Tag Archives: Frank McKenna

Just to be Frank

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The work of an ex-premier of New Brunswick invariably fades into history and, if he’s lucky, decorously memorable. In the case of Frank McKenna, who also happens to be a former Canadian ambassador to the United States and current Deputy Chairman of TD Bank, that’s unlikely if only because his work, and his mouth, has never stopped.

He’s been nearly 20 years out of provincial office and the man is still making pronouncements and consequent headlines concerning the here and now of the picture-perfect province that cradled his upbringing. Though he lives and works in Toronto – and has for several years – New Brunswick, it seems, remains Mr. McKenna’s passionate hobby.

Not too long ago, he had this to say about shale gas development in the province: “The way I look at it, the real win comes when we take our indigenous shale gas in the province and hook it into the Canaport liquified natural gas (LNG) facility in Saint John. We have in situ now, calculated by Corridor Resources Inc., 67 trillion cubic feet of gas. That’s bigger than western Canada. It’s a huge deposit! If 10 per cent is exploitable, that’s enough to create a revenue source for New Brunswick for decades to come. All in, it would result in about $15-20 billion in investment and 150,000 person years of work. And for governments, it would result in between $7-9 billion worth of royalties and taxes.”

As for the proposed Energy East Pipeline, he opined, “What we need to understand is that just by the roll of the dice, we have landed in exactly the best position on the board at this moment in time. We have a Canaport facility with massive storage and with a jetty, getting right into deep water. We have a port that’s ice free and has the capacity to accommodate the biggest vessels in the world. The West Coast can’t do that.”

That was in 2013, and what a dog-day’s difference two years can make. Still, even if shale gas is as dry an economic well as any in this province and the chances of receiving Alberta bitumen for refining are dwindling faster than the price of a barrel of oil, I have to hand it to Mr. McKenna: He refuses to shut up about issues that are pertinent to this neck of the East Coast woods and personally important to him.

Lately, print, broadcast and social media have vilified him over an Op-Ed he scribbled for the Globe and Mail. In it, he somewhat immodestly suggested that immigrants to Canada should spend some quality time in Atlantic Canada as a condition of their tenure in this country.

In his recent Op-Ed, he declared, “The government’s decision to direct certain immigrants to certain parts of Canada allows us to dust off an old idea, that concept of a social contract, which is urgently needed, particularly in Atlantic Canada. It is not a coincidence that Atlantic Canada is especially enthusiastic about receiving Syrian immigrants. . . We need a new program dedicated to the needs of Atlantic Canada. . .We do not have to reinvent the wheel. As far back as 2002, the immigration minister, Denis Coderre, (proposed) the idea of a ‘social contract’ whereby immigrants would be required to live in a community specified by the government for a period of at least three years, as part of the conditions for citizenship.”

Thus, Mr. McKenna floats another trial balloon on behalf of New Brunswick. And why not? At least he’s working, and not just his mouth.

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Brian Gallant’s big break?

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With his approval rating dropping into the political dumpster, the premier of New Brunswick needed a convincing win, one year into his mandate. He got it with BMM Testlabs’ announcement that, with the province’s help, the company will create 1,000 good jobs in Moncton, though not all at once.

Now, can Brian Gallant maintain the momentum the province evidently needs?

In a commentary the premier penned for this newspaper organization last month, he declared how pleased he was to have participated in the “biggest job announcement ever sponsored by government in New Brunswick’s history.”

The fact to which he referred was that the province had put real skin into the game – ultimately in the form of taxpayers’ dollars – not only to keep a satellite office of an international company in the environs around Moncton, but to help expand it: 200 well-paid positions each year over the next five.

To be clear, BMM Testlabs is an Aussie operation that makes its bones by making sure that gaming companies don’t run afoul of their particular jurisdictions’ rules and regulations. It maintains outposts in its home country, the U.S., South Africa, and, of course, Canada, among many others.

