We’re not gonna take it, no we ain’t gonna take it

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with a politically astute guy who thinks that uranium mining will be the top wedge issue in the next provincial election.

It does seem to me, although I don’t claim to understand the body politic as much as others, that the collective mood of New Brunswickers is changing. Just a couple of decades ago, New Brunswickers were deeply conservative (not necessarily Conservative) – not people much for quick change. Take the NBTel example. After telephone companies were deregulated, NBTel kept an unbelievable 98% long distance market share for a number of years – far more than any other province – even though the alternatives at the time were considerably cheaper. Was it because NBTel was so great? Possibly, but more likely people were satisfied with NBTel because it was a good telco and not willing to change. Think about politics. Hatfield was in for 4-5 terms. McKenna won three and could’ve likely won a fourth.

I think that chronic out-migration does this to a community/province. People that move out are, almost by definition, more predisposed to change and changing their lives. People that stay – even when there is some compelling reasons to leave – are more reluctant to change.

But, these days, I think New Brunswickers are starting to take the Twisted Sister route (see the title of this blog) and are far more prickly when it comes to what politicians call ‘wedge’ issues. Think auto insurance. Think Bennet/Belledune. Think “rootin’ for Hootin” in Saint John (remember that?).

You know the old story about “turning the other cheek” well eventually people get fed up and come back at you hard. And that may be happening here.

People feel frustrated about mills closing. They feel angry about other broader issues and that anger might just come together and make uranium mining a galvanizing issue in the election.

Who knows? My own opinion is that if it is properly done, uranium mining is rather benign but as I have said elsewhere – really how would I know? I just rely on the position papers and public pronouncements by experts (and I have a jaded view of the NB Conservation Council – in fact I tend to reflexively snap back against any position they take because of the crap I have seen).

But the reality doesn’t matter – as you know. Politics is about feeling and emotion and if people start channeling broader angst about the economy, about their kids having to leave the province, about environmental concerns, about French Immersion, etc. – I think the next election in New Brunswick could be a real barn burner.

After all, remember 2003. Old Bernie won by one seat. After only one term in office. I think no New Brunswick Premier can feel safe after the lessons of both 2003 and 2006. I was told by someone who should know that the Tories internal polling had them up by 13-14 points pre the 2006 election and they lost. That’s another funny thing about deeply conservative people – they are unlikely to share their true feelings with strangers on the telephone.

Of course, that will depend in large part on who the Tories appoint as leader. They may just appoint a transitional leader – it has been done before – and almost concede the next election. But if they appoint someone who can quickly engage the public and can exploit some of these wedge issues – who knows?

We could be in for an interesting political time.

I have said over and over again that we need to have a government that has 2 or 3 maybe four consecutive mandates to implement a real growth agenda for New Brunswick. The problem with these quick changes (and I include Bernie as a quick change as he was so gun shy after 2003 he didn’t do much), is that the next gang rolls in with their own version of change, get bumped off, and the cycle continues. Bernard Lord’s education plan (remember that?) was supposed to make us third in Canada for standardized test scores within 10 years. We are now, I guess, five years into that plan and we are still last. Bernie’s innovation plan was going to put us in the top three provinces in Canada for R&D spending per capita. Now, six or seven years in, I guess, we are still dead last. And the new guys have a plan.

So, I would like to see a government stay in for 10-12 years and do some really neat stuff. Really move the yardstick forward. Turn the tide on out-migration. Make substantive change.

But you need the right mix of people to get that done.