome to my conviction that public opinion polls are, for the most part, blunt instruments (with a margin error of plus or minus 100 per cent, 20 times out of 20) for digging at the truth about the electorate.

You are also welcome to my belief that the recent craze in this industry for providing online surveys to all and sundry (except, naturally, to those without high-speed Internet connections) only further blunts these instruments.

Still, let none of this dissuade the Angus Reid Institute from pursuing its appointed rounds. Its new survey indicates that 33 per cent of New Brunswickers approve of Brian Gallant’s performance in office. That’s a point lower than he scored in December, but a convincing improvement from his 25 per-cent showing in September. (Las Vegas odds makers must be salivating over their potential windfalls in April, when the latest provincial budget fully influences opinion).

According to a piece in the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, the premier’s performance numbers put him right in the middle of the pack of his provincial peers across Canada, which is a sort of glass-half-empty-glass-half-full result. After all, if a third of New Brunswickers like the man, then as much as two-thirds do not.

What, exactly, does that mean?

Former premier David Alward held onto power within the first few months of his mandate with less than 30 per cent of the popular vote; his approval ratings actually rose in the weeks before the provincial election that ended him.

Again, what does that mean?

In the Telegraph-Journal piece, reporter John Chilibeck issued the following caveat: “While Angus Reid says its results are based on a sample size that carries a margin of error of plus or minus 1.2 per cent, 19 times out of 20, the sample size in New Brunswick was the smallest, with only 301 people polled. . .The margin of error (here) would be plus or minus 5.6 per cent.”

Statistically, then, that would mean Mr. Gallant is either enjoying the best ride of any sophomore premier in the history of the province or the worst.

In either case, alert the media.

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No more Mr. Nice Guys


In a hotel room in downtown Moncton, I interviewed former Progressive Conservative Premier of New Brunswick David Alward, mid-way through his mandate, and found him to be genuinely interested, engaged and, more importantly, authentically decent.

He was as he appeared in video captures on the nightly news: an “everyman” of a certain middle age who was a little paunchy, a little red in the cheeks, a tad prone to wipe his brow when he noticed that the tie he was wearing was doing a workmanlike job of restricting the supply of oxygen to his lungs.

Naturally, as premier of a province that he had sworn to save from the so-called predations of his Liberal predecessors, he would never think to loosen that tie (not for a moment). No, he would endure the slings and arrows of outrageous haberdashery just to get his point across.

And his point, specifically, was this: “Let’s look at where we are right at the moment. We were left with a billion-dollar-plus projected deficit by the previous government. Initially, we came forward with a projected deficit of under $450 million. Now, after the second quarter (2011), we are over by somewhere around $100 million. A significant chunk of that was thanks to revenue reductions. We were also dealing with higher expenditures. . .in pensions, but also in social development and health programs.

“It is clear we need to get our house in order. And, just staying on taxes for a moment, when they are needed we raise them through (levies) on gasoline and diesel, and also on tobacco and liquor.”

He continued: “But the real point is we need to go and understand what services we need to provide. . .We need to know what our core values are, what our core services are and focus on those services. We need to find ways to deliver them more efficiently. . .It’s about how we can reorganize government. . . .In the last four years there has been a growth in the public service of 8,000 (positions). We have to look at the long term.”

How predictably appropriate it is that Mr. Alward’s Tory end game in 2012 so closely resembles current Grit premier Brian Gallant’s in 2015. How do you measure a political transformation when nothing actually changes, when nothing important happened today?

The awful and trite phrase “going forward” substitutes in all recent governments for bold policy. Its shameful connotation is the language of the dejected and fearful in public office: We’ll try, sort of, but don’t count on us to get anything worthwhile or meaningful accomplished.

And so, the differences between the Alward and Gallant governments on fiscal policy are perishingly small. Neither had, or has, the stomach to raise the HST on items the actual buying public chooses to afford, because to do so (political expediency dictates) would signal the end of the world as we know it.

Meanwhile, the long-term debt in this province remains just about where it was when Mr. Alward left office ($12 billion and holding). The cost of health care delivery and public education, though nominally static this fiscal year, will inevitably rise in the next three. And the possibility of raising real revenues from natural resources for public coffers is as remote now as it was when Mr. Alward confidently predicted a boon for New Brunswick back in 2012.

