Tag Archives: Donald Savoie

Raging rhinos of New Brunswick


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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Race to the bottom

Who says I'm not happy?

Who says I’m not happy?

In his forthcoming book, What is Government Good At?, the University of Moncton’s Donald Savoie – one of New Brunswick’s leading public intellectuals – properly laments the erosion in Canada’s public services.

“Government is now a big whale that can’t swim, that can’t keep up with the fast-changing global economy,” he writes in a recent commentary for the Globe and Mail. “It has too many management layers, too many oversight bodies and too many public servants generating performance reports that feed a fabricated bottom line that has no footing.”

Dr. Savoie, the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Government at UdeM, adds, “government is now also home to too many conflicting goals and has piled on too many activities on top of one another. In the process, it has lost sight of its core responsibilities, including managing effectively a regulatory regime that not only is able to set standards, but also to make sure that they are respected, as Lac-Mégantic so clearly demonstrated. Notwithstanding high-profile program reviews, the government still relies on across-the-board cuts to control spending.”

Apart from this, and probably more troubling, “When it comes to managing operations, the Canadian government has lost ground. Contrary to the private sector and given the centralization of power around the Prime Minister, government managers have learned the art of delegating up rather than down. Too many decisions, including purely management ones, end up with the Prime Minister and his courtiers.”

None of which is especially new to veteran watchers of the politics-as-crowd-control shenanigans on Parliament Hillywood in recent years. But Dr. Savoie raises points that need to be screamed, repeatedly, from the rooftops of every outpost of democracy that can be located in the Canadian hinterland.

On the other hand, observing what the federal government – indeed, most, if not all, governments – are good at these days might serve the thesis just as well.

If, for example, they are becoming less-than-skilled managers of their own policies and programs, they remain extraordinarily competent manipulators of their public image, especially in years when an election looms.

“Canada’s Economic Action Plan (EAP) is working,” the government web site blares. “Since the recession, over 1.2 million net new jobs have been created. EAP 15 builds on this record of achievement with positive measures to create jobs, growth and long-term prosperity.”

What’s more, “EAP 2015 continues the Government’s focus on lowering taxes for Canadian families. New measures in EAP 2015 will help Canadians save more, make it easier for seniors to preserve more of their retirement savings, and give families greater peace of mind. . .(It) will lower taxes for businesses even further and encourage job-creating investment in Canada by encouraging investment in manufacturing. . .and supporting business innovation in key sectors.”

Never mind that associating job recovery with a specific government program is the oldest trick in the political playbook. Never mind that slapping a brand on what amounts to standard nuts-and-bolts economic planning is spin-doctoring at its least artful.

The only important question is whether Canadians are more or less satisfied with the government they last elected. According to the polling firm, Ipsos Reid last week, “If the election were held tomorrow, the NDP under Thomas Mulcair would receive 35 per cent of the decided vote, up 5 points since last month, largely on gains made in Ontario and in the west. In contrast, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals (29 per cent, down 2 points) and Stephen Harper’s Conservatives (28 per cent, down 3 points) are losing ground.”

Perhaps, lately, we’ve been reading a bit too much of Donald Savoie.

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Tuning out our insular attitudes


In the time-honored practice of central Canadian commentary about what’s ruining the economically flaccid East Coast, only one thing’s more annoying to a Maritimer than a diatribe that manages to get it completely wrong.

And that’s one that manages to get it utterly right.

Globe and Mail writer-at-large John Ibbitson’s lengthy piece, entitled “The incredible shrinking region”, in that newspaper’s Focus section last Saturday, left me with the urge both to pat him on the back and punch him in the nose.

That, in an odd way, is his point.

“Disaster looms unless Maritimers work together to reverse the slide – and, in some respects, adjust their thinking,” Mr. Ibbitson writes.

Quoting University of Prince Edward Island political scientist Peter McKenna, he observes that “the Maritimes enjoy strong social cohesion. . .‘You don’t get that sharp polarization’ between left and right seen elsewhere in Canada. But there is also a downside: ‘a particular resistance to change.’”

