Tag Archives: New Brunswick election 2014

Is PR an idea whose time has come?


Calls for a systemically more representative government always seem to follow a deeply unsatisfying election. Last Monday’s vote in New Brunswick produced no deviation from this familiar – and, for some, increasingly tiresome – norm.

After all, here was the spectacle of five jockeying, jostling, jiggling parties, only two of which had any chance of securing a meaningful number of the legislature’s 49 seats. (David Coon’s Fredericton South win for the Green Party was the exception that proved the rule).

Here was another pitched battle in the seemingly endless war between the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives over whether or not to allow hydraulic fracturing in a province that has, in fact, permitted the drilling practice for years, and with no evidence of environmental harm accruing.

And here was a fractured plebiscite, replete with technical glitches and calls for recounts, in which, despite all efforts to the contrary, much of the electorate politely declined their invitations to the cotillion.

Unofficially, 373,337 New Brunswickers did their democratic duty. Nearly 200,000, who were eligible to cast a ballot, sat this one out. . .again.

That was the lowest voter turnout on record (65 per cent) – lower than the 2006 and 2010 elections (68 and 70 per cent, respectively)

According to a CBC report last week, “Jamie Gillies, an assistant professor of communications and public policy at St. Thomas University, said low voter turnout is in part a generational problem, which won’t be easy to fix. ‘This is a feeling among a lot of people who believe that voting as a civic duty does not matter. It does not matter who we elect on election day.’”

Need we even wonder, then, why people like Kelly Carmichael are calling for an entirely different – and fairer – way to participate in our democracy. She’s a spokesperson for Fair Vote Canada, a national group that advocates for proportional representation.

The organization’s definition is succinct: “Proportional representation is any voting system designed to produce a representative body (like a parliament, legislature, or council) where voters elect representatives in proportion to (their) votes.”

As it was, in our existing first-past-the-post system, the Liberals earned 43 per cent of the popular vote, but more than half the seats in the Assembly. The Tories’ garnered slightly better than a third of the vote, but won more than 40 per cent of the house. The Green Party took one seat with seven per cent of the vote. The NDP (13 per cent) and the People’s Alliance (2.1 per cent) were out of luck, left only to shuffle along old Freddy Beach’s cobblestones.

If Ms. Carmichael and her like had their way, all parties would have emerged with some degree electoral representation: Liberals with 21 seats; Progressive Conservatives with 17; the NDP with six; the Greens with three; and the People’s Alliance with one.

Lamentably, in Canada, proportional representation has been a notoriously hard sell, not among voters, but among those who have the most to lose under such a system: the political establishment, members of which often spout the most egregious generalizations and spin the most outrageous myths about the process.

They say it’s uncommon and unstable. They say it would, in New Brunswick, generate confusion, instability and deadlock. It might even embolden the secret extremists among us who, given a chance, would seek and secure representation for themselves in the Assembly.

The reality is, however, that proportional representation is the most common electoral system in the world, favored most major democracies – though not Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

As for instability, Fair Vote points out on its website, “Since Italy reformed its voting system in the 1990s, Canada is actually now the most unstable of the major democracies, with twenty-one elections since World War II to Italy’s eighteen.”

Finally, the facts simply don’t support the claim that our present system – which can, and frequently does, reward lightly supported candidates for office with absolute power – is somehow inherently better equipped than proportional representation to prevent the barking lunatics in our midst from joining our various assemblies and parliaments.

Of course, no system of self-government is perfect. In fact, oftentimes, it’s a democracy’s flaws that suggest the very strategies for improvement.

This was, indeed, the case last Monday in New Brunswick, where one system of representation pointed, in its failure, to the promise of a better one.

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In New Brunswick, that was then. This is now


We are coming down, dear reader, to end of the line, if not our rope, in this, the 38th general election for Canada’s picture-perfect province. Naturally, it behooves us to review what we’ve learned thus far, which may not be much.

Nevertheless, by now we should all fully appreciate the dimension of New Brunswick’s fiscal dilemma, which some observers have characterized as more of a calamity. A $500-million annual deficit and $12-billion long-term debt hang like millstones around our collective neck.

To some extent, we have been conditioned to believe that this is an intractable problem that can’t be ameliorated, let alone managed.