In other words, as a player in a government-regulated industry it needs and gets all the public-sector support it can handle. In fact, that is its global, strategic imperative. But, really, in this marketplace, whose isn’t?

Private companies and corporations troll the world for “business-friendly” jurisdictions – those that provide tax incentives, skills-development initiatives and various “move-in/move-up” allowances.

In fact, former Liberal Premier Frank McKenna made an unapologetic career out of the tactic in the late 1980s and through much of the 1990s – even going so far as to set up an international 1-800 line that connected directly to him. I actually dialed the number once in 1990 just to see if it worked. It did.

The conversation went a little like this:

Me: “Uh. . .Hullo, Mr. Premier. I was just phoning to determine whether this thing of yours was, well, real.”

McKenna: “It is. What can I help you with?”

Me: “Uuumm…do you have pop in a bottle?”

McKenna: “Why, in fact, in Sussex, I do.

Me: “Then you better let him out as mum wants him home for dinner.”

Click, and the dead-phone hum ensued.

I assume that when BMM and Opportunities New Brunswick got together, a childish prank like this was declared verboten. After all, says Mr. Gallant in his column, “Good government policy opens the door for job creation.”

Somehow, that goes to this: “We are supporting responsible resource development projects. We are excited about the thousands of jobs that could be created from major projects, such as the Energy East Pipeline, the LNG terminal in Saint John and the Sisson Mine. All of these projects have moved closer to reality under this government and we will continue to work to make them happen. If these projects go forward, nearly 10,000 jobs will be created at their peak.”

Before we, of course, descend to the infantile humor that such a claim requires (something about unicorns farting rainbows), let us just pause, for a moment, and consider the implications of Mr. Gallant’s broader claims.

BMM’s announcement is great news. But its determination to create jobs is not, necessarily, deterministic. Anything can happen (and often does) with domestic and offshore companies.

The idea is to keep every possibility in play, and never allow one big jobs announcement triumph over the long-term objective of building economic vigor and diversity – or, in truth, goose one particular premier’s poll numbers.

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The origin of facies

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Shall we see a reason to dither, to fuss or bother about shale gas development any longer? Or shall we move on and direct our righteous anger to more eminent calamities in this province – the hopeless young, the fatalistic elderly, the imperilled poor, the overtaxed, the house-proud, the land-poor, stray dogs and cute cats without homes to wreck?

Let’s face it, fracking as a nexus of public opinion in New Brunswick is as dead as a dry well. We don’t want it; we never will.

Sure, we will always want cheap oil and gas; we will just want it shipped in pristine containers that never leak, never smell, never foul the big, rock candy mountain that is this superbly self-aware part of the world.

And sure, we will always want what big-box stores offer: plastic, vinyl, more plastic, more vinyl. Never mind that 88 per cent of everything you can spend a dollar-and-a-half to buy is composed of petroleum derivatives – from shampoo to cigarettes, from sundresses to sandals.

Nope, folks, we are fated to play out the roles our human natures dictate. We want what we want, and the cheaper the better. That’s called evolution. Look it up. It’s the one principle that tethers all ideological tribes together, forever.

“My position is well known and I respect (New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant’s) approach, because I do think it’s thoughtful and considerate,” former New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna told the Saint John Telegraph-Journal recently. “What I like now is that there is a specific process in place (for shale gas development). It would be my hope, whatever the conclusions would be, that we would arrive at it expeditiously. I wouldn’t want to see (this issue) hanging around us for many years. I’d like to see us deal with it as quickly as possible.”

He is absolutely right, of course. Still, to say that Mr. McKenna’s views on this subject have ‘evolved’ in recent times is to say that Mr. Gallant won the past provincial election thanks, in part, to the federal Grit, anti-fracking machine operating just barely behind the veil that young Justin Trudeau wears to hide his pretty face from the voting public.