I have had friendly email exchanges with Premier Gallant and I have found him to be, like his predecessor, genuinely interested, engaged and authentically decent.

Still, I’m thinking, maybe it’s time for a barracuda at the end of my smart phone, for a good, long change.

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The goofiness of New Brunswick’s very own Fraggle Rock


It’s been a long time coming, but fracking has officially become not only the bugbear, the hoary thorn, the bothersome burr in the butt of New Brunswick’s body politic, but also its low, comic relief.

For this, we can thank former Tory Premier David Alward, who, while he was in office,  couldn’t stop yakking about the alleged 70-trillion cubic-feet of gas resting quietly beneath the shoes of all those who still refused, against all common sense, to move to Alberta, where considerations about air, soil and water quality are. . .let’s just say, petrochemically sanctified.

But kudos should also go to our new premier, Brian Gallant, who just can’t seem to make up his mind about a drilling technology that’s been deployed safely in this province for nearly two decades.

Mr. Gallant squeaked out a minor majority of seats for his Grits in last September’s election at the expense of Mr. Alward, largely by promising to put an end to hydraulic fracturing the practice of blowing water and chemicals into tight plays of oil-and-gas-laden sedimentary rock. A moratorium is in order, he declared. (Except, of course, it wasn’t).

Now, he intends to deliver one in a manner of speaking.

In an interview with the Saint John Telegraph-Journal last week, he stated, “We had a commitment of having a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. We will be presenting a mechanism on how we will accomplish that in the net few weeks. Now, whether it will be able to pass or not in the time frame that remains to be seen with how the opposition reacts to this.”

Oh, really, Mr. Gallant? The last time any of us checked, you actually held a majority of seats in the provincial assembly. Or, did you skip over the section in the Liberal party playbook, entitled, “Now that you are premier, here are a few guidelines to keep you from falling on your own sword; subsection 1.0, choking on your own words”?

To wit: Is the premier actually intimating that his moratorium on shale gas development in this province depends on how the provincial legislature’s minority opposition votes on the issue? Because if he is, I can save him the trouble of orchestrating an extensive, tedious debate. So, for that matter, can Bruce Fitch, Tory leader.

“We’re going to expose the gaps that we’ve seen in Premier Gallant’s initial foray into politics,” Mr. Fitch declared in the House last week. “Most premiers come in with 100 days of change. He’s had 100 days of chaos.”

The assessment is, of course, as harsh as it is inaccurate. The new premier has racked a couple of historic wins since assuming the mantle of office this past fall. One, surely, is his courageous decision to bring New Brunswick into the 21st Century on a woman’s right to choose how and when to continue, or terminate, her pregnancy.

Another innovative, though less dramatic, policy change is Mr. Gallant’s determination to open up his $900-billion infrastructure rebuild of the province to the private sector’s technology industries. That sort of thinking hasn’t been in evidence around these parts since former Premier Frank McKenna decided to transform 1990s New Brunswick into a Silicon Valley of the north.

All of which makes Premier Gallant’s position on shale gas development in this province perplexing, if not incomprehensible.

A man this evidently smart, engaged and studious a man who suggests that a proven technology needs halting even though that same technology can and is safely deployed to keep a potash mine, for example, in operation purely and simply boggles the mind.

Or, maybe, just maybe, that’s the big joke, the big kahuna of humour in all of this.

The Grits need an exit strategy from its ill-advised promise to the less than half of New Brunswickers who support a temporary ban on fracking. All the reigning Libs need do is appear consultative, inclusive, welcoming in a big-tent sort of way. Oh, dear Tories, won’t you please raise your hackles, sound your trumpets, and get us out of this mess we created.?

Indeed, Freddy Beach, won’t you please send in the clowns?

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Taking off the gloves four years later


Say what you will about Shawn Graham. But the man doesn’t back down from a fight, even when he’s almost certain to lose.

The former Liberal premier of New Brunswick was back in the news last week, and in a contemplative mood, sitting down for an interview with The Daily Gleaner’s Michael Staples.

