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.