Once upon a time, Mr. McKenna had this to say to me about shale gas in New Brunswick: “We have in situ now, calculated by Corridor Resources Inc., 67 trillion cubic feet of gas. That’s bigger than western Canada. It’s a huge deposit. If 10 per cent is exploitable, that’s enough to create a revenue source for New Brunswick for decades to come.

“All in, it would result in about $15-20 billion in investment and 150,000 person years of work. And for governments, it would result in between $7-9 billion worth of royalties and taxes. The way I look at it, the real win comes when we take our indigenous shale gas in the province and hook it into the Canaport liquified natural gas (LNG) facility in Saint John.”

In other words, New Brunswick’s shale reserves could change the conversation about the province’s anaemic economy forever. They could transform the region into a jurisdiction whose wealth rivals that of a Saudi Arabian principality.

So, shall sleeping wells lie?

This province is justly famous for its ability to come a short way in a long time. Shale gas once represented an even chance to transpose this historically proven equation. No more. We must look to other, more socially acceptable ways to keep ourselves from starving and freezing in our own homes.

As Mr. McKenna might advise, we must adapt, if not exactly evolve.

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New Brunswick: Last stop on the trolly to the great hereafter

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And now for something completely obvious.

News flash: New Brunswick (Nova Scotia, too) is in the grip of its very own, made-in-the-Maritimes “death spiral”. The question, of course, is: what does the afterlife look like?

Former Premier and current Deputy Chairman of TD Bank in Toronto didn’t actually pronounce the time of this province’s passing – under the weight of its own inertia and all that sand that’s piled up around the hole into which its head has been stuck lo these many years – at a ballyhooed energy conference in Saint John last Friday. But he came darn close to pulling out the heart panels.

“Clear. . .zap. . .clear. . .again. . .clear. . .zap. . .clear.

In fact, Mr. McKenna said this: “Our regional economy is flatlining. We are depopulating. Our population is not just leaving; it’s getting older. It’s aging at twice the rate of Alberta’s. (Well, naturally it is, as that’s where capital markets and the current federal government encourage every mentally healthy, able-bodied young person in this country to go and become reliable, God-fearing taxpayers).

Here’s another snippet from Mr. McKenna’s all-too-familiar tirade against complacency:

“We are in an endless cycle of high deficits, declining population, higher interest rates and payments, a aging population, higher cost of services, less equalization, less personal income, higher taxes and consumption taxes. It’s a death spiral that we’re in if we don’t do something about it.”

Ah. . .and therein – as the Bard might have said, watching the surfer dudes ride the Pettitcodiac’s mighty tidal bore – lies the rub. What, indeed, is to be done?

We could eschew the costly histrionics surrounding shale gas development, based on a largely discredited “docu-drama” some years back, which featured (among other provocative absurdities) a guy lighting his tap water on fire (Reality check: the water table in upper Pennsylvania had been laced with trace amounts of methane long before fracking technology was the apple in the drilling industry’s eye).

We could concentrate on building the safest means – pipelines – of transporting crude oil from Alberta to Saint John and, in the process, create thousands of short-term, and hundreds of long-term, jobs for New Brunswick.

We might even work to leverage these energy opportunities to lure much-needed venture capital to the province for. . .oh, I don’t know. . .economic diversification away from natural resources and into educational centres of excellence that would pioneer commercially viable, sustainable, renewable, and exportable manufactures in the fields of wind, tidal and solar.

Or, we could go the other way.

We could put the province and all its lands and buildings up for sale to all those national and international bidders who boast the biggest coin in their pockets.

Dear China, the ad would read, “We, in New Brunswick, know how polluted your mega-cities are. Come on over to New Brunswick. We’ll treat you right fine. We’ll sell you our property, and we won’t even charge you minimum wage for the privilege of cleaning your kitchens and bathrooms – you know, the ones that used to be ours.”

Hey Alberta, we might exclaim, “We know you have our children in a ‘death-spiral’ of expanding expectations and blossoming debt. Someday, you know that bubble is going to burst. And when it does, you might like a safe haven to park your aging human capital.