Reflecting on the signature debacle of his one term in office – the failed bid to sell NB Power to Hydro-Quebec for a cool $4 billion in 2010 – he said: “That was one of my biggest regrets as premier that we weren’t able to get that deal done for the benefit of future generations.”

Does he still think it was the right thing to attempt, even though a goodly number of his fellow citizens did at one point want to roast him on a spit?

“We would not have tried as hard as we did and spent the political capital if we didn’t think it was the right direction for the province to move and the utility to move,” he said.

Does he blame the public for failing to appreciate the obvious benefits of such a move?

“You never want to to shock the public and, unfortunately, we didn’t have the benefit of time to educate the public on the significant challenges facing the utility,” he said. “People say it may have been the best possible deal but the communications was terrible. I recognized that, but there were challenges on how we could inform the public.”

In retrospect, though, I wonder if that’s strictly accurate.

Since Mr. Graham’s time away from public life, the province has welcomed into –and booted out of – office the Progressive Conservative government of David Alward, another one-term wonder.

The Tory regime was, for all appearances, dramatically different that its predecessor Grits in the way it handled the public.

Where the Graham government was perceived to be guarded, uncommunicative and even secretive, the Alward team was deliberately consultative, inclusive and even  chatty. And yet both suffered nearly identical fates at the hands of unmoved and unconvinced electorates.

Indeed, if we were to put Messrs. Alward and Graham in a room together, with no fear of being quoted before the great unwashed, and ask each of them to be completely honest, what are the chances that these two gentlemen might actually agree?

The single, biggest problem New Brunswick faces, they might say, is not the condition of its power company (which is actually pretty good these days).

It’s not the looming cost of rebuilding (or retiring) the Mactaquac dam.

It’s not public pensions overuns, illiteracy, innumeracy, childhood obesity, crime, mental illness,drug addiction, poverty, income inequality, or permanent, structural unemployment.

It’s not the $300-500-million annual deficit, nor is it the $12-billion long-term debt.

No, the biggest problem New Brunswick faces, the former premiers might concur in a moment of fearless candor, is that the province is rapidly becoming ungovernable.

Doing the unpopular thing (like attempting to sell the power company under cover of darkness) doesn’t seem to make any greater difference to the public’s generally low opinion of politicians and their games than doing the generally appealing thing (like refusing to raise the HST by a measly percentage point) – even though both moves, under the proper circumstances, could make eminent, good sense.

Frankly, far too many of us in this province find it impossible to conceive of a day when the economic engines and commercial levers freeze for good. It;s never happened before, We’ve always managed to pull through, demanding and pretty much getting everything we’ve asked our politicians to deliver.

And on those occasions when we don’t get what we want, we through the bums on the street, a move, if repeated often enough, tends to produce a political class schooled in the twin arts of supplication and pandering.

Neither, I hasten to add, are Messrs. Graham’s and Alward’s particular failures as politicians.

Still, it would useful to our long-term prospects if we could learn how to keep our leaders around long enough that they might do the right thing in the right way for change – even if the right thing isn’t immediately or especially popular.

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Shooting the messenger at election time

Leaves of grass for NB's labour market

Few in these jaundiced times espouse an unshakeable faith in much of anything. But those handful who do believe in the primacy, if not permanence, of polling numbers might be disappointed in events presently unfolding in Scotland.

There, the Scottish National Party, under the spirited leadership of Alex Salmond is rallying it supporters of independence before next week’s historic referendum, the outcome of which could redraw the map of Great Britain both figuratively and literally.

According to Griff Witte, writing this week in the Washington Post, “The once-unthinkable prospect that Britain could be ripped apart this month with a vote for Scottish independence became bracingly real Monday after the campaign to keep the three-century-old union together was accused of panicking amid polls showing the referendum in a dead heat.”

Indeed, “Just 10 days before the vote, the new surveys depicted a dramatically tightening race after months in which the ‘no’ side appeared to hold a comfortable lead. Although both sides have questioned the accuracy of the Internet-based polls, the pro-independence camp immediately claimed the momentum.”

In fact, until last month, Scottish naysayers (those who wish to remain in the United Kingdom) accounted for between 60 and 70 per cent of intended voters. The ‘yes’ forces, in contrast, had trouble breaking above 40 per cent. Now, it seems, those in favour of Scottish independence are nudging the 52 per cent mark.

