The former head of UNB gave a speech over the weekend where he called for dramatic change. He thinks we need “new institutions” and that the “role of government needs to be retaught”. I only met Dr. McLaughlin a couple of times and I found him to be an interesting guy. He seemed to get the inter-connectedness of UNB with the success/failure of the wider NB economy and not just in the submission to government for funding sense.
I might be getting more cynical in my old age but while I agree with most of his points I don’t think he or anyone else has made the case that systemic, broad-based change is necessary. We say it – I say it on a daily basis - but nothing changes ergo the people don’t seem to want it.
You could easily make the case that NB doesn’t need to change a thing – it just needs to float along and drift with the winds of change. If the feds cut back transfers, you cut back the budget a bit, raise some taxes a bit, hope the restart of the economy with generate more revenues. The system in Canada won’t let a province collapse. Just promise to cut ambulance fees, reinstate a ferry or two, talk vaguely about budget management and public engagement and you will get elected. And this is definitely a non-partisan issue.
For me this goes back almost 15 years when a senior advisor to Frank McKenna told me that economic development-issues rank 5th or 6th on all their internal polling. Even back when unemployment rates were very high this was the case. The only time that economic development raised higher on polls than potholes was after a flashpoint issue like a major plant closure but in general the public never really made the link between government action and public policy and economic development.
But there is not much need rehashing all this stuff – it all comes down to practicality. Most New Brunswickers don’t like change. The ones that are in good public and private sector jobs are doing just fine. They have a relatively low cost of living and a pretty good quality of life. The folks that are struggling could have left for Alberta but haven’t so they are likely not leaving unless there is no other option. And the rapidly growing group of retirees or close to retirees have no interest in change.
People over 60 were against the NB Power sale two to one over people under 25 (although that one poll had a high margin of error). I get myself in hot water when I say this because I do have a lot of respect for the older generation and I am very thankful for the massive changes of the 1960s and 1970s on the social front. New Brunswick made massive strides in those decades in social policy but now that very same generation is highly resistent to the kinds of economic change that we need right now. Many of them – based on my interaction – are the most resistent to attracting investment and even immigration. You must remember the rant in the Telegraph-Journal recently from a guy who had moved back to Saint John and didn’t want it to become “Los Angeles”.
Well, no one in the world is talking about transforming Saint John into Los Angeles but this is symptomatic of the broader reality. What demographic group in New Brunswick would wholly embrace the kind of change Dr. McLaughlin is talking about?
How about the government sector? There are 90,000 people working in public administration, health care and education in New Brunswick. When people come in talking about ‘rightsizing’ government and better management of costs – which one of the 90,000 is going to put their hand up and say me first?
How about the seniors? I was in a smaller NB community not that long ago where the local economic development officer wanted to make some pretty impressive changes like expanding the industrial park, etc. but the older people were by in large against it. When he said “your property taxes will have to go up if we cant build up the commercial tax base” they responded “put our taxes up” we like things as they are. It’s hard to fight that logic.
How about the younger generation? I appreciate some of the initiatives such as 21Inc. to raise awareness among young people but my sense of it is they aren’t getting all weepy about the state of NB’s economy. If they have a great job here – most of them are content to stay – if not they are content to leave. It’s been a preoccupation of mine in recent years to try and understand what makes a culture sticky – what things need to be in place for people to want to stay or to really miss a place once they leave (think Cape Breton or Ireland)? Do we need more Anne Murrays?
How about the small business sector? Are they standing up demanding full bore economic development? Not in my experience.
Who then is going to champion a broad-based change initiative that re-invents a smaller, more nimble and successful government? Who is going to champion an economic clusters strategy that might mean saying no to the current model of sprinkling taxpayer dollars across the province across dozens of industries? Neither the Tories nor the Libs have done so in the past so I think it is unlikely they will in the future.
It a bit of a longer rant this morning but I really think that change in society – true change starts with a clearly articulated view of what that really means and finding groups in society to help generate broad-based support.
Change will come to New Brunswick but it will be forced on us by outside influences. The Feds will cut hundreds of millions out of their transfers to New Brunswick over the next few years (maybe not in hard cuts but cuts in the growth of transfers which amounts to the same thing) and there will be no call centre sector to channel in thousands of new jobs. So public spending will be cut – no matter who is in power they will have no choice and we can look forward to a decade of anemic economic performance and population stagnation or decline.
But if it is forced upon us – people will grumble but they will accept it. If a provincial government tries to initiate it without being able to blame the federal government, I think they will not accept it.
I’ll keep pounding away here, though. It’s kind of fun and what else am I going to do? I earn a living working with a wedge of folks in this province that are trying to change things from within and I am happy to do so. It’s just hard to see how these folks will ever get any real traction without a broader collective will to change and I don’t see that happening.