“Consider New Brunswick as Canada’s preeminent retirement village. After all, as we never risked a damned thing on anything, including natural resources, our minds and hearts are clean. We are your last, best hope for a comfortable, easy death. . .Just bring your cheque books, because our B&Bs and private hospices are going to bruise those babies American-style.”

Indeed, given New Brunswick’s appalling fiscal condition, it’s dreadful demographic decline, its moribund economy, its listless and fearful political classes, it’s astonishing that this province has anything to offer the world or even its own people.

Of course, it is our own people – our entrepreneurs, in every shape, size, colour and stripe – who will (who must) save us from our collective inertia.

That, too, remains completely obvious.

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Drilling for common sense in the energy debate

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If all politics is the art of the possible, then the genre that inhabits New Brunswick is surely the craft of the calculating.

During the recent election campaign in the province, former Liberal Premier and current Deputy Chairman of T-D Bank Frank McKenna reportedly worked hard behind the scenes (and sometimes in front of them) to help the party’s fair-haired boy, Brian Gallant, comport himself well enough to hold on to the lead right into office.

Of course, that’s what political elders do: they mentor.

Still, given Mr. Gallant’s stand against shale gas development in the province, the pairing did seem odd.

In an interview, two years ago, Mr. McKenna told me in certain and enthusiastic terms, “We have in situ now, calculated by Corridor Resources Inc., 67 trillion cubic feet of gas. That’s bigger than western Canada. It’s a huge deposit! If 10 per cent is exploitable, that’s enough to create a revenue source for New Brunswick for decades to come. All in, it would result in about $15-20 billion in investment and 150,000 person years of work. And for governments, it would result in between $7-9 billion worth of royalties and taxes. . .The way I look at it, the real win comes when we take our indigenous shale gas in the province and hook it into the Canaport liquified natural gas (LNG) facility in Saint John.”

In other words, he said, New Brunswick’s shale reserves could change the conversation about the province’s anemic economy forever. They could transform the region into a jurisdiction whose wealth rivals that of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Pennsylvania or North Dakota.

“What we need to understand is that just by the roll of the dice, we have landed in exactly the best position on the board at this moment in time,” Mr. McKenna said. “We have a Canaport facility with massive storage and with a jetty, getting right into deep water. We have a port that’s ice free and has the capacity to accommodate the biggest vessels in the world. The West Coast can’t do that.”

The former premier was similarly straightforward about the province’s overall condition: “This isn’t just a problem of leadership in government. It’s also a problem of followership. Our citizens have to understand the full depth and breadth of the dilemma that we are facing, and they have to be prepared to face up to some inconvenient truths. It means that they have to become less reliant on government and more entrepreneurial. It means that they have to take responsibility for their own futures.”

Still, if Messrs. McKenna and Gallant stand far apart from each other on tight onshore gas (though they remain generally linked by shared political purpose), the division is not likely to last long.

By vigorously arguing for a pipeline – perhaps, two – to transport Alberta bitumen into Saint John, the current premier is actually, though unwittingly, eroding the rhetorical wall he has erected around the shale gas industry.

That’s because it’s getting increasingly difficult for the unaligned majority in this province to appreciate the logic of Mr. Gallant’s position on fossil fuels.

For reasons that resist trenchant examination, we are told that pipelines transporting crude into New Brunswick are safer, more environmentally responsible energy developments than is drilling for natural gas using only proven, contemporary technology under a regulatory regime that’s reported to be the toughest in the world.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to do as Frank McKenna has suggested: Permit both undertakings to proceed carefully, yet expeditiously?

In the alternative, if the issue is less about safety than global warming, shouldn’t we take a page out of New Brunswick Green Leader David Coon’s playbook: Stop both projects from happening?