This is why those of us who know a little something about statistics, approach all numbers meant to startle, scare or otherwise provoke only warily.

Still, election polls are notorious, not so much for their inaccuracy but for their unreliability from one day to the next.

For this reason, they’re also the source of some of the most heated debates, sometimes eclipsing all other, more relevant, issues, as candidates desperately fear being trampled by the herd mentality on voting day.

Indeed, when the circumstances are ripe, even some pollsters will wade into the fray. Witness, for example, Corporate Research Associates chairman and CEO Don Mills last week instructing his lawyers to fire off a stern missive to New Brunswick Progressive Conservative Leader David Alward regarding some unfortunate wording the latter deployed during one of his many stump stops around the province.

“CRA has been great over the years at playing games,” Alward had told an audience of supporters, following the release of its latest polling data showing the Liberals ahead of the PCs in popular support (49 versus 29 per cent). 

“You only have to go back to the last election when in the weekend leading up to the voting, they were saying it was too close to call or even that we were behind. In reality it was a 42 to 13 landslide.”

In a statement, Mr. Mills retorted: “Through hard work and diligence, CRA has built its reputation as a non-partisan public opinion polling company since its founding in 1978. Comments attributed to Mr. Alward impugn that reputation and imply bias in our work.”

If they do, it wouldn’t be the first time a frustrated politician has shot from the hip at political pollsters.

“Gov. Chris Christie wasted little time in taking aim at pollsters during his latest town hall event just as a recent poll found the governor’s job approval rating is plummeting amid the ongoing George Washington Bridge controversy,” reported PolitickerNJ last winer.

“The governor started the event discussing the weather, telling residents on another snowy day in the state that there are people in two professions who continue to get paid despite getting it wrong time after time. Meteorologists? Of course, he said. But according to New Jersey’s governor, there’s another group of workers in the same pool: Pollsters. ‘They don’t ever have to have it right,’ Christie said to laughs from the crowd.”

At best, political polling is an accurate snapshot of people’s opinions and attitudes at the time of asking. They can, and do, suggest longer-term trends. But the reliability of those trends is in direct proportion to the number of people who will never change their mind – who will, with an unshakeable faith in their own world view, vote as they say they will regardless of sound facts and arguments that militate for alternatives.

Fortunately, the world doesn’t work that way. Just ask the Scots.

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How to seize the big Mo at election time


With the federal Grit establishment firmly entrenched in this picture-perfect, if not so fiscally beatific, province, you’d be forgiven for imagining that the New Brunswick election amounts to nothing less than a dry run for Justin Trudeau’s 2015 assault on the capital of Canada.

In fact, the nation’s self-styled arbiter of all that is newsworthy says as much.

“Justin Trudeau and his Liberal team are using New Brunswick’s Sept. 22 election to test-drive their organization and potential policies for the federal campaign expected in the fall of 2015,” wrote Jane Taber last week in the Globe and Mail. “‘There are so few election campaigns in this country, you don’t get a chance to try things out,’ said a senior Trudeau strategist.”

Ms. Taber’s effort is a good piece of reporting: heavily sourced, thoughtful and mercifully free of the sort of rash and kited conclusions that all to often accompany press coverage of election campaigns in this, and every other, country that still enjoys a reasonably free press.

But is it, strictly speaking, news?

Federal-provincial linkages, especially during elections, frame a sturdy strand of Canada’s political DNA. Traditionally, that’s how various parties have crystallized the issues common to all voters, regardless of their provinces of origin and residence. It’s how they’ve synchronized their policies and platforms and, crucially, gotten the voters out to the polls on the day that counts.

Until only a few years ago, the Liberals had been past masters of this practice. Now, in New Brunswick, they’re at it again and with gusto.

Here comes former Prime Minister Paul Martin, providing sage advice to New Brunswick Liberal candidate Brian Gallant (for now, the statistical front runner) and promising to provide more from his treasure trove of best fiscal practices for cutting public costs, building economic capacity and managing expectations among taxpayers who, the best money suggests, will take at least some kind of hit should the Grit leader march triumphantly into power later this month.

