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.