Banning one, and not the other assumes expectations of harm and safety that may be mismatched. After all, pipelines have been known to leak. If we are being asked to assume that risk, however small, maybe we should take another look at the safety record of the shale gas industry before we eject it from the field of possibility.

It’s a tricky calculation, but it’s one we may well be forced to make make sooner than we once thought.

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2013: The year of treading water

U.S. economy may be heading for a hard, post-election landing

N.B. economy is heading for a repeat of 2013. . .only worse

New Brunswick enters the new year much as it did the outgoing one: Treading shark-infested waters, praying that the mighty predators will ignore it in favour of fatter, tastier castaways.

Under the grim circumstances, it’s a miracle that the government of David Alward was able to accomplish the little it did.

In 2013, population growth was at a standstill, general unemployment was among the worst in Canada (especially among what remains of the youthful labour force), the participation rate (those actively searching for work) was in a nose dive. About the only bright spot was low inflation and a relatively fixed consumer price index (measured in 2002 dollars).

Worse, perhaps, than any of this was the evident lack of new economic opportunities, without which the annual provincial deficit was fated to hover at $500 million on a structural, long-term debt of at least $11 billion in perpetuity. Theoretically, that meant that every New Brunswicker was on the hook for thousands of dollars.

The reality was that fewer public services were available to a dwindling number of people. And in the absence of any real vision for the future – any sense that timely sacrifices will ultimately yield durable boons – the province descended into caterwauling and complaining.

Some, of course, did their best to reverse the tide of bitterness and recrimination, while acknowledging the patently obvious.

“What we are facing in New Brunswick is a structural, secular decline,” former premier and current deputy chairman of T-D Bank Frank McKenna told me one wintery afternoon in his downtown Toronto office. “The problems we have don’t ebb and flow with the quality of our leadership. There is something more serious going on here. We face circumstances that combine to create a very negative outlook. The entire atmosphere is hugely challenging.”

In fact, he said, “the resource base that remains can be exploited with fewer workers and more mechanization, so it can’t support the number of workers that it once did. Yet, we remain a resource-based economy in a world where the Canadian dollar looks to be in a fairly constant state of parity with the U.S. dollar. So, this, too, is a peril.”

And yet, he said, “Even though I think our situation in New Brunswick is quite pessimistic, I don’t think that it is terminal. There are many places in the world that have faced dramatic challenges. In fact, adversity, itself, became the platform upon which they built sustainable economies. . . This isn’t just a problem of leadership in government. It’s also a problem of followership.

“Our citizens have to understand the full depth and breadth of the dilemma that we are facing, and they have to be prepared to face up to some inconvenient truths. It means that they have to become less reliant on government and more entrepreneurial. It means that they have to take responsibility for their own futures.”

For Mr. McKenna and, indeed, Mr. Alward, taking responsibility for the future means brining Alberta oil east for refining in Saint John – which would create thousands of construction jobs – and developing the province’s nascent shale gas industry.

“The way I look at it,” Mr. McKenna said, “the real win comes when we take our indigenous shale gas in the province and hook it into the Canaport liquified natural gas (LNG) facility in Saint John.”

His voice rose as his enthusiasm peaked. “We have in situ now, calculated by Corridor Resources Inc., 67 trillion cubic feet of gas. That’s bigger than western Canada. It’s a huge deposit. If ten per cent is exploitable, that’s enough to create a revenue source for New Brunswick for decades to come. All in, it would result in about $15-20 billion in investment and 150,000 person years of work. And for governments, it would result in between $7-9 billion worth of royalties and taxes.”

By and large, however, these were mere musings of a former public official. They did little to quell the outrage of a vocal minority of residents – people who firmly believed the provincial government had no business encouraging the development of an industry that they said would poison them.

Would it poison them? Was there, instead, a safe, environmentally responsible approach to the whole affair?

The issue will carry forward into 2014 and, like just about every other issue in New Brunswick, remain there unresolved, as the sharks keep circling.

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