Indeed, who can’t smile at the widely distributed photo depicting Messrs. Gallant and Trudeau disembarking from the former’s campaign bus somewhere near Fredericton last week? Meet the absurdly attractive and telegenic Liberal dream team, the new Hardy Boys of Canadian politics with broad grins and thumbs-up signals at the ready.

And the pseudo-filial connections don’t stop there. As Ms. Taber reports, “(Paul) Martin’s former top aide, David Herle, is polling for the provincial Liberals as he did for the provincial Liberals in Nova Scotia and Ontario, both of which won majority governments.”

Meanwhile, “Frank McKenna, the well-connected former Liberal premier of New Brunswick, is raising money for Mr. Gallant” (which, if nothing else, surely proves the truth in the adage that politics does, indeed, make strange bedfellows, as Mr. McKenna has been one of the more forceful proponents of shale gas development in the province – a proposition that Mr. Gallant has publicly repudiated as risky, at best).

Again, though, none of this is news. What is is the extraordinary lack of federal engagement on the Tory side of the fence.

When Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was in office, he made a point of embarking on extended whistle tours through any provinces that were readying themselves for local elections, going as far as to the press the flesh in constituencies if he reckoned that this would burnish the electoral fortunes of his fellow, regional travellers.

In this campaign, however, PC Leader David Alward looks, for all the world, like a political orphan rolling up to grocery stores in his big, blue bus that bears wistfully written slogans on its aluminum flanks – slogans that read, “Say Yes” to. . .well, your guess is as good as mine.

What accounts for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s light engagement – conspicuous by its spottiness – in his provincial confederate’s electoral ambitions, one suspects, has less to do with Mr. Alward and his policies and more to do with the democratic culture that informs Ottawa’s ruling class nowadays.

After all, to it, the political fortunes of one or two provinces are far less important than the grand sweep of right-wing reforms that guarantee the approbation of the powerful and entitled.

Of course, as this audience still forms the minority of the Canadian electorate, Mr. Trudeau may have already won his election even as Mr. Gallant seeks his own mandate beyond being a handmaiden to federal power.

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Scrubbing the ‘politics’ from politics


It’s stunning how political even the effort to appear apolitical becomes during an election campaign.

Take all three principal leaders vying for that vaunted (thankless?) job of premier of New Brunswick this month.

In one corner of the province, Progressive Conservative honcho David Alward unveils a plan that promises to excise politics from educational policy making and programming. In fact, he said this week, “this is an approach that transcends politics and includes sound curriculum development policies, engagement from parents, educators, district education councils and researchers.”

Indeed, he insists, “politicians shouldn’t be making day-to-day or year-to-year decisions that affect the classroom.”

Elsewhere on the campaign trail, Liberal Leader Brian Gallant issues his statement on education, wondering, in effect, if a Tory echo machine is dogging his public appearances.

“We have to have a plan that will be long term, one that’s going to be based on evidence, going to have commitment and engagement of all people involve,” he says.

Not only that, he declares, “we need to take the politics out of this and sit down with educators, parents, students and stakeholders to build an action plan to improve our education system. . .We think having a 10-year plan, where we invite other political parties to play a role in guiding the plan is the right step for our province moving forward. It’s going to be important to put politics aside.”

Then there’s NDP commander Dominic Cardy who also believes, not surprisingly, that vile politics has poisoned the wellspring of educational achievement and opportunity in New Brunswick.

“We need to back away from having the politicians decide the curriculums, and instead talk about the outcomes we want to see,” he opines reasonably.

Here we have that most precious of spectacles, rarely seen in public: complete and utter unanimity among three distinct campaign rivals representing three philosophically divergent political parties on an issue that cuts to the very core of their collective raison d’etre.

And the question quickly becomes existential: When is anything a politician says or does not, by definition, political?

Of course, the “let’s-get-the-politics-out-of-this (insert appropriate issue here)” gambit was bound to emerge. It was just a matter of when.

In recent years, public opinion surveys in jurisdictions from Nunavut to Nantucket to North Yorkshire have confirmed that the politician who successfully convinces the public that he genuinely despises the very craft he plies to win their votes. . .well, in most cases, wins their votes.

