Peter Lindfield made a really good point in his column this week in the TJ where he talked about the fact that the NB Power debate was essentially crowding out debate on a wider range of very important public policy issues. I would take it one step further and say that, in a strange way, NB Power is providing political cover for the governing party and the opposition.
I am sure that if Premier Graham wanted to find a diversion, he wouldn’t have picked NB Power but it has meant that meaningful, thoughtful public debate on tax cuts, deficits, energy policy, etc. have been all but ignored in the public square for months.
And for the opposition, all they have to say when someone asks about their ‘policies’ is ‘NB Power’ and all is forgotten. It’s amazing. We have an election coming up in a matter of months and I haven’t seen any substantitve policy framework coming out of the Opposition. It looks like they will fight the election on NB Power supplemented with a few platitudes about every other public policy issue from deficits to health care.
The sitting government also has been distracted by NB Power. Their plan to reduce the deficit by 2014 (as I covered here before) is not credible. They are forecasting spending growth to drop to almost zero and revenue growth to increase by something like 6% per year. That’s not going to happen.
The federal health care deal runs out in a couple of years and the Feds have already said the go forward arrangement will be far less lucrative.
The feds have already hinted that Equalization and other transfers will start to be tightened in order for them to get their books in order.
We need to have a serious discussion about this tsunami of economic forces touching down in New Brunswick and at the same time rectify a genuine need to invest seriously in the kinds of public investments that will lead to more business investment, job creation and economic growth (and the tax revenue to pay for our public services).
Even people that are supportive of the NB Power deal (as I am) need to realize that the pocket book implications for the average New Brunswicker are far greater from these other issues than from NB Power. In fact, getting NB Power behind us should be the #1 priority of both the government and the opposition.
I haven’t changed my mind on this at all. I think that the deal with Hydro-Quebec will take NB Power off the table as a concern for at least 10 years – and probably more. If we keep the status quo (as Volpe pointed out) NB Power’s problems will be compounding the rest of the problems. But even if NB Power’s asset sale gets scuttled, it won’t change the broader facts. It will continue to be a problem for government going forward.
Whenever people talk like this the responses can be mixed. I don’t think the sky is falling in New Brunswick – I haven’t felt this at all since I came back in 1992. The system we have in this country means that there will be no massive hammer coming down on the province. We have a fairly good debt to GDP ratio and governments will likely run deficits for the foreseeable future. They will try to curb spending growth and they will raise taxes – that is unavoidable. And we always have the federal government as the safety net. If the economy in New Brunswick collapsed, the Equalization program would provide a cushion.
But I, for one, don’t want to spend the next ten years just sputtering along as a province. Cutting here and there, tweaking taxes, hoping for the best. The last 10 years or so should have been a great time of progress but we saw very little. Canada wide from the mid 1990s to the late 2000s went through an unprecedented period of growth – economic, population, tax revenue, new industries, etc.
I think we still can figure out a grand strategy for the province but I think it is far more likely we will continue to sputter along.
I have to close by taking another little swipe at the media (of which I am a part in some small way). For much of the media in this province, NB Power is being covered like the OJ Simpson trial. They have to get their one or two daily NB Power stories into every news cast. It’s like the T&T’s Al Hogan and the toll highway in 1999. Every single day for weeks there was a story hammering the toll highway – nothing new just a kind of written titillation. Use pejorative words, quote another expert, hammer away until the public is sick of it. That’s the NB Power sage. Would it kill us to go two or three days without a single NB Power story? The media justifies it because it’s such ‘an important issue’ while everything else is what – not important?