Fascination

Periodically, some T&T editor or other pundit will muse about how blessed we have been in New Brunswick to have strong political leadership going back decades. Nova Scotia columnist Charles Moore makes this case in his TJ column this morning:

Watching Steve Murphy’s year-end CTV News interviews with Maritime premiers, the thought occurred, not for the first time, that New Brunswick has been extraordinarily blessed over the past two decades or so with a succession of better-than average premiers, while for some reason Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have been obliged to struggle along with relatively mediocre political leadership.

“Extraordinarily blessed”, he says. “Better-than-average” premiers, he says.

Based on what? Because they can talk a blue streak with rolly polly Steve Murphy?

Geez. In Aliens, Ripley says “Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away?” and that phrase just popped in my mind when I read Moore’s column. The irony is that I haven’t been away. I have been right here observing.

Watching electricity rates go from among the best to below average in North America. Watching every Premier talk about raising education performance and we are still dead last.

Watching every Premier talk aobut fostering a culture of ‘R&D’ in New Brunswick – we are still either dead last or second last in Canada among the provinces depending on what source you use. Watching New Brunswick’s population go from limited growth under Hatfield to stagnation under McKenna to outright decline under Lord.

Watching many other provinces and states craft successful economic development strategies while we have held on to ‘call centres’ as the only successful initiative in the last 15 years.

Watching our need for Equalization increase by hundreds of millions because our economy is not strong enough to generate the taxes needed to pay for public services.

I would agree with Moore that all three McKenna, Lord and now Graham were good on the stump. Can talk articulately in an interview. Can pick a theme (bootstraps, prosperity, self-sufficiency) and chant it over and over until we are lulled to sleep.

But strong leadership? No one can really say for sure about Graham because he has only been in a year and change. But so far, I can’t think of a single ‘strong leadership’ moment for Graham.

The problem here is that the politicians read these columns. I am sure that Lord basked in the glow of Al Hogan’s weekly praise. But this kind of dopey, scratch the surface journalism is exactly the problem.

Moore tries to make his case:

McKenna, one of the stand-up guys of Canadian politics, brought his province into the Information Age.

What does that mean? We have the second lowest use of computers in the home in Canada. We have the smallest IT sector in Canada (adjusted for population). How, exactly did McKenna bring us into the Information Age? By any objective standard, Nova Scotia is well ahead of New Brunswick in whatever the “information age” means.

Lord was least-impressive of the three, but he gave the province decently good government.

What does that mean? That’s a nonsensical statement.

I also like Graham’s determination to reform New Brunswick’s post-secondary education system substantially for the first time in 40 years despite ferocious opposition from some quarters.

Huh? Graham gave the process to that ‘ferocious opposition’ and told them to figure it out.

There is only one definition of political leadership that matters and that is the ability to make unpopular decisions. I am not talking about raising taxes by 2%. People grumble about that but do not even notice it on their tax bill.

Municipal amalgamations. Forced university merges. Freezing the health budget and allocating the $100 million to economic development. That would be ‘political leadership’ (whether you or I like it or not is not the point).

Standing up to interest groups like corporate interest groups or powerful unions. That is leadership.

Backing down all the time. Avoiding anything controversial like the plague. Creeping incrementality. Paying UPM a $5 million bribe to stay open just until the next election. Speaking loudly about prosperity or self-sufficiency and then doing nothing. That is realpolitik in New Brunswick these days.

It’s early days for Graham. The best thing he could do would be ignore all this sweet and nice stuff being said about him. He knows his government has done nothing as of yet. He admitted it. Year One, he said, was about getting ready for real action in Year Two.

We are in Year Two.

Last point here. I was at a presentation recently from the National Bank CEO and it seemed to me he was going out of his way to ‘be nice’ when he talked about New Brunswick. There may be thinking among guys like Charles Moore (not Alec Bruce) that the people want to read pulpy, nice stuff about their politicians and their province. That they recoil when someone speaks negatively. A weird variation on the “you are either with us or against us” theme.

But to stretch the metaphor, if you are not open to criticism, things will never change.

I, for one, am prepared to go on the record saying that both McKenna and Lord had limited success. McKenna, admitted it in his farewell speech. Lord remains in denial but maybe with age may realize that he had an historical opportunity to address the structural economic problems in New Brunswick and he took a pass.

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0 Responses to Fascination

  1. Anonymous says:

    You amaze me,Lord was alright,but the rest were baggage carriers.
    I might even say mckenna ruined NB.

