Tag Archives: public institutions

Whose party is this?


It should surprise exactly no one in New Brunswick that political parties do their level best to differentiate themselves from their opponents by any means necessary. After all, this province, New Brunswick, has been staging periodic vote-fests longer than almost any other jurisdiction in Canada.

Rarely, however, have the substantive policy differences among the three, leading federal camps – Conservative, Liberal and New Democrat – been as vanishingly small as they are today. And this presents New Brunswickers – owners of one of the nation’s least robust regional economies, and one of the most burdened by debt and deficit – with a special chore: Choosing who among these federal courtesans is most likely to doff his cap to the ancient regime of this country; the East Coast.

Shall we all just hold our breath?

New Brunswick’s social and economic challenges are both specific and articulated: High unemployment; low commercial productivity; high rates of illiteracy and innumeracy; low interest in anything remotely resembling renewable energy technology; high levels of disaffection with public institutions; low tolerance for civil-service cutbacks; high disdain for politicians, in general; low sympathy for elected representatives who purport to get things done by upending the status quo.

Under the circumstances, then, why would any party that seriously seeks power vary in form or substance from any other – except, of course, in what they tell the great unwashed at election time?

What they tell us now could fill a thimble for relevance and actual change.

Here come the Tories, barking at New Brunswickers that their jobs-ready, economic action plan has, over the past eight years, saved this province from perdition. Their implied motto is simply this: It could have been worse.

Here come the Grits, insisting that New Brunswickers will be much better off than they have been if only they will giddily throw themselves into the red tide that will surely swamp the Maritimes. Their message is: It can be better, though exactly how. . .well, we’ll get back to you on that.

Finally, comes the third rail (which, incidentally, looks an awful lot like the first and second), the NDippers. They want us to believe that New Brunswick and the rest of the Maritimes are overdue for a massive transformation. Let us, then, agree to abolish the Senate and see how well that works out for us.

Oddly enough, that was an essentially Conservative idea not so very long ago, and even a Liberal one for an Ottawa minute when Justin Trudeau kicked out every Grit senator from his sitting caucus, again, not so very long ago.

As for New Brunswick’s particular social and economic woes, no federal party has yet made a convincing case that this province’s hard and trenchant issues matter more to them than found money on a summertime beach along the Bay of Fundy (which, like substance in political rhetoric, is also rare these days).

What actually distinguishes each federal contender from the other is a media play; crafted and acted before cameras, packaged for YouTube, and meant to be taken with a large barrel of salt.

Jobs are good, so say we all. Unemployment is bad, so say we all. Innovation and productivity must be the urgent concern, so say we all.

Crime? Boo!

Victims? We feel their pain.

Health care? Of course, it’s necessary.

Literacy, numeracy, trust in public institutions? Yup, we have our work cut out for us on that, too.

Still, choose me. I wear the red sweater, or the blue one, or the orange one. The difference is immense.

Even if it’s all the same to you.

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Monkey see, monkey do when we ignore democratic institutions

The gorilla in the Senate is biding his time

By all means, throw up your placards, raise your standards high, moisten all the blowhorns your lips desire. Still, know that without the public institutions a free and open society demands democracy is as brittle as an oak leaf in a January wind.

Five million people marched across the streets of major capitals in Europe last week to support the laudable and necessary principles of free speech and expression. They locked arms – jews, muslims, christians and atheists, alike – to send a message to the brutalists of the world that they will not be silenced by threats or bullets. They chanted the mantras of democracy lovers everywhere: all must be heard and heard must be all.

But when they returned to their cozies and alcoves, to their apartments, flats and houses, to their mansions and villas, they faced the same conundrum they had left only hours earlier: a growing and appalling gulf between those who have and those who have not; and, even worse, a conviction that the mechanisms and apparatus of the democratic principles they cherish are hopelessly ruined.

And the spiritual disease is spreading rapidly and everywhere.

“As each U.S. election cycle rolls by, public life seems to grow more rancorous, frayed and fragmented, with the 2014 midterms being no exception,” writes Pooja Gupta  in a recent online number of the Journalist’s Resource (which bills itself as a project of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Centre and the Carnegie-Knight Initiative. . . an open-access site that curates scholarly studies and reports).

“There is a palpable sense that something deeper is at work in America, some sea change in the underlying patterns of life. . .A 2014 study published in Psychological Science, Declines in Trust in Others and Confidence in Institutions Among American Adults and Late Adolescents, 1972-2012, (finds that) trust in other people has sharply declined since the 1970s, reaching historic lows in 2008 and in 2012. In 1972-74, 46 per cent of American adults reported that they trusted most people. This dwindled to 33 per cent in 2010-12. Conversely, 51 per cent of American adults reported skepticism in others in 1972-74, increasing to 62 per cent in 2010-12. These results were mirrored among high school seniors, whose trust in others dropped from 32 per cent in 1976-78 to 18 per cent in 2010-12.”

What’s more Gupta reports, “Confidence in institutions also hit an all-time low in 2012 for both adults and high school seniors, after highs in the late 1980s and early 2000s and lows in the early 1990s, late 2000s, and early 2010s, with trust in the military being the only notable exception.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that Canadians’ confidence in their own Parliament has been dwindling for years. Data, current to January 2013, from the Conference Board of Canada suggest that citizens of this country believe their politicians deserve nothing better than a “gentleman’s C” in the performance of their duties. This represents a precipitous drop from heady levels recorded in the 1960s.

What accounts for the malaise? Apparently, your guess is as good as mine.

Or, as the Conference Board blue-skies, it could be that over-educated young ones – you know, the ones who can’t find jobs thanks to an economy that’s monolithically geared to produce oil, gas and low-paying retail jobs – are pissed off.

It could be that too many people are otherwise engaged updating their social media profiles hoping that their legions of followers give a hoot (they don’t).

It could be that all these factors, both social and economic, have left a bitter taste in the mouths of those who have been, over the past decade or two, sold a bill of goods by politicians who like to think they know what they’re talking about, but who are, all too often, only lightly interested in the good of the many at the plausible expense of their own meagre reserves of power and influence.

But if these factors have soured us on our system, then it remains to us, and only us, to rebuild it or replace it.

Our public institutions – a sound and principled bureaucracy, a sage and independent judiciary, a Commons and Senate ever vigilant against incompetence, prevarication, waste and corruption – are the monkey bars of our democracy. They are the skating rinks and splash pads of our civic commitment.

By all means, raise your standards high for our shared principles of justice and liberty. But don’t ignore the social architecture that will raise them even higher and, in fact, keep them there.

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