University of Moncton economist Donald Savoie concurs and believes he knows what’s behind Atlantic Canadian intractability. “Our region, more than any other. . .remains rural,” he tells Mr. Ibbitson. “New ideas and thinking usually come from urban areas, which are home to universities, innovation and less social and religious pressure.” Crucially, though, Mr. Savoie says, “Our region also lacks the energy, entrepreneurial spirit and the desire for a fresh start that new Canadians bring.”

Ouch, indeed!

Is there a solution? Mr. Ibbitson and the men and women he interviewed for his story like to think so.

First, stop looking to Ottawa for bandaids. Governing politicos and their bureaucratic factotums there couldn’t care less about us.

Second, make sure that the Atlantic region’s private enterprisers are actually equipped to grow their various provincial economies.

Third, acknowledge that urban, not rural, centers are where the true action occurs. (A place like Greater Moncton, for example, already seeds southeastern New Brunswick’s villages and hamlets with far more economic capacity than they can, and do, account for on their own).

Fourth, create a single, inter-provincial trade zone in the Maritimes where modern – not archaic – principles of commerce encourage productive collaboration on government procurement, labour mobility and skills and professional accreditation.

Fifth, and finally, attract and retain immigrants. Lots of them.

As perspicacious as Mr. Ibbitson’s piece is, he is not the first (nor will he be the last) to imagine that these measures are long-term solutions to Maritime malaise.

The enduring problem in this part of Canada, however, has never been understanding the dimension of our collective economic difficulty, or even crafting handy steps to resolve it. The problem has been that we’ve never really wanted to confront any challenge that extends beyond our individual front doors or back fences.

The real conundrum here is not the fiscal morass that besets our governments or the associated demographic perils of low birth rates, aging producers and accelerating outmigration. The real peril is that though we know well what to do with ourselves, we simply choose to do precisely nothing.

In fairness to us, this is not a pathology exclusive to the Maritimes. “Head-in-the-sanditis” is now rampant in Toronto, Vancouver and Alberta, where home-buyers still leverage their futures against absurdly overpriced shacks on the wholly discredited notion that the status quo in human affairs is, somehow, an immutable law of nature.

It isn’t, and we on the East Coast should know this better than anyone in the country. More’s the pity, and the shame.

What is ruining the economically flaccid East Coast? It’s not central Canadian commentators. It’s not even Stephen Harper.

It’s just us. It has always been just us.

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A modest proposal for New Brunswick

We could sell the snow. There's plenty of that

We could sell the snow. There’s plenty of that

In the annals of economic perdition along Canada’s benighted East Coast, Cape Breton is often cited as the exemplar of Murphy’s Law, where everything that can go wrong always does.

An Alberta colleague of mine in the Toronto newsroom of the Globe and Mail in the mid-1980s once japed that about the only government-funded development scheme that region of Nova Scotia hadn’t tried was building a monorail around the picturesque Bras d’Or Lake for rich European, American and Asian tourists.

“Because,” he shouted giddily, pointing an index finger to the sky, “there’s an idea that might actually work.”

Canada is vast enough and diverse enough that its various laughing stocks are never in short supply (much, of course, to our national discredit).

So, it seems odd that outside of a few bureaucratic enclaves at Industry Canada, New Brunswick has yet to receive the brunt of scorn and ridicule its sister parts of the Maritimes – such as Cape Breton – have endured for generations.

After all, as the lovely butt of other people’s jokes, it’s a perfect candidate. Even our very own native son, Donald Savoie, isn’t above cracking wise every now and then. . .sort of.

The Moncton-based economic development authority and university professor was in fine form last week as he chatted with the Saint John Telegraph-Journal’s John Chilibeck. Referring to the ticking time bomb that is the province’s aging population, Mr. Savoie invoked several figures of speech, including “waiting to explode” and “bite us very hard”, either or both which could involve “slow, painful economic death spiral.”

Whichever case may, ultimately, transpire, the economist’s main message is clear: We’re in for a whole lot of fear and loathing unless we get off our collective derrieres and grab the bull by the horns and go for the brass ring in our effort to prove that, if nothing else, academics aren’t the only members of provincial society who can mix a wicked metaphor.