  2. mikel says:

    Moore says a lot of outright crazy things, although its easy to write like that when you live in Nova Scotia.

    But what if a leader said “I’m going to kill all the firstborn so that people will want to increase immigration”. THAT would be ‘unpopular’, and just because its unpopular doesn’t make it GOOD.

    That goes for forced amalgamation and freezing health care spending. The point IS whether we like it or not, thats the nature of democracy.

    Of course Graham HAS made decisions, again, HUGE decisions, just not ones YOU like. You ‘bent over and grabbed his ankles’ for Saskatchewan Potash all in exchange for a few short term jobs. He’s said over and over that essentially the province will give a green light to a new refinery no matter HOW polluting it is (in fact they are ‘banking’ on it).

    They’ve also shown that, like Lord, they have no intention of rocking any boats. Of course you can’t SAY that, which is why the deeper the horseshit, the fewer vegetables that grow. Same goes for media. People are on the internet and not just getting news from Irving, their relatives are out west and they know what other places look like. So its more important than ever to ‘ra ra’ everything NB.

    That goes especially for Graham. ALL politicians TALK a mean game, that is how they get their job. But here is a Premier that most New Brunswickers didn’t even vote for. This is a guy who is yet to come out with a policy on ANYTHING after a year and a half. The ‘self sufficiency’ plan came out in December after a year of ‘wait for it’, and there was so little there that the ‘wait for it’ was almost as informative.

    But more importantly just go look at the legislation. There are a few interesting pieces in there, but pretty damn few. To say that this guy is more effective than Lord was is laughable.

    However, most importantly, the important thing is to make ‘strong leadership’ seem like a good thing. The more like a dictator you seem, the more the media likes it. However, that has nothing to do with economic development, so its unfortunate to see you buy into it. Ireland is touted as the celtic tiger, but it has proporational representation at every level of government, they don’t have a dictatorial leader just spouting unpopular decisions that most people hate but which media sees at ‘the definition of good govenrment’.

    The same is true in the maritimes. Nova Scotia doesn’t have PR, but it does have a minority government (or did and now is close, I can’t remember), and of course corporations HATE minority governments. They like one party leader that is easily bought. With a minority government a government has to at least pretend to legislate for the population.

    But thats the upside down media world for you. Danny Williams has a popularity rating that is through the roof, higher than any canadian politician in history, or pretty close. But he’s not a ‘good leader’ of course BECAUSE not enough people hate him therefore he must be governing badly. Of course the real issue is the same as Chavez in Venezuela-they are actually standing up for their populations against corporate interests, the ones who OWN the media.

    So as long as a ‘leader’ does what is expected, then they are great and wonderful leaders. As for McKenna, there is lots negative to say about him, but to fault him because of the state the province is over a decade after he’s gone is a bit unfair.

  3. David Campbell says:

    You and I have a differing view on this. The potash deal risked no political capital. Most people don’t even understand the deal. He hasn’t green lighted any ‘refinery’ yet. No nuclear expansion, yet. No post secondary education change, yet. The only decision that even comes close to my definition of ‘risk’ is the tax increase.

  4. nbt says:

    I guess it depends on how you rate political leadership. I think the last two good premiers in Nova Scotia were the two Johns, Stanfield and Hamm, especially when it pertains strictly to economic development. And I’m not being overly partisan here as I have read the biographies and policies [thoroughly] of Angus L, Savage, Regan and John Buchanan. Although, it should be noted that Gerald Regan, then minister of international trade, was the first politician in Ottawa, in the summer of 1983, to formerly introduce free trade onto the nation’s agenda. He unveiled a government paper on Canada’s trade policy which proposed sectoral free trade with the United States.

    Anyway, when it comes to local politics, being an Atlantic premier has never been easy. The best of them can buckle to the unfortunate ideologies on the ground which are held by very few. Why? Because most premiers in the modern era have done nothing to strengthen or reform democracy so it is more responsive to the people on the ground. In other words, none of them have addressed voter apathy or why ppl are so disenfranchised with the system. Maybe they just don’t understand the real workings of a real democracy? Who knows?

    But it hasn’t stopped them from putting ahead policies which, on average, are never fully debated in their perspective legislatures or assemblies, nor are they taken to the people prior to their unveling.

    With that said, I still think that Stanfield had some pretty good ideas, especially when it came to the establishment of a “Maritime House” in Europe which was proposed as a means to attract industry to Atlantic Canada. He was also the first to suggest that the province create a “Nova Scotia Industrial Development Corporation” which would have been capitalized at ten million dollars (half from the provincial treasury and half from public subcription) to assist industry to locate in the province. Something I don’t completely approve of as you know, but at least he tried to make the process a bit more independent of government than it already was in that particular era.