Consider the following item in The Guardian newspaper not long ago:

“Nearly half of Britons say they are angry with politics and politicians, according to a Guardian/ICM poll analysing the disconnect between British people and their democracy. The research, which explores the reasons behind the precipitous drop in voter turnout – particularly among under-30s – finds that it is anger with the political class and broken promises made by high-profile figures that most rile voters, rather than boredom with Westminster. Asked for the single word best describing ‘how or what you instinctively feel’ about politics and politicians in general, 47 per cent of respondents answered ‘angry’, against 25 per cent who said they were chiefly ‘bored’.”

The savvy politician knows that this is the general state of affairs everywhere in the democratized world. It’s one of his trade’s occupational hazards.

One solution is to never make promises, even ones that might actually seem plausibly keepable. Then again, that’s how Mitt Romney managed to give Barack Obama a second term of office as leader of the free world. The public needs at least a little red meat to chomp.

The other option, which Messrs. Alward, Gallant and Cardy seem to understand with implicit savviness, is to talk broadly and winningly about issues that are too big and important – too vital to our physical, emotional and spiritual well being – to sully with rank promise-making.

The alternative, don’t you know, would be playing politics. And responsible politicians don’t do that; play politics, that is.

At least, they don’t when they’re trying to win a political election.

Or something like that. It’s complicated.

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Meet the planes, trains and automobile campaigners


Having temporarily exhausted their rhetoric, for and against, shale gas development, New Brunswick’s front-running political pugilists are, by way of a break between rounds, tucking into an issue about which they can both agree. Sort of.

As Conservative Leader David Alward announced his intention to craft a comprehensive port strategy for Saint John and Belledune, Liberal Leader Brian Gallant introduced an ambitious, $900-million, six-year program to refurbish roads, highways and other “strategic infrastructure” across the province.

“One of the best ways to (create jobs). . .is through stimulus in the short term, like making strategic investments in our roads and bridges,” Mr. Gallant said this week. “We have a comprehensive plan to create jobs in the near term, medium term and long term.”

He keeps saying that and he may even believe it. Still, infrastructure spending is that least sexy of all campaign issues; that it invariably comes with what seems like a staggering price tag usually spells disaster for the candidate who embraces it.

True to form, Mr. Alward and NDP Leader Dominic Cardy were ready at the pounce.

“We don’t have any money,” Mr. Cardy said simply, when asked for his opinion. “You can’t keep talking about spending billions of dollars we don’t have. . .$88,000 is the preliminary costing we got on this particular announcement. This is the worst of old-style politics. They was we create jobs is by educating workers, not hiring people onto the government payroll.”

Not to be outdone for timely displays of righteous indignation, Mr. Alward said, “Every cent that he (Mr. Gallant) is talking about investing going forward and increasing means money is going to have to be borrowed because the revenues are not there. Wheat he is doing is saddling taxpayers today, New Brunswickers today, but very importantly, he’s saddling future generations with huge debt that is not sustainable.”

Should Mr. Gallant prevail next month, and ride gloriously into Fredericton, it will, indeed, be fascinating to watch the young premier make good on his spending promises, given the province’s $500-million annual deficit and $12-billion debt. Maybe he can pull it off without waving any red flags at international bond-rating agencies.

All the same, the voter is always best served when he or she is in possession of real numbers, if only estimates, to consider.

What, in contrast, are we to make of Mr. Alward’s plan to get strategic with the province’s ports? Apparently, the Tory leader insists, it will “help unlock New Brunswick’s export potential and capitalize on our capacity to be able to say yes to natural gas development.”

How much is not important, because, as the Saint John Telegraph-Journal reported yesterday, “Alward said there’s no specific cost to developing a strategy.”

That’s convenient considering there’s also no specific reason why the province’s seaports, which fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government, would undertake a planning exercise of this complexity without Ottawa’s explicit support, both moral and monetary.

On the other hand, apart from the funding piece (always the Achilles heel in these matters), Mr. Gallant’s scheme, if given a chance, might actually produce tangible benefits. Moncton-based economic development consultant David Campbell has actually costed out the investment and calculated the return.

