Driving government through the rearview mirror

Warning: this post is regionally specific. For out-of-region readers, New Brunswick is a state of mind located north of Maine. It has a population of just 750,000 people spread across some 28,000 square miles, and is the only province in officially bilingual Canada that is, well, officially bilingual. Nearly a third of the population is French-speaking. A large segment of the population remains rural and over half of the population is Roman Catholic. And so...

The problem with New Brunswick is, it doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up—even though it has one of the oldest elected governments in the country.

In 1758, for those of us who aren’t history buffs, Nova Scotia held the first general election in pre-constitutional Canada. This was followed by Prince Edward Island in 1773, and New Brunswick in 1785. These three provinces originally planned to get together at the Charlottetown Conference in 1864 to form the Maritime Union. The idea for the union was to consolidate the region’s power with respect to trading with the U.S. Eastern Seaboard.

Why is this important? Because Ontario and Quebec crashed the party, and hijacked the agenda which resulted in the creation of a newer, bigger union, the Dominion of Canada in 1867.

This wasn’t necessarily a good thing for New Brunswick. Within a matter of months, the new central government erected federal trade barriers, which upset the historic trade relationship between the Maritime Provinces and New England. A union that had been conceived to help the East Coast trade economy ended up hurting it.

In some ways, New Brunswick never fully recovered. The province relied on shipbuilding to keep its economy going, but by the end of the 19th Century, wooden boats were on their way out. People began to leave the region to look for work elsewhere—which became a recurring provincial theme, especially during and following the Great Depression.

It seems that, from Confederation onward, successive provincial governments have lacked the ability to create a new vision for revitalizing New Brunswick. Fortunately, over time, the Connors, Irving and McCain families managed to create large, vertically integrated companies that carried the province into the modern economic era.

There have been two exceptional—and successful—attempts to reinvigorate the province. Starting in the 1950s Louis Robichaud began a process of social equalization in health care, education and bilingualism, which has proven to be an enduring legacy. And throughout the 1980s, Frank McKenna created a pro-business development program that involved tax incentives for new business, small business creation, an open door policy for the premier’s office and an aggressive promote-New Brunswick communications campaign. Louis had a vision of equal opportunity for all, and Frank had a vision of a province open for business.

Despite the two successes, I contend that the Province of New Brunswick still doesn’t know where it’s going. It’s somehow still struggling with the culture of economic defeat it inherited from Confederation—a backwater province operating under the shadows of Ontario and Quebec.

Rather than having a vision for the province, recently elected parties of both colours seem to either have vague wish lists or vague austerity programs, depending on the general economic climate and the availability of federal cash.

These are tactical reactions. By tactics, I mean pulling the levers of government to manage “the problems.” The proposed sale of NB Power was one of those tactics that got the last government into deep doo-doo. The new Progressive Conservative government is heading down the tactical road with its plans to slash civil service jobs and implement highway tolls. It’s a move that two senior economists, Brian Steeves, former economist with the Finance Department and Mike Wong, former chief economist at NB Power, say is unwarranted and may do more harm than good. Better to undo some of the past tax breaks the Liberals handed out (which will amount to $380 million next year) or to simply wait and ride out the recession.

Yes, good advice guys. But still tactical, just pulling on different levers. Where, we should ask, is the strategy? And what do I mean by a strategy? A strategy is an “own the top of the mountain” approach. And the top of the mountain involves three very basic resources: energy, the environment and human enterprise.

Here’s an example of what I mean (repeated again, for those who haven’t been reading this space over the past six months). We, all of us on the planet, are facing a looming energy transition—from fossil fuels to other stuff. I propose that a new Maritime Union focused on transmitting and distributing the vast energy resource of Labrador’s Churchill Falls would create a huge new opportunity to export power to the U.S. through New Brunswick. But instead of getting in the game first, the governments of Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia are already working together on this deal—without us. Is anybody listening?

So far I haven’t been impressed by David Alward’s limp biscuit approach to New Brunswick’s future, any more than I was by Graham’s and Lord’s before him. Alward came to power, not because his party had a strategic vision, but because the public reacted to the previous government’s bad tactics. Invoking more management tactics won’t create a better future.

Here’s a tip to the driver. Mr. Alward, looking back through the rearview mirror and constantly adjusting it isn’t the brightest way to move this bus ahead.


  1. That sounds distressingly familiar. I will pass on the driving tip to our 'sterling' drivers.

  2. If your juridiction shares similarities, you're not alone. Very few operations, private or public, work with any sense of vision any more. The technocrats run the world now, and they all share a disturbing lack of soul. Though that's likely been distilled out of them over the 16 to 24 years of institutional indoctrination before beginning any real service to others... Sad, really. We're caught inside our own machinery.


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