But this is not, strictly speaking, true. Many jurisdictions have faced tougher challenges and recovered nicely (think Saskatchewan). Others have staged convincing turnarounds in relatively short order (think Prince Edward Island).

But to do this for ourselves, we are going to have to work together and on an unprecedented scale. Defying their partisan straight jackets, politicians need to collaborate. Setting aside our ideological differences, unelected citizens must reach out to one another and share their good ideas without hesitation.

Above all, we’re going to need a few big ideas to get us where we want to be: To a place where innovation meets compassionate pragmatism, where natural resources integrate with sustainable development, where healthy communities seed the fallow economic fields of less successful ones.

To say that what this province needs most is jobs is merely to mutter a truism. What sort of jobs are we talking about?

Are these short-term positions, back-stopped by Employment Insurance. We already know what these do for us. Or are the jobs we need more durable and promising than this? And if they are, how do we generate them not just for this generation, but also for future ones?

The steady outmigration of young people from this province to points west is not a problem that we can fairly lay on the shoulders of any political party or government. The exodus has been underway for many years.

To keep our kids – and bring some back – we need to build a truly creative economy; one that implicitly recognizes that economic sectors should be not silos, but incubators that manage to cross-pollinate the province with ingenious, new approaches to entrepreneurship. And we need to remove the unnecessary, baroque regulatory barriers that continue to imprison our thinking, our imagination, within an old, threadbare box.

The federal government has done us no favours with its various jobs and immigration policies. But we can’t let that stop us from forging ahead, implementing our own plans and priorities that reflect and address our distinctly New Brunswick circumstances.

What, dear reader, do we want to be when we, all of us together, grow up?

I envision a province whose cities greet every commercial, social and cultural opportunity with a view to leveraging its main chances for the benefit of everyone, not just of a  neighbourhood, a constituency, a tiny corner of the municipal steppe.

I envision a province whose government makes targeted, strategic investments in areas for which it is properly responsible – education, health care and social services – and rejects the obvious and costly cattle calls to candidates for corporate welfare.

I envision a province whose political culture finally embraces the contributions that both those in power and those in opposition can make to advance the cause of social improvement, if not human perfectibility, in this place that 750,000 people still call home.

The world beyond our borders is full of dangerous places, full of treachery and depredation. In this world, where 50 million individuals are either literally or virtually stateless, left to their own devices, without the democratic protections and safety nets we have come to expect, we are exceedingly lucky.

Shall we squander this by retreating into our separate cocoons?

Or shall we come into the light together, knowing that we are the champions of our own, formidable passion to do better, and be better, together; knowing that if we can think a thing, we can do a thing.

It’s always tempting to perceive an election as a chance to review what we’ve learned and moan about it.

But, really, elections are about the future, where our minds should wander with hope and wonder, not regret. Never regret.


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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Accounting for pricey election promises


How toothless are New Brunswick’s booked rules to force political parties, in campaign mode, to explain exactly how they will make good on their spending promises? Indeed, how opaque is the Conservative machine’s commitment to transparency?

The provincial Liberals want to know and have been demanding answers since late June when the Tory-inspired Fiscal Transparency and Accountability Act came into effect. At that time, the Grits issued a statement, under their leader Brian Gallant’s imprimatur.

“It’s clear that this government is focused solely on spending announcements to help their election campaign, and not on growing our economy or creating jobs,” he said. “It’s ridiculous and unacceptable. This government is burying election promises in government announcements so they can avoid their own transparency legislation that requires all promises to be costed in election platforms,” said Gallant.

Last week, the Liberals were at it again, charging that the Conservatives have made $433 million worth of spending promises without independently costing out those announcements. They even unveiled a spreadsheet that, they say, accurately reflects the dollar value of each Tory vow between June 24 and August 20.

In contrast, insisted Liberal Dieppe candidate Roger Melanson, “We are being transparent and accountable. I think the outgoing premier who set out the rules in this legislation should follow the same rules.”

For their part, the Tories aren’t talking. In June, however, then-Finance Minister Blaine Higgs told the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, “If they (Liberals) know something that has been promised or announced that’s not in their budget, well, then they should tell me because I don’t know about it. . .Anything during the election process will then be identified as either new money or budgeted money. It will have to be costed if it is new money.”

To which Mr. Melanson retorted, “If that’s the case, it means they were using taxpayers’ money. . .to try to buy their votes.”

