Symapathy for politicians

Once in a while I truly feel sympathy for politicians.  They get hammered right and left in the press, blogs and Tim Horton talk.  I guess they know that going in and in fact the personality type for many of them likes the fight. 

Think about what is going on right now.  I am not commenting one way or the other on these issues but consider them.  We are facing the largest budget deficit in history in this province.  It’s clear that transfer payments from the feds are bound to moderate or even go down and the province has gone ahead with deep tax cuts.

Ergo, the province will need to make deep cuts in cost or pack back on new taxes – maybe even higher than before.

Think about the Deer Island Ferry.  Again, regardless of where you stand on the issue, this is a good example of how the province can hardly cut a few bucks without incensing someone.  That guy sending around all the Derry Island ferry email alerts literally says let’s make a stand that the government will never cut any more public services ever (I paraphrase but it is close).

Then you have the docs.  Again, I don’t want to debate the merits of the issue itself just that we are supposedly in the worst recession since the 1930s.  I can tell you in the 1930s, doctors were generating almost no revenue – not worry about increases.

Then you have the folks in Moncton demanding compensation because the water system backed up into the basements of 100 homes.  They guy on the radio today said “someone is liable for this” – the implication, of course, it that it isn’t him.

Then we have lovely health care.  Over 4,000 new health care workers in a decade and we still want more. 

The point is that we want it all but we want someone else to pay.  We demand our rights but don’t accept our responsibilities.

If we want a sustainable health care system, we – the public – need to take ownership.  We need to support efforts to keep cost increases within or near the rate of inflation.  

Same with other public services. New Brunswick – by just about every measure – offers more pervasive public services than just about anywhere in Canada.  We have more civil servants than just about anywhere, we have more kms of paved and serviced roads per capita than just about anywhere, we have five universities – or about one per 145,000 people.  We have more hospitals, schools, etc. 

But we want more.  And more.  And we fight just about any effort at consolidation.  Think about the Finn report.  A rational approach to migrating from – literally – a 19th century model of local governance to a 21st cenutury model – but you know the placards and zealots will be out in full on that one.

It’s destructive.  I realize it is democracy but it is destructive.  Just to beat down things without offering ways to build things up – is destructive.  

We puff our chests out when we fight the man and scare them off from making any necessary reforms but then we wonder why New Brunswick continues to stagnate. 

I’ll end with this little story which I have used before but it continues to stick in my mind.  It was back just after Bernard Lord won power and became Premier.  I was in Fredericton about a week before his first budget and I struck up a conversation with a young fellow working in either the Premier’s office or some other political position. 

In an animated way he told me that old Bernie was going to crack down on those farmers.  They were receiving too many subsidies.  “Did you know,” he asked me “that the New Brunswick taxpayer pays farmers to put their cows on barges and transfer them to those islands in the middle of the Saint John river?”  He said “we are going to fix that”. 

Sure enough, Lord’s first budget announced a number of sweeping changes to the subsidy regime for farmers.  And equally sure enough, the farmers drover their tractors to Fredericton in protest, Lord put the changes on hold to be ‘studied’ and they quietly went away.

Again, I’m picking on farmers or doctors or residents of Deer island.  If I was one of those, I suspect I would be demanding my rights as well but at some point we need to be able to put our community hat on or our provincial hat.  We all have a stake in this and if it goes to hell in a hand basket ultimately we are to blame not our politicians. 

I have been fighting for a better economic development model for New Brunswick since the mid 1990s with little luck.  Now I fear we are heading into a long wilderness period where costs will be shaved, taxes raised, long term debt increased – etc. 

Done for now but hopefully we will start to see ourselves as 0.0001% of a province rather than 100% of an economy of one.

15 thoughts on “Symapathy for politicians

  1. I wasn’t going to comment until you made the claim “this is democracy”. Canada is a constitutional monarchy with a system of ‘responsible government’. NOT a democracy. Just because we have elections for a party to run things doesn’t make one a democracy. Likewise, the ‘freedoms’ we have don’t make one a democracy. They are nice of course, but not necessarily democratic.

    That’s not just nitpicking because it comes down to the crux of the matter-when people have no power, the ONLY thing they can do is defend what they have, and why wouldn’t they?

    Don’t feel sorry for politicians. All any politician has to do is demand democracy. To announce that any major decision will be put to a riding referendum and the people’s will will be the mandate. It’s so far the other way that Graham cancelled the referendum on proportional representation, something that was bound to fail anyway (or maybe he knew just how pissed off he was going to make everybody and thought there was a chance the NDP would benefit off that).

    Like you say, if you were a farmer you’d protest to, if you managed to get a subsidy for that, well, at least YOU ‘feed cities’. Irving’s natural gas is going straight to the US and you are subsidizing THAT, so why would farmers expect any less (in fact it IS less). Why wouldn’t you expect decent medical care since you’ve basically been subsidizing pulp mills for decades?