According to the T-J article, “The Liberals say an analysis conducted for them by Jupia Consultants indicates that spending $150 million per year on infrastructure would create and sustain 1,702 full-time jobs over six years and return $13 million in tax revenue to the province, annually.”

Moreover, “the annual spending is expected to generate $92.6 million worth of direct and indirect GDP through the supply chain in New Brunswick and $113.5 million with induced economic impacts. That would include $69.7 million worth of direct and indirect labour income and $78.5 million worth of labour income, including induced effects.”

In the end, the Liberals’ plan to get people back to work – preparing the province for that fine, sunny day when its booming economy will require superior infrastructure – may be too costly. It may even be unworkable.

But at least here’s a bottom line, instead of the usual empty rhetoric, to scrutinize.

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Politicos in no mood to give straight answers


How sadly predictable are the prescriptions New Brunswick’s political leaders now issue  to treat the provinces’s various and chronic maladies.

Asked repeatedly to speak plainly, boldly and fearlessly about innovative, even radical, remedies for the runaway illnesses of budget-sapping deficits and debt, they pour bromides instead.

Consider their responses to two questions the organization that owns this newspaper posed recently: Would your party consider hospital closures; and does there need to be a change in the size of the public service?

Anyone with even a mote of appreciation for the challenges of health care in a province whose population is simultaneously shrinking and aging recognizes that New Brunswick hosts too many primary care facilities doing too many of the wrong things in  too many of the wrong places.

Of course, we should shutter some hospitals. We should also reconstitute and strengthen geriatric care in community health centres and consolidate emergency medical services wherever such moves do not compromise the quality of, and access to, the services, themselves.

Saskatchewan, a province with population comparable in size to New Brunswick and under similar fiscal circumstances to ours, managed to revamp its health care system in the 1990s.

So, then, gentlemen on the hustings, what say you?

“We’re not in the business of closing hospitals,” declares People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin. And just what business are they in? “What we are in the business of is finding ways to create a better system whereby people can have access.”


But no more so, perhaps, than Green Party Leader David Coon’s response: “In the abstract, there is no reason to rule anything out, but in the concrete does it (closing hospitals) make sense? I have no idea.”

Meanwhile Liberal Leader Brian Gallant is in a decidedly conditional mood: “If we can grow our economy, if we can create jobs, if we listen to people on the front lines about how we can be more efficient, more productive, if we ensure that we are more proactive about our health care system. . .we will be able to keep and maintain the infrastructure that we have.”

Sure, and if my grandmother wore a mustache, she’d be my grandfather. Sorry, Mr. Gallant, but wishing for a fundamental change in the fabric of reality does not a health care policy make.

Still, yours is a better answer than this from our current fearless leader, Premier David Alward: “We are focused to be able to build a foundation for an economy based on natural resource development, based on innovation, based on investing in our people so they have the right skills and that will allow us to be able to continue and invest smarter in health care, in hospitals, as we go forward.”

So, is that ‘yes’ or ‘no’? Would your party consider hospital closures?

Never mind. Let’s move on. What about the size of the public service? Whaddya think, men? Too big? Too small? Or just perfect?

You first, Mr. Coon: “Let’s just be practical. .and say, ‘OK, do we need these people to do this work to deliver a good public service and are they in the right places?’”

Yeah, but didn’t we just ask you that?

You next, Mr. Cardy: “It’s not a question of adding or subtracting people. . . It’s a question of what do we need to deliver the public services people want.”

Actually, the question that’s currently on the table is whether we can afford to pay for a civil service that numbers 50,000 in a province whose total population tops out at 750,000 on a good day. That’s among the highest per capita concentration of public workers in Canada.

Yes, Mr. Gallant; I see you have your hand up: “We are going to do a program review and that means we are going to look at every program, every department and every ministry to fully understand where every dollar is going.”

Fair enough, then. You’ll get back to us.

Finally, you Mr. Alward: “We’ve been clear from square one going back to our previous platform in 2010 – we believe that we need to continue to lean the size of the public service. We’ve done that in a very responsible way through attrition.”

Forget it, Mr. Premier. You had me at “lean the size of. . .”

Alas, it seems, a politician’s determination to turn a noun into a verb to express the virtue in maintaining the status quo is about as innovative and radical as it gets in this pretty little tableau of a province.

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