Consequential leadership in inconsequential times

As I have written in the past, I don’t believe we are currently living in overly consequential times. We are not facing the massive economic upheaval of the 1930s nor are we facing world wars or massive poverty. In truth even the 1960s and 1970s were more consequential as we grappled with equal opportunity and the expansion of our welfare state.

These days the largest public policy debates in New Brunswick are not particularly monumental. Some people are outraged about the potential environmental risk of water contamination from shale gas development. All I can say is these folks would have been apoplectic if they had lived through the industrial development during the early to middle part of the last Century.

Others are annoyed that they might end up having to drive a couple of hours in their car to access specialized health care. They should have a talk with anyone over the age of 80 about health care (or the lack of it) back in the 1940s and 1950s.

And there are those who continue to affirm they are “entitled to their entitlements” as David Dingwall, the former federal Cabinet minister, once famously intoned. The social safety net has never been stronger than it is today.

Even the public austerity debate now is tame compared to the McKenna years in the early to mid-1990s when public spending growth was held to less than one percent per year for six straight budgets.

But it strikes me that the decisions taken during inconsequential times such as these can end up fostering the stable economic, social and political structures that help us avoid the consequential moments that are so gut-wrenching for society. For example, efforts to avoid war are an historical footnote compared to the coverage of magnanimous acts during times of war. But surely efforts to avoid war are even more important.

The same can be said for public governance in relatively inconsequential times. Wise and thoughtful public policy now will avoid potentially ‘consequential’ times in the future. This applies even in a small and marginal place such as New Brunswick because it is not small and not marginal to the people that live here.

Consequential leadership in 2012 requires a much broader dialogue with citizens. When the credit rating agencies are about to drop your bond rating to junk status it is relatively easy to get folks’ attention. When you have a flashpoint economic issue such as a major plant closure, it is easy to get people to start thinking about the economy.

But when you are in a slow burn – small, incremental changes every year – it becomes harder and harder to get the buy in and support from the public to take bold new policy directions.

There are those who think New Brunswick is about to collapse. They see a convergence of demographic, economic and fiscal storms combined with a broad cynicism across society and suggest government will not be able to cope. They envisage a world of tax increases and drastic public service cuts extending over the next decade.

I am not that pessimistic. We live in Canada and as long as the resources-rich provinces continue to generate surplus tax revenues, the federal government has an obligation to ensure that places like New Brunswick at least stumble along.

But consequential leadership eschews “just stumbling along”. It envisions a New Brunswick that is a magnet for investment, ideas and talent. This type of leadership views the current challenges as an opportunity to garner public support to move in a bold new direction.

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6 Responses to Consequential leadership in inconsequential times

  1. richard says:

    “We live in Canada and as long as the resources-rich provinces continue to generate surplus tax revenues..”

    I wonder how big that assumption is, and what the consequences will be if it is wrong. The word ‘resources’ by and large means oil, as it is oil/gas that generates a lot of that revenue. An energy sector that is less robust means less tax revenue and that indeed could mean further reductions in transfer payments.

  2. mikel says:

    You have got to be kidding me! Do you SERIOUSLY think that our social safety net has never been stronger?? My friend, if you actually believe that, then I think you are treading further afloat than Charles Leblanc. The amount a person gets on welfare is LESS than it was twenty years ago, and thats WITHOUT factoring in inflation. Most people who pay into EI can’t even collect, and money for training has pretty much disappeared.

    There is now almost NO subsidized housing, and poverty is pretty much epidemic in the country. When I lived in Fredericton in the early nineties you virtually NEVER saw a homeless person. Then the mental institutions were closed down and most of those people ended up in jail.

    Access to health care and education is not a ‘social safety net’. Those are programs which are generally delivered to the middle class, they are by no means a ‘net’.

    If you think these are inconsequential times, I think you’ve even been ignoring most of your own blogs.

  3. Oliver D says:

    @mikel What exactly do you mean by “Most people who pay into EI can’t even collect”?

  4. mikel says:

    If you are fired, even without cause, then you can’t collect EI. You have to be ‘laid off’ and what that means has become ever stricter. Part timers, business owners (OK, now they technically can, but the program is so new none can yet qualify), migrant workers, and those who are in an area with historically low unemployment like the large cities can’t collect EI.

    To be more specific (I didn’t know anybody would need details) the direct quote would be “fewer than half of canadians can collect EI”-which IS ‘most’, but if my statement made somebody think 90% as opposed to 55% then there is your substitution. Of course in NB 90% CAN collect EI, but it has such a tiny population that that doesn’t counteract the 65% of Torontonians who couldn’t collect, or the even fewer in Alberta or Vancouver. Forget transfer payments, EI is where the BIG equalization funds come from.

    Anyway, I was pretty incredulous at this blog-particularly coming from a guy who for years has been talking about how outmigration and lack of development basically spells disaster for the province. So its almost like reading a brochure from the Captain of the Titanic stating that although the ship IS sinking, fortunately those from first class have been sharing their resources with the rest of the crew (OK the analogy doesn’t work completely, but its close).

  5. richard says:

    “@mikel What exactly do you mean by “Most people who pay into EI can’t even collect”?”

    According to the Mowat Centre report on EI, nationally about 80% of those who pay in to EI are able to obtain benefits. However, fewer of those in the labour force now participate in EI for various reasons. Consequently the percentage of the unemployed receiving benefits has fallen below 50%. If you contribute, then you can collect in most cases. Problem is, fewer are able to contribute, largely (according to the report) due to changes in work patterns (mainly more self-employed, more part-timers, longer-term unemployed) and those changes are more apparent in the provinces outside of Atlantic Canada. I suppose that means they (those unemployed outside of AC) might end up on provincial social assistance sooner than in AC.

    Whether the social safety net is stronger than ever before depends on one’s perspective. Low-income seniors are perhaps better off than in the 1970s (remember the dog-food reports?) and there are quite a few support programs that did not exist back then. Then again, food banks (certainly a part of the social safety net) are a booming business now but were rare a few decades ago. Perhaps the demand for food banks points to some problems that are not being addressed properly – certainly wages are stagnant.

  6. mikel says:

    Wow, talk about missing the big picture to debate details! What you are talking about is the ‘number of hours worked’ eligibility (which has dropped to 78%, a ten year low). Whether you can ACTUALLY collect EI depends not only which province you are in, but which region. My figures also came from the Mowat Centre, but hey, if you want to believe that that 30% are all people who have never paid into it, fine, that’s really besides the point.

    And I said TWENTY years ago, not FORTY or FIFTY years ago. Yes, its true, back in the fifties there was no healthcare either so ‘those things are better’. I am talking about federal and provincial support programs, which have all been severely cut. Food banks are run by municipal governments and charities, and many do not even get LOCAL breaks-they are simply charities. The overnight shelter in Fredericton gets NO municipal government funding, it is run completely by donations. If you want to look at it that way you have to also count the number who give handouts to the poor, since that is part of your definition of a ‘social safety net’. That figure is also probably way up, because like I said, when I was young you virtually never saw beggars on the street, so you couldn’t give money to them. By that theory you don’t need government AT ALL since the net is supported only by private donations. So why not get rid of health care altogether and let people pay for it out of pocket and let church’s and charities fund the poor who can’t?

    So let’s see the list of the ‘new support programs that exist now’ that did NOT exist in the 80’s. Heck, back then university was 80% subsidized by society taxes, now its down to about 30. In the seventies a university education cost you about $500, and the military paid the first two years if your parents were in the service,and that doesn’t even count bursaries or grant, which even in my day paid half your tuition outright. Those programs have been cut and there are almost NO funding sources for schooling for most people.

    And go look at welfare rates in New Brunswick. People on disability or welfare don’t even make the low income threshold. A single male on welfare gets about $550 a month to live on-no matter WHERE they live.

    I used to do a good business ‘back in the day’ because I had a landscaping business and veterans got tons of money from the feds for no other reason than for their lawn mowing and snow shovelling. That program has been long gone-although I have heard that the twenty year fight by veterans paid off a bit when some of it was reinstated-no doubt to get their votes.

    I don’t know about NB, but the only new programs available here are through libraries and municipal governments. And these are pretty lean, mostly done by libraries who are desperate now to prove that they have some kind of function besides being a place where people can sign out movies for free. And this is a RICH area of Ontario which has been hard hit by job losses, and if its this bad here, I doubt very much that a poor province like NB is any better. Of course a LOT of training is simply ‘free’ if you have high speed internet, but if you are going to start to call the internet part of the ‘social safety net’ then we’ve got real problems with terminology (especially since most places have no programs which supply it).

    I do a fair amount of charity work with the poor, and I’ve gotta say, if you make a comment like “PERHAPS the demand for food banks point to some problems that are not being addressed properly” then I hate to be critical, but you REALLY have no idea what is going on out there.

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