From a recent TJ column:
While it would be hard to argue there is widespread unrest across New Brunswick, there certainly are a lot of spirited battles underway on a number of fronts.
Civil servants are outraged about proposed changes to their pensions. There are rolling protests around the province decrying the injustice of Employment Insurance (EI) reform. A determined group of environmentalists and NIMBYists are determined to halt the development of shale gas and, I suspect, are ramping up to protest any plan for a new oil pipeline.
Even the province’s windmills once a sign of our green pedigree are coming under increased fire for despoiling our pristine landscape and causing migraine headaches among nearby residents.
Welcome to democracy. Everyone’s a rebel with a cause. Everyone fights for their rights. To paraphrase former federal Cabinet Minister David Dingwall, everyone is entitled to their entitlements.
And yet interestingly, after the recent by-election in Kent County, morning newspapers led with “Party leaders agree: voters worried about the economy”.
Really? I am suspicious of that claim. My hunch is that EI reform, shale gas and all of the other targeted grievances were at play far more than any view that Party X or Party Y was going to ‘fix the economy’.
Not that long ago, Premier Alward went to the Miramichi to announce a new company was setting up in the beleaguered city. Was he met by protestors demanding more jobs and economic growth? No, he was met by protestors outraged that hospital beds might be cut.
Of all the causes mentioned above, which ones will address the Kent County voters’ so-called angst about the economy? Rolling back government retiree pension reform? Halting shale gas and stopping an oil pipeline? How about cancelling the EI reforms? Will that fix the economy? Certainly tipping over the windmills and shipping them off to Ontario is not likely to put us back on the road to economic prosperity.
New Brunswick’s economic performance has lagged for decades because there hasn’t been enough private sector investment and ambitious entrepreneurship.
It is unlikely we will see protestors pouring out if Tim Hortons’ with placards demanding the government attract more private industry to the province. It is unlikely you will see social groups extolling the virtues of entrepreneurship, profit making and wealth creation.
Other than that poor, solitary sign on a vacant lot in Blackville that reads “Say yes to shale gas!” it is very unlikely you will ever see a serious protest in favour of shale gas, oil pipelines, mining projects or any other kind of industrial development.
I’m not suggesting pension reform, EI changes or even windmills shouldn’t be vigorously debated in the public square. I am saying that most of the battles we fight as citizens – those that get us whipped up into a frenzy – won’t get the province closer to addressing our longer term economic (and increasingly demographic) challenges.
We need to find a way to get the public seriously interested in the economic development of our communities.
But it’s not easy. Previous economic downturns in the 1970s, 1980s and the early 1990s all featured high unemployment coupled with a younger workforce. New graduates and young families were understandably worried about their personal future.
Now, a large percentage of the workforce is closing in on retirement and not particularly worried about the future. In addition, the high level of migration out of the province has reduced both overall unemployment and the percentage of young people still in the workforce.
It’s much easier to get a retiree to protest windmills than to protest lack of jobs and entrepreneurial activity.
That, in a nutshell, is our problem.