His larger point, though, is that “we’ve being saying ‘no’ to a lot of economic development over several years. We can’t (here comes the jokey part) turn all of New Brunswick into a national park.”

Of course, we can’t. Apart from any other consideration, national parks cost big bucks and – in case some of us haven’t been paying attention – we don’t have even little ones. Oh, we have the trees, alright, but not the variety on which money grows.

Perhaps, then, we should go with our strengths – or, rather, turn our weaknesses into competitive advantages the way we turn lemons into lemonade.

Take one-part aging population, add one-part pristine environment, shake, then pour. Hey presto: we’ve got ourselves an instant, province-wide retirement community. Forget about merely visiting the old folks’ home. New Brunswick is the old folks’ home

If we’re shrewd, we can sell this brand all over the world to, you guessed it, rich Europeans, Americans and Asians.

See what we did there? In one dramatic swoop, we’ve boosted badly needed immigration. And – thanks to the money pouring into provincial coffers from fat, international retirement trusts and savings plans to pay for new sanitoriums, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, and then some – we’ve solved the fiscal crisis.

But let’s not stop there. If we start building a few monorails to replace the roads nobody will soon be driving through the countryside nobody will soon be fracking we’ll manage to keep our productivity up until, of course, we all just drop dead from natural causes.

As my Alberta chum might say, “There’s an idea that might actually work.”

Indeed, what could go wrong?

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How howling from the edges of sanity is good for New Brunswick


As voices in the wilderness, we raise our rhetoric to match the long, lonely howls that issue from the pits of our guts. We see the future from our perches at the peripheries of Main Street, Freddy Beach, Parliament Hill and, yes, even Wall Street.

And, from that vantage, the future of this province is (trust me) utterly howl-worthy.

We are the pundits of New Brunswick, whose opinions about such things as economic development, social sustainability, energy policy, and fiscal management are sometimes politely acknowledged, but more often violently rejected.

We’re used to it.

Our fellow citizens are, after all, entitled to the pabulum their elected representatives ritually spoon into their pie holes when said representatives promise that their gruel will, in the end, taste like filet mignon.

But when guys like David Campbell, writing for the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, and scribes like Bill Belliveau and Norbert Cunningham, penning for the Moncton Times & Transcript, are routinely vilified for pointing out the patently obvious, and necessarily important, about this province’s. . .um. . .let’s just say “challenges”, I am risibly motivated to whip out my formidable arsenal of wordy invective to level the decidedly unlevel playing field that is the blogosphere.

Then again, what would be the point of that when we have Donald Savoie in our philosophical corner.

The “great prognosticator” issued another in a long line of epistles from his mount at the University of Moncton the other day.

In this one, he wrote, “Whether one likes it or not, the global economy is here and it is highly competitive. New Brunswick has to compete with what it has, not with what it wishes it had. I was surprised (during the recent provincial election campaign) to hear aspiring politicians and observers making the case. . .that we can say no to development opportunities in the natural resources sector and that all we need to do (is) create new economic activities to diversify our economy. How can we do this?”

Good question (though, it is rhetorical).

Allow me, pundit-wise, to take a crack at an answer (though it be unrhetorical).

Posit the following: Natural gas is far less damaging to the environment than any other form of fossil fuel; its extraction technologies for both orthodox and unorthodox plays are proven, safe and reliable; its delivery infrastructure is far less likely to fail and, therefore, pollute than those for crude and refined oil and coal.

Now, acknowledge the following: There is enough shale gas lying beneath the surface of this province to power local economies for decades through extraction, transportation and refining activities, alone. But that is only the outline of the big picture (if we had big-picture thinkers at our various seats of government, they might have paid attention decades ago).

The true, long-term potential of this resource, should we choose to embrace our own economic interests, is technological and innovative leverage.

Even the most committed environmentalists must surely realize by now that transitioning to a fully sustainable, renewable energy future will only succeed when we finally learn how to deploy the relatively cheap energy we harvest from the ground and the sea beds.