    But again, all politicians have to do is represent the will of the people. That Catch 22 you mention is very true, mainly because there are lots of different types of voters out there with different incomes and interests. Our taxes went up here in ontario, it doesn’t bother us because we can afford it. So parents get upset when they hear of cuts to education, or additions to the deficit because they have kids. People with elderly parents or health problems get upset at cuts to health. And we all goosestepped along when the business press wanted balanced budgets even if it kills you. People tend to call canadian voters a single mass, so ‘it’ often seems contradictory. It’s just BIG, and varied.

    In Switzerland, and even next door in Maine, voters are far more savvy, because they know the issues-they know the issues because they VOTE on the issues. They have a ‘civic society’. Imagine your next election with a ballot that says ‘do you agree to a bond issue of X amount for the X project’. We can’t even imagine it because democracy isn’t part of our system.

    As for politicians, they are VERY well paid, and actually aren’t NEARLY as accessible as some people think (that varies of course). And its only hard work if you think shaking hands is ‘work’. A car salesman has to do that-and a hell of a lot more. They only work half the year, and vote along party lines so don’t even have to read legislation. And some ridings are different than others, close ridings tend to make better politicians. Meanwhile, to steal from Charles playbook, right now you have a government that took advantage of the flood in Fredericton to pass a new pension plan while unplugging the cameras. Any way you look at it, even without the raise, thats just a scummy thing to do. As I’ve mentioned before, New Brunswick is the only province where you can’t even find out how your local rep voted unless you live in Fredericton. While most provinces have all the hansards back to the 90’s listed, you still have to join a mailing list to find out what was actually said in the legislature (and that mailing list is pretty sporadic). And you almost NEVER hear from individual politicians ‘making noise’ or demanding change.

    It’s true that in ‘playing the game’ a politician has their work cut out for them, but governing is no game, and its easy enough for a politician to BE democratic. It just takes some guts. Ironically, it doesn’t take that many guts, because canadians actually LOVE a politician who even gets thrown out of their party. Some dumb ones like Garth Turner make the mistake of joining another party-and pay for it. Democracy is actually pretty popular and a politician could take advantage of that-look at Scott Reid in Ottawa. That they don’t says a lot about the current state of politicians.

  2. The politicians are their own worst enemies by setting unrealistic expectations. We need a leader that presents reality and sets appropriate priorities.

    It is good to have pride and a positive outlook but we also need some reality. Start by explaining the debt and deficit and what it means for our children. Highlight the dependency on Federal transfers and just how long it will take us to recover even if we turn things around and start climbing out of the hole instead of going in deeper. Maybe we need an annual reminder like a notice that explains just how much debt each tax payer is responsible for, how much of our tax money goes for debt servicing and how much we depend on the Feds. Those of us on this blog can figure those numbers out but those continuing to demand more public service and lower taxes need this information broadcasted.

    Present the sad outlook for an economy dependent on forestry and traditional fisheries and the need to transform.

    Explain that we have a poor education system and we want to make it better. Communicate that we need to create good jobs to attract and retain people and therefore we need an effective economic development strategy (and I mean true economic development not political photo opportunities).

    Then explain that we cannot, at this time, afford to pave every cow path in the province. We may have to charge tolls on the highways we build for the transport trucks headed to Nova Scotia. We might have to continue playing hockey outdoors on ponds and lakes as we want to build schools rather than hockey rinks. There are many other examples of ‘nice to dos’ rather than ‘need to dos’. With scarce resources, we need to prioritize spending.

    This is unlikely to happen until things get more desperate and/or we have major political changes such as proportional representation or restrictions on our borrowing capacity.

  3. The key here is information flow. The hot button issues get play because they are straight forward – someone is losing something and the benefits (if any) are unclear to most. We seldom see in our print media much in the way of detailed in-depth and rational discussion of the issues David has raised. The conversation is mainly about tax cuts (and benefits of same, without much re the adverse consequences that flow from those cuts), government ‘waste’, and how great things are here.

    Without a better information flow, it does not really matter how many referenda you have. Look at California – referenda verdicts have put the state into a fiscal mess. Those that benefit from lower taxes and less regulation have controlled the information flow in mass media. So much so that even those who stand to benefit from a more sensible tax policy (those less well-off) tend to vote against reforms.

    If we want to change the conversation in the mass media and get more people talking about these issues in a rational way, we need to get better quality information into these media. In other words, the media need more alternatives to AIMS – the 24/7 talking head service provided by the corporate interests. One of the best things that UNB could do right now is to get funds to set up a group(s) that 1) provides clear data and analysis (in a media-friendly way) on public issues relating to taxation and fiscal policy 2) provides ‘transparency’ information on who is doing what in NB (how MLAs are voting, who’s funding what, etc).

  4. Actually, its not the referenda that have put California in a fiscal mess-it never was, but that’s often the play in the media, because the american media doesn’t like democracy any more than the canadian government. Besides that, there are 24 other states who have referenda on budget matters and they are not in the state california is in, neither is switzerland, which has referenda at every level of government. You might as well say that because they have oranges in California, and because they are in a fiscal mess (not nearly as bad as is sometimes played up) therefore the finances are because of oranges.

    The GOOD thing about referenda is that in order for a referendum to function properly, the information needs to get out their or the government can be sued. So its far more likely that that transparancy and alternative views are presented. Take a look at the VLT referenda, even though it was illegallly operