“Sure, it bugs me,” declares New Brunswick Premier David Alward, momentarily annoyed, during an hour-long conversation in a hotel conference room in downtown Moncton. We’re here to talk about the state of a province that, in his words, faces “a perfect storm” of fiscal, economic and demographic challenges the likes of which it has encountered, frankly, never. And what do other people want to talk about as he enters his last half of a four-year mandate?
“I don’t know how anyone could describe us as closed or uncommunicative or not inclusive,” says the pastor’s son—a certified psychological counselor, former community developer and active rural hobby farmer—of his Progressive Conservative cabinet.
Still, these days, “anyone” does, and frequently.
His Liberal and New Democratic opponents say he’s opaque, insisting that he and his political lieutenants have broken their promise, the one that got them elected in 2010, to polish Fredericton by shining a bright light on all its hidden places and sanitizing the public square with a hefty application of Mr. Cleanspeak.
Elsewhere, in the partisan landscape, environmental groups accuse him of conducting backroom deals with oil and gas companies interested in tearing open the province’s rich shale reserves for fun and profit. They say he’s far less the dispassionate public servant, dedicated to the democratic interest of all, and far more the industrial apologist looking for a way to feather his nest for political posterity.
If that’s not enough, his precipitous cuts to the province’s civil service have made him a closed book to many of the very people he has charged with carrying out his administrative agenda, prompting professional chatterers to wonder in the opinion pages of the print, broadcast and online media whether the man who rode into office on the vow of “openness” actually understands the word’s meaning.
The irony, of course, is that “openness” has been Alward’s manifest calling card since he assumed office from his transparently secretive opposite number, ousted Liberal Premier Shawn Graham. Where the latter protected his counsel like a security guard working a double shift, the former has gone out of his way at public events to explain, in often exquisite detail, his plans and priorities.
Certainly, Alward would never think of pulling a stunt like Graham’s announcement—his October 2009 surprise—to sell New Brunswick Power to Hydro Quebec, a move that both gobsmacked and infuriated the province and effectively put a period at the end of the Grit leader’s political career. Indeed, the current office-holder in Fredericton won’t even consider increasing the provincial portion of the Harmonized Sales Tax—a relatively routine measure that would generate millions of dollars in muchneeded revenue—without first calling a public referendum.
No, apart from politics as usual, the likely explanation for the general perception that Alward and his cabinet are somehow evasive, despite solid evidence that they’re not, is that times are hard in the “Purple Violet” province; and when times are hard, people lose faith in the conventions of their democracy and in those they elect to run their government. In such circumstances, the public regards every announcement with suspicion and demands its representatives to . . . well, represent, even as it declares, with one collective voice, “What are you not telling us?”
Alward understands the phenomenon, though, as he says, it “bugs” him. He also appreciates that people want to believe he has a game plan, a simple and direct route out of the deep, dark woods. Sitting here today, as the early November sun begins to set, he simply wishes it were that simple.
“There are just no easy solutions,” he says. “There is no magic bullet. Look at what we are facing. It’s a perfect storm. We have the uncertainty in Europe. We have the stalemate that’s been going on for three years in the United States concerning the fiscal situation there, the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’. So we have an investment climate that favors holding on to money, rather than making it (work) in the economy. Also, consider that as a percentage of its GDP, New Brunswick is the most tradeoriented province in Canada. That says to me that when the U.S. isn’t feeling well, there’s a ripple effect that takes place in New Brunswick.”
Still, global forces don’t fully account for the wretched state of the province’s finances: An annual deficit of $350 million and a long-term debt nearing $11 billion in a jurisdiction of barely 750,000 souls. The conventional wisdom, in economic circles, lays this squarely at the feet of previous governments who cut taxes to unsustainably low levels and spent like drunken sailors on shore leave. When Alward took office, the yearly shortfall approached $1 billion.
“When we first came in, we said we wanted to change the culture of government,” Alward says. “We brought forward Lean Six Sigma (management practices) to our departments. We have been bringing in measurements and performance indicators into all aspects of government to know where we are and where we want to be heading.”
The result has been program and personnel cuts, with more to come. In his March budget speech, Finance Minister Blain Higgs indicated that as many as 4,500 employees will leave the civil service by 2015. This, combined with new “efficiencies” in the way the government operates could recoup more than $80 million. “We will replace only those positions that are critical to the delivery of core government services, resulting in a net reduction in the size of the public service,” he said, adding that changes to sick leave rules could save “millions of dollars” more.
Alward hates the word “cuts”, even as hundreds of provincial servants periodically gather in media savvy locations to protest his agenda. “That’s not the right term,” he says. “Ultimately, we are here to find the best and most efficient way to deliver. There’s a good example in health care where, in one instance, we were looking at a waiting list of 20 weeks. They (civil servants) were able to bring that down to two weeks without significantly or negatively impacting the system . . . I think we need to change the paradigm to some degree.”