There is, of course, more than a healthy dose of political posturing on both sides of the issue. But the bottom line is that all of this is largely beside the point.

To begin with, the Fiscal Transparency and Accountability Act is a fundamentally silly piece of legislation. It mandates that political parties assign dollar values to their campaign promises and threatens to strip them of their tax-funded operating allowances if they don’t. But it says nothing about the fact that when the provincial government is flat broke, putting price tags on election promises is utterly meaningless.

The Act also enshrines the following, as yet, unachievable priorities: “Annual balanced budgets on or before the end of the first fiscal period;con or before the end of the first fiscal period, the Province’s net debt for a fiscal year will be less than the net debt for the preceding fiscal year; on or before the end of the first fiscal period, a net debt-to-GDP ratio that is at or below 35 per cent; and after March 31, 2017, quarterly fiscal updates will include a statement of the actual expenses and revenue to the end of the quarter to which the update relates.”

And the penalty for failing to meet these objectives is a walk to the metaphorical woodshed unless, of course, the following contingency applies: “The Minister may recommend to the Lieutenant-Governor in Council that the applicability of sections 6, 9 and 10 be suspended for any fiscal year if the Minister is of the opinion that an economic or financial crisis has occurred that makes it unreasonable for those sections to apply in that fiscal year. . .On the recommendation of the Minister, the Lieutenant-Governor in Council may issue an order that sections 6, 9 and 10 do not apply in the fiscal year set out in the order.”

So, then, do we not now endure an “economic or financial crisis” in this province? Or what would we call a $12-billion debt and $500-million annual deficit?

Transparency and accountability are functions of money management. First comes the money. Then comes the management.

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What is the measure of true leadership?


If New Brunswick’s economic morass demonstrates anything it is that, as the province careens from one predictable trauma to another, true leadership is becoming as rare as snow in Sudan.

Worse, perhaps, than genuine ignorance, virtually everyone saw this wall of debt from a distance – the current government, previous ones, pundits, political scientists, my Great Aunt Minnie – and those who had the authority and tools to knock it down, instead, laid more brick and mortar.

Some years ago, during the depth of the financial crisis that, overnight, wiped out trillions of dollars in private equity, the sad spectacle of Alan Greenspan – the once mighty head of the U.S. Federal Reserve – admitting to a Congressional Committee that his once unshakeable faith in the planet’s economic order had been thoroughly undermined in just a few, short weeks was shocking, indeed.

Now, we almost expect our leaders and heros to reliably fail us. Across North America and Europe, unemployment remain stubbornly high, the income gap between the rich and the rest continues to widen, consumer debt is at an all-time high. The tent-angry 99 per cent have folded up their makeshift cities and gone home.

In fact, as bobble-headed experts inform us from their studio couches on TV the economic diseases which afflict us are so complex, so systemic, so globally entrenched that it’s unlikely any policy, of any so-called leader, can accurately prescribe a cure. So, the thinking goes, why bother even trying?

All of which cuts to the core of our current problem: A growing distrust not only of our existing cohort of movers and shakers, but of the leadership principle, itself. 

Unlike every other malignancy that’s spread through our ailing economy, this fretful cynicism forecasts the early death of our various bodies politic, if only because we now need a calibre of leadership we haven’t seen in decades: Talented men and women in all professions and vocations stepping forward and risking their reputations in the sea of scorn that’s sweeping the planet; tough-minded, innovative, perspicacious individuals charting newer, smarter, more sustainable courses for businesses, governments, schools, and universities in the years ahead.

And yet, the question is not so much who emerges to fill these roles, but how society regains its confidence in new leaders – the confidence to recognize those who are the real deals, and those who are the carnival barkers. Given how wrong almost everyone has been about almost everything over the past decade, it’s a brutally tough assignment; but it’s not impossible.

What, in fact, makes a true leader? Is it vision, passion, discipline, persistence? Is it strength, courage, loyalty, rhetorical flourish? These are all important traits. But while these qualities may be necessary for enlightened, trustworthy leadership, they are not necessarily sufficient.

Consider, for example, a man who “persistently” pursues short-term profits at the expense of long-term revenues. Or a women who “courageously” champions a policy, program or technology despite the fact that her competitors are manifestly more successful performing the same functions. Are these the leaders we need, or do they represent too much of what we already have in the boardrooms of the world’s Burger Kings and Tim Hortons?

