Tag Archives: New Brunswick politics

The less promised, the better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just drain it.

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Promises, promises and more promises

Ever notice how a sitting political leader’s most attractive pledges never actually kick in until well after he or she is out of office? Brian Gallant now promises to revamp the way votes are tallied in New Brunswick. But that won’t happen until well after the next provincial election. The same scenario works to mete out Justin Trudeau’s campaign vows to reform accountability in national politics. In other words: Nothing’s going to happen any time soon.

As always, it’s easy to make promises when it’s unlikely you’ll be around to pay the bill. Then, of course, fancy vacations paid for by fancy friends in fancy locations simply rise to social media’s archly inarticulate level of scrutiny. Those few who still operate as edited, responsible, mainstream journalists – the ones who want to dig – are simply dismissed.

We have entered a new era of deficit in New Brunswick, in this Atlantic region, in this country. And it’s not about money. It’s about faith in our public institutions and in those who we have trusted to uphold them.

People in the Atlantic region of this country have rarely been as politically engaged as they have over the past year. Old folks, youngsters, Francophones, First Nations’ members, environmentalists, veterans of wars, veterans of poverty and abuse. Yet, the extraordinarily large numbers of platitudes politicians now issue mute their reasonable voices.

We are drowning in pledges, platitudes, promises and campaign pabulum.

Like this, from federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau:

“As Canadians come together to celebrate Canada 150, we proudly reflect on the generations that came before us. Generations that built a country on the belief that with hope and hard work, they could deliver a better future for themselves, and for their kids and grandkids. That optimism – and that confidence – helped define us as a country. Sharing those beliefs with others made Canada a beacon of diversity, openness, and generosity around the world. Yet, over the last few decades, the middle class and those working hard to join it have fallen behind. Everyday folks who work hard to provide for their families are worried about the future.”

Still, almost every single social initiative – from providing promised funding for affordable housing to early childhood education and daycare – designed for provinces and municipalities will only ‘grandfather’ long after the next federal election, at which point a new kid might very well be in town (Ottawa, that is).

Then, there’s this from Mr. Gallant, courtesy of a report from the CBC earlier this month: “(He) is saying no to a speedy embrace of a new balloting system in New Brunswick elections. Scarcely an hour after an independent commission recommended the adoption of a preferential balloting system in time for the next election, (he) slammed on the brakes.”

But, hold on there, he struck the commission in the first place. What gives? The report from the public broadcaster illuminates: “He said he doesn’t think the voting system should change without voters having a say first.

‘To change the way people vote we think is a fundamental change,’ Gallant said. ‘So we would have to have a clear mandate. Any government would have to have a clear mandate to make that change. A mandate could be sought through a referendum. A mandate could be sought through a political party’s platform in an election.’”

How about the year 2020? Does this do it for you, New Brunswickers? One problem: That’s 24 months after the next scheduled provincial election, during which Mr. Gallant may win or become political toast.

How’s that for accountability?


How a fiscal leopard changes spots


New Brunswick’s former Finance Minister Blaine Higgs, God love him, has always been a straight shooter. Except when he hasn’t.

Whilst in Tory office for all of four years, he inveighed against the provincial government’s tendency towards profligacy, calling for deep and painful cuts in the public service.

He suggested that everything “must be on the table”, and that included a serious review of his government’s tax policies – even going as far as intimating, off the script, that a prudent hike in the HST might save New Brunswick years of unnecessary fiscal pain at the hands of international bond holders who held – and continue to hold the province’s $12-billlion long-term debt in abeyance.

He talked darkly about streamlining the educational system; about cutting services to rural citizens; about rationalizing the way we pay for basic infrastructure, like roads, highways, sewer systems and pubic meeting spaces.

Apart from a few trims to the fiscal petticoat that hides a multitude of sins in this province, he largely failed and largely through no fault of his commitment or character. The political winds within his own party of silos and principalities were simply not in his favour. (Have they ever been for any sitting provincial finance minister in any province of this country)?

Still, now that the man is drifting freely in the soft winds of a durable New Brunswick spring – far from from the tethers of Cabinet discipline that once constrained him – one must wonder at the temerity of his latest proposal, a proposal that he must know has no chance of finding purchase in Canada’s only bilingual province.

Conflate New Brunswick’s two health authorities, he says, into one fully bilingual one. Why? “Because,” he told the Saint John Telegraph-Journal last week, “we don’t have a choice. In order to provide the quality of health care we need in the province, we need to look at how we can work more closely together, not further apart.”

Leaving aside, for the moment, just how breathtakingly ambitious – both politically and administratively – such a move would prove, the obvious question arises: If Mr. Higgs feels this strongly now, having prowled the perimeters of the political wilderness for seven months, why didn’t he speak up (as he did about public service cuts, education and infrastructure) just as forcefully when he had a better chance to use his position to win friends and influence people on an important matter of public policy?

Answer: Because, on this file alone, he would have been burned like a bad bagel, kicked to the backbenches and consigned to vacant seat in the “independent” section of the legislative gallery by the whips and goons of his own party. And he knows it.

Of course, on the face of it, his proposition to merge the province’s health authorities is fatally flawed, if only because it can’t work. The law stipulates in excruciating detail that health, like education, is a central plank in the Equal Opportunity platform that has guided New Brunswick politics since the late 1960s. Dismantling this apparatus would be tantamount to declaring war (real or imagined) on the rights of Francophones.

Beyond this, though, Mr. Higgs’ late-game candor conveniently ignores the real problem with health care in this province, which is not linguistic “duality” but service “duplication” and the fact that nobody in government or health authorities seems to know (or, perhaps more accurately, cares to think) about how to both profitably privatize and regulate certain elements of geriatric and long-term care and, in so doing, remove huge costs from critical-care facilities.

Methinks, politics will always win out when its erstwhile gunmen aim low and shoot from the lip.

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