Many outside government wholeheartedly agree. A few wonder, however, if Team Alward isn’t going far or fast enough. In an interview with CBC in November, Donald Savoie, a Canada research chair in public administration and governance at the University of Moncton, said the provincial government “will have to eat its words and look at taxes. Let me be blunt here: I don’t think it is wise to say, ‘No tax increases this mandate.’ I think they will have to look at new taxes or increasing the level of taxation in certain areas. I just don’t think they can see themselves through this problem by pruning more spending. It’s just not there.”
For Alward, tax increases, especially a hike in the HST, remains a non-starter— at least, for the time being. “I get the question on raising taxes a lot,” he says. “But I didn’t run on a mandate to increase the HST . . . I cannot in good faith say to the people of New Brunswick that we’ve done all we need to do to ensure that their government is as efficient and as good at providing programs and services as it can possibly be.”
This, Alward knows, leaves the government with only one recourse: Working with the private sector to rebuild the economy, which is, at the moment, one of the most anemic in Canada. With an unemployment rate of 11 per cent, a real GDP growth rate of 1.3 per cent, and a personal income growth rate of not much more than three per cent, New Brunswick pulls up the rear in just about every indicator that matters. “I have been concerned about the fact that for the fourth time in a row, we’ve seen the unemployment rate go up,” the premier says. “But I have now got a committee of cabinet that is starting to look specifically at the economy and jobs. And we’ve been doing a number of things.”
In fact, he insists, despite appearances, all is not doom and gloom. The province’s information, communications and technology sector, for example, employs 30,000 people in stable, high-paying jobs. The defence and aerospace sector is beginning to gain a foothold, as are biosciences and value-added forestry operations. As he rattles off these emergent successes, he carefully avoids taking credit for any of them.
Still, he clearly relishes the public policies that, he believes, are contributing: “We have come forward with a revamped economic development strategy that focuses on six key segments (information and communications technology; biosciences; industrial fabrication; aerospace and defence; value-added wood; and value-added food) . . . We have come forward with an organization called Invest New Brunswick which is focusing on (opportunities) outside the province. Actually, we have been successful in having ING Direct come to Moncton, thanks to our bilingual labour force.”
Perhaps the biggest opportunity for the New Brunswick economy is also the most controversial. Shale gas development could generate, by some estimates, hundreds-ofmillions of dollars a year in royalties for provincial coffers. It could also provide fuel to heat every home for more than 500 years. According to a government fact sheet, there could be 67 trillion cubic feet of the stuff, trapped in sedimentary rock, beneath the surface. But, as tantalizing as this might seem, a vocal lobby of opponents worry about what the unconventional extraction method—hydraulic fracturing—will do to the province’s supply of drinking water.
“We should want to create an economy built on clean, long-term, sustainable, healthy jobs,” Stephanie Merrill, director of freshwater protection for the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, told Brunswick News Inc. (BNI) in November. “Shale gas provides none of that.”
Others aren’t as certain. “I’m in favour of shale gas development because we can’t afford to pick and choose what industries New Brunswick will develop,” University of New Brunswick economics professor David Murrell countered in the same BNI article. “Whatever is there to be developed has to be developed, irrespective of what it is. It has to be developed because we can’t afford to be naysayers anymore.”
Not surprisingly, the premier and his cabinet have been criticized by those on both sides of the debate: for, on the one hand, throwing their putative support behind the industry; and for, on the other, taking too much time deciding if, how, and when commercial production shall proceed; for, in effect, not being clear and (that word, again) “open.
Naturally, Alward doesn’t see it that way. He vows to introduce a blueprint for a tough regulatory regime in the current session of the Legislative Assembly. “The work that we are doing to develop the natural gas sector, shale gas, in this province . . . It’s not always popular,” he says. “But we are moving forward in a strategic way because we believe there is tremendous opportunity in all of this to build our economy.”
All of which paints a picture of a premier whose game plan for New Brunswick is more a constellation of what he might call “capacity-building” initiatives and less a focused effort on the “big get” — an approach that, while sensible, is not always sufficiently coherent to the general public (or tactically immune from political attacks) to deflect charges of diffidence or worse, artifice.
“Look,” he says, “I wish it was easy to say we’re going to have another RIM land here or whatever. But the days of seeing another 1,000 or 2,000 jobs just come . . . I don’t know that those days are going to be here for awhile . . . You can always wish that you had the opportunity to govern in an easier time. But we have to focus on what we are doing and what we can do.”
Ultimately, that’s about as frank and honest as David Alward needs to get in a province whose people grow increasingly wary of the shadows that lurk behind just about every corner of their economy.