    Anyway, none of his ideas became reality, although you could argue that John Hamm furthered Stanfields 1956 agenda by introducing “Nova Scotia Business Inc.” which many would say was integral in attracting RIM to Halifax.

    Who knows, maybe the only way you can become a great premier on the economic side in Atlantic Canada is to become prime minister? Stanfield couldn’t do it, even though he had some good ideas to counter Trudeau.

    I guess only time will tell if a premier breaks through for PM? I hear McKenna is seriously eyeing the big prize. Let’s face, if he does break through (which is unlikely), he will have an entirely different electorate to work with unlike when he was just dealing with NBers on the ground. In other words, you may just see how far McKenna really wanted to take his ED agenda and tax cuts to spurn on growth. Something he couldn’t do in the statist province of NB because his hands were tied.

  5. David Campbell says:

    On the economic development front, John Hamm was certainly an innovator with his setting up NSBI with a private sector board and a mandate to attract industry to the province.

  6. nbt says:

    No doubt. Which is why I think Charles Moore is making the mistake of possessing a very short-term memory when it comes to his province and political leadership.

    And who could blame him considering independent MP Bill Casey gained celebrity status as Newsmaker of the Year in oh-seven in the wake of an accord gone awry. Maybe NB and NS need more straight talking indys like Bill Casey and Tanker Malley. They seem to be able to hit a cord with the ppl that our stalled traditional parties never could.

    Although, I will admit, our indy wasn’t doing it for the love of his province and the ppl, but strictly for personal political gain. Which is why he should have stayed put where he was.

  7. NB taxpayer says:

    just one last thing…

    He knows his government has done nothing as of yet. He admitted it. Year One, he said, was about getting ready for real action in Year Two.

    As Milton Friedman once said, year one (for any new government) should be about introducing tough measures when they have the political capital, amongst the voters, to expend.

    Now that this opportunity is lost, you will see Graham’s government do what all NB governments have done in the past, try to survive until the next general election.

    In other words, unless the advisors around the premier are completely braindead, they will not encourage so-called unpopular legislation or tough measures that will hurt him at the polls.

    Furthermore, most of the measures which will be introduced in the next few sessions will have a coat of red paint on them. Bottome line: decisions from here on out will be for partisan gain (and winning more seats), not for the betterment of all NBers collectively.

    It sounds cynical, yes. But I have a hunch I will be right.

  8. mikel says:

    We do have a VERY different idea of political capital. Take a poll of Saint Johners and ask how many are excited about another refinery. Graham, like Lord has said that they are gung ho for it, any other jurisdiction in the western world would have massive political coverage of such an idea-even the worst environmental polluters in the states haven’t had another refinery built in twenty years, ditto nuclear power.

    The biggest single issue in canada now is the environment, perhaps to a lesser extent in New Brunswick, we don’t know, however, cancelling the energy rebate was a big decision-just because Irving doesn’t care enough to talk about it doesn’t mean people didn’t notice.

    Even if your definition of ‘effective leadership’ is pissing people off, which is a very strange idea, there has been lots of that. Even the way they handled the post secondary education report had people cheesed, and of course the four wheeler legislation had protests for days.

    On the economic front, thats a strange view that only if it risks political capital is it good economic policy. Something you’ve mentioned has been to up the amount of NB investment that the pension has abroad to, say, even TWO percent. If the government came out with a plan to help the economy grow and used some of that as an investment, I seriously doubt that many people would be cheesed-why would they?

    So, again, the government doesn’t have to piss people off to make good policy, and frankly I’m puzzled why people think that only if people get angry enough to protest has a policy been ‘effective’.

    But this isn’t the days of McKenna, who at least had political leverage to work with. Don’t expect any big decisions from Graham, he knows what tenuous ground he’s on. It’s been almost a year and a half and virtually nada has come out, he knows that unless the tories pick a potato to run against him that he doesn’t have a lock.

    There is a way he COULD, like namely doing what Danny Williams does and stand up for the people against corporations who are robbing them blind. However, that won’t happen because unlike Newfoundland, the biggest burglar also owns the presses. Little Louie stood up to Irving for as long as he could, that was two elections and he knew he wouldn’t win a third. But also unlike Newfoundland there isn’t really a ‘buyer’ for NB products waiting in the wings.