Almost every component of a wind turbine, a tidal array, a solar facility, a hybrid automobile, a bloody, backyard greenhouse is a product, directly or indirectly, of refined petroleum, cracked into shape for re-manufacture into the building blocks of plastic, pure and simple. That’s the foundational reality of our industrial economy; it has been for 100 years.

Saying we wish it weren’t so won’t make it go away.

What might, though, over time, is a coordinated, comprehensive public-private partnership to transform New Brunswick into a think tank, industrial test site and centre of excellence for repurposing the world’s excess plastic as the building blocks of sustainable, renewable energy technologies.

From here, the province – with its surfeit of institutes of advanced education relative to its population – could pioneer a global standard for delimiting the use of petroleum products to, in effect, manufacture only those technologies that produce sustainable, renewable, in-situ energy (lamentably, planes, trains and automobiles must be off the table for the time being).

Off course, mine is just one voice in the wilderness of ideas.

Let the vilification commence.

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Pulling New Brunswick back from the brink



Conspicuous by its almost complete absence from the agonizing ruminations over New Brunswick’s perilous fiscal situation has been any suggestion of a real solution. 

No one in government, it seems, has wanted to poke the 800-pound gorilla that is the electorate for fear of getting squashed en route to the ballot box.

That is, of course, a politician’s prerogative: to hand-ring with the best of them, pledge to swallow the bitter pills and persevere for the sake of all our children, only to turn around and waste millions of dollars on doomed schemes in the name of economic development, if not calculated self-aggrandizement.  

Economists and academics are at somewhat greater liberty to tell it like it is without concern for public reprisals.

Indeed, Donald Savoie, the Canada Research Chair in public administration and governance at the Universite de Moncton has made the province’s $12-billion debt, $500-million deficit and public-spending crisis key features of his public commentary, almost delighting (if that is the word) in jabbing voters for their refusal (or unwillingness) to reconcile their expectations of government programs with the reality of their province’s circumstances.   

Now, his colleague, Richard Saillant, the Director General of the Canadian Institute for Research on Public Policy and Public Administration at UdeM, has produced a tight book of 150 pages, or so, provocatively entitled, Over the Cliff? Acting Now to Avoid New Brunswick’s Bankruptcy.

Dr. Savoie is right when he enthuses in the preface that the author, who is also a former federal public servant, “has done New Brunswickers a great service.” In fact, what his dissertation contains is precisely that which has been missing since the discussion began: a solution, or, at least a credible stab at one with enough detail to both warrant and fuel serious debate. 

Be warned, however; Mr. Saillant’s fixes are far from easy, and he pulls no punches in describing them or the conditions that make them necessary.

“For several decades, New Brunswick’s economy has surfed on a rising tide of labour force growth, fueled by the baby boom generation and the steady, largely successful march of women towards equal participation in the workforce,” he writes. “The tide is now receding, dragging down the economy with it. A new Age of Diminished Expectations is upon us.”

Most sobering, perhaps, is his message about public priorities. While he congratulates the Alward government’s success, since 2010, in holding program spending growth to less than one per cent, he insists that the austerity can’t last “while maintaining today’s levels of public services, particularly in the health care sector.”

Indeed, “if the government does not raise taxes further and if it maintains the same public spending patterns as it did on average over the past quarter century,” by 2035-36 New Brunswick can expect to run an annual deficit of $5.5 billion on a long-term debt of $62.3 billion and a whopping debt-to-GDP ratio of 172 per cent. Not that things would likely get that far: “Credit-rating agencies would most likely pull the plug long before this happens.”

As for the solution, Mr. Saillant’s cold-eyed approach involves cutting down “baseline program spending growth every year by at least one-third of the previous year’s deficit from 2014-15 to 2029-30. Starting in 2030-31, this proportion is reduced to one-sixth.”

At the same time, he writes, “The government increases taxes and other revenues above their baseline growth by at least one-third of the previous year’s deficit from 2014-15 to 2029-30.” Again, “starting in 2030-31, this proportion is reduced to one-sixth.”