In fact, the true measure of leadership on the precariously uneven playing field of the modern era will be knowledge, understanding, responsibility, and cooperation.

Knowledge of the way this province’s finances really work. Understanding of the means to achieve a productive balance between free enterprise principles and regulatory protections. Responsibility for getting to the truth of the threats – sooner rather than later that would injure our collective hopes, expectations and livelihoods.

And cooperation – always cooperation – not partisan hatcheting.

The notion that any man or woman owns the right to break the world as long as he or she is strong enough or smart enough to get away with it should have died along with the careers of Alan Greenspan and all his other Ayn Rand-loving ilk. 

Now, in this New Brunswick election cycle, we must look to ourselves for the leadership we seek, and become the heroes of our own lives.

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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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Shaking off these pre-election blues



For the second time in the space of six months, thousands of luckless New Brunswickers will sojourn a week or more without power. This is, without a quibble, the story of mid-summer, knocking almost everything else off the front pages of The Fourth Estate.

Sooner than we care to admit, however, the days will shorten, the shadows will lengthen and the sun-kissed air will begin to present a familiar chill. 

Suddenly, the lights are back on, the kids are toddling back to school and the rest of us are heading straight for that temporary purgatory known as a provincial election campaign.

The race for the ballot box will undoubtedly dominate the headlines day after breathless day. But, in the absence of any new, bold ideas, any workable solutions for the province, I wonder if it should. 

In fact, despite my well-worn sandwich board broadcasting my disdain for anyone who actually chooses not to vote, I’m wondering if I should sit this one out. In this respect, at least, a recent Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development survey puts me in ignoble company.

On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the best, New Brunswick scores 5.2 relative to other regions in the country in its residents’ intention to vote. P.E.I. ranks 6.6; Quebec, 4.5; Nova Scotia, 4.3; Ontario, 4.2; British Columbia, 4.0; Manitoba, 3.8; Alberta, 3.0; Northwest Territories, 2.6; Newfoundland and Labrador, 2.3; and Nunavut, 0.9.

It’s depressing. But no more so than the stunning lack of imagination available to our various political classes – a circumstance, I hasten to add, that is not unique to New Brunswick.

Unquestionably, in this province the big issues of the past two years and foreseeable future are economic malaise and dissolution, and the commercial development of natural resources, including shale gas and pipeline construction.

Premier David Alward’s Progressive Conservative platform does address these rather concrete matters but, given the stakes, somewhat flabbily. 

“We choose to take advantage of the opportunities before us – to develop our natural resources, to promote innovation and to put in place the economic strategies that will allow business to grow and provide jobs,” his party’s website declares. “We’re saying yes to bringing our people home and building a stronger future for our province.”

Well, of course, they are. Who isn’t “saying yes” to in-migration for a change? The question is: how?     

 “Our goal is to increase the tax base in New Brunswick, so we can better fund needed public services,” the site continues. “With additional investments in healthcare, social programs and infrastructure, we’ll strengthen the quality of life for all New Brunswickers, but particularly for families, seniors, and the most vulnerable.”

That’s laudable, but, again: how? 

The provincial Tories “believe New Brunswick has an incredibly exciting and prosperous future. By putting all our resources to work here at home we can build the kind of province where we want to live, and the kind of province we want to leave our children and grandchildren. This is our time. This is New Brunswick’s time.”

In largely faux contrast Liberal Leader Brian Gallant’s messages include becoming the “smart province. . .We will revitalize our economy, create jobs and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to succeed. We Liberals believe that, properly governed, the province can offer good jobs and a good standard of living, so we can keep our people right here in New Brunswick.”

Good and proper government, it seems, means becoming “the smartest province in the country. We need to invest in education, training, and literacy. By making strategic investments in education, training and literacy. . .We can fill the skills gap. . .We can grow New Brunswick’s traditional industries. . .We can grow emerging industries. . .We can create a healthier, more socially-just province.”

In every election cycle, there is a time for grand generalizations and lofty pronouncements. In New Brunswick, that time is just about up. 

Specificity must, at some point, enter the political arena. Innovation, ingenuity and worthwhile risks must, one day, play central roles in the affairs of government. 

Call it a hurricane of decidedly welcome change this time, but it, too, would be a headline worth reading.


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