  9. Anonymous says:

    “RIM doesn’t NEED to be in Waterloo because of the universities, other cities have universities”

    While clustering is an over-used government buzz phrase, there is no doubt that the presence of U of Waterloo and elements of clustering helped RIM become successful.

    Universities in the area contributed to the success by generating research, graduating students (including RIM’s founder) and participating in advisory boards. Like-businesses in the area contributed by providing access to facilities, equipment and personnel (they accessed local lab space and test equipment in the early days). Media participated by being a positive advocate for emerging tech companies. Having Raytheon, COM DEV, DALSA and 200 other high tech companies (see http://www.garywill.com/digest/companies.htm) in the same general area along with a technical university collaborating with local industry undoubtedly increases the odds of a company like RIM being successful. There is something to be said for critical mass. When companies like these are located in close proximity, so are key suppliers, technical support, investors, prospective employees etc.

    While I am tired of hearing about ‘clustering’, it does help promote focus. NB has 729,000 citizens; we do not have the resources to be a global leader in every trendy sector that hits the newspapers. We cannot afford to have our universities uninterested in the needs of business and industry. We can have an impact if we target strategic sectors (or components of them) and focus resources (including universities) on progressing them.

  10. mikel says:

    I didn’t say that RIM would exist without the university, what I said is that ANY university does the trick. London also has a university, so does Burlington and Hamilton, but the ‘tech sector’ didn’t grow out of there.

    Local media means squat, they don’t do anything for RIM, Waterloo itself only has a once a week newspaper. RIM became what it is by the same route that KC Irving took-they had a product and they milked every government resource for whatever they could get their hands on. Before it was RIM it was insurance companies, just about every canadian town is a business first town. The difference is that the two fellas happened to be at Waterloo (where they quit before they graduated).

    The universities gave them space, but every university in the country will give a company space if the price is right-but first you need the product.

    So ‘clustering’ had nothing to do with it. The tech triangle grew out of the computer school. Many graduates were in Silicon Valley in the early days and many came back to southern ontario where they got into business with former professors. At universities it is whoever does the hustle that gets the green. A certain company at a university here practically bankrolls an entire department, because that company is public and is bankrolled by a rich and famous american family, and so the local university bends over backward for that prof who started the company and does the research. They do research and most of their employees are chinese because there are no canadians of that calibre that can do the health research.

    That has ZERO to do with what is available locally. No suppliers are local, and RIM certainly doesn’t make their blackberry locally, or even in Canada. In Waterloo, NCR, the big company that makes most of the interac machines you see in stores just laid off 400 people to move their manufacturing to Mexico.

    Open Text is another big company locally, they also don’t have a ‘thing’ they make, they make software, so there is nothing to ‘make’. So there are no suppliers, either locally or anywhere. What they need are educated workers, simple as that.

    I can’t remember the stats, but most of Canada’s trade is in services, not ‘things’, which is why the OECD has said repeatedly that if Canada doesn’t invest more in education ‘we’ are going to be in deep *&^%. For services you don’t need ‘clusters’ or ‘suppliers’, you need educated workers.

    That fits in with the ‘quality of life’ topic above. But its tough to do at the provincial level. But like I said, if there were more than one company to push animation then thats an interesting idea, like I said, people from Toronto, at least CERTAIN people will gladly move east to do what they want to do. Not everybody wants what Toronto calls ‘culture’, for many, socializing means a local pub with coworkers-again, just go look at the blogs for fatkat, these are people who just love hanging out with one another.

    But like I said, it takes very little provincial funds or impetus to, say, have a provincial educational TV station. VERY little. That creates a cluster right there, so there is absolutely no reason why an area can’t be ‘known’ for more than one thing. A city has a LOT of people, so its not necessarily an either or proposition.

    However, from what we’ve seen from the government its pretty much been settled what the ‘cluster’ is-its energy. Unfortunately for the logic above, the province would then agree with the post above-“hey, we can’t compete in EVERY sector so we are doing it in energy”. End of story. However, if you look at HOW they are doing it, you’d be hard pressed to say that that ‘cluster’ is eating up ALL the resources (well, it sort of is) and no other industries can be found (or should be).

    RIM became a success because of the market-it helped that every government employee was told to purchase their product. The market was for a viable product, the ‘suppliers’ and locale had nothing to do with it. Had these guys been in Halifax it would have succeeded there as well (unless the local university were SO dumb that it just frustrated them).

  11. Anonymous says:

    Mikel, I feel for you bud. It must be hell for you trying to survive in a capitalist environment.