In the end, this strategy would effectively stabilize the province’s accounts. The annual deficit would fluctuate between $100-500 million. The net debt would peak in 2035-36 at about $17 billion.” 

It’s not, perhaps, the most favorable scenario (we weren’t smart enough, early enough in our collective unravelling to now expect a better result), but it’s the best we can do given our current demographic and economic challenges. And, realistically, even this approach is fraught with all the usual political perils.

But, as Mr. Saillant correctly observes, we voters “need to stop rewarding politicians who make lofty promises without explaining where the money will come from.”


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A grim fable for the fiscally frightened


“No fairy tales, please” – New Brunswick policy specialist Donald Savoie, a long-time advocate for debt reform in government, on public attitudes towards political promises during the run-up to next year’s election, Saint John Telegraph-Journal, Sept. 21, 2013.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, in the land between the rising and setting sun, there lived a troll under a covered bridge, next to Perdition Highway, known locally as The Road to Nowhere.

Unlike most trolls, who are fierce and lean, this one was lazy and fat. He spent a good deal of his time, days and nights, fantasizing about his next meal, which was, in fact, never very far away. So bottomless was his appetite that the villagers in the area called him Poor Black Hole.

“Look how hungry he is,” they would say. “He must have a tape worm.”

But no matter how much or how frequently they fed him, Poor Black Hole was never full. Indeed, he grew so big his bulk threatened to break the deck of the bridge above him; still, he couldn’t get enough to eat.

“I need more,” he would cry. “Can’t you see that I am wasting away.”

Clearly, Poor Black Hole had body image issues. But the villagers were too polite to mount any sort of intervention. So, they continued to empty their pantries and drain their cupboards in the hope – vain though it was – that he would finally shut up.

Eventually, the people’s plight came to the attention of the king, who worried that his subjects would soon run out of the staples they needed to survive.

“We must do something about Poor Black Hole,” he told his chancellor of the exchequer. “He’s sucking the life out of my tithe-payers. At the rate he’s going, there won’t be anything left for roads or schools or hospitals.”

The chancellor, a pragmatic sort of fellow, agreed. “It is a serious problem, o sire,” he said. “The circumstances are drastic and they require drastic measures. I suggest that the royal court stop giving the people their special dispensations whenever they demand. They only hand them over to the troll, anyway. Then, we should increase the levies on every adult man and woman in the kingdom and use the money to raise an army with which to vanquish the filthy beast.”

The king pondered awhile and then turned to his faithful servant and said, “I’ll get back to you,” whereupon he promptly fell into a deep slumber.

Days passed, then months, then years. And as the king slept, the people grew poorer and the troll grew fatter. Eventually, the bridge over Poor Black Hole’s head cracked and tumbled to the ground. He didn’t mind, just as long as his meals came fast and furious, which, of course, they did.

Meanwhile, other bridges cracked and tumbled to the ground. Schools closed. Emergency rooms shut down. Roads became impassable. Perdition Highway, long the most heavily travelled thoroughfare in the realm, failed under the weight of its traffic.

When the king finally awoke, he was dismayed and a tad rueful.

“I guess I should have gotten back to you earlier,” he told his chancellor, to which the weary factotum replied in a voice that was barely audible: “You think?”

What, the king demanded to know, could they do now? The treasury had been emptied, the courtiers disbanded. Worse, perhaps, the villagers were revolting on rumours that their royal favours were about to be cut off.

Their land was a shambles and they were in constant danger from foreign carpetbaggers and moneylenders. But they were entitled to their entitlements. Weren’t they? Apart from anything else, these were how they fed the troll.

“Maybe,” the king ventured, “we should just tell everybody to move. . .you know. . .lock the gates, haul up the drawbridge, shutter the windows before things get really bad.”

The chancellor furrowed his brow and, pulling a parchment from his satchel, declared, “Sire, it may already be too late. I have a report that indicates that the villagers are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to protect their state perks. . .apparently, they’ve started to feed Poor Black Hole something new.”

The king raised an eyebrow. “What’s that?” he asked.

Sighed the Chancellor: “Their young.”

And they all lived. . .well. . .must I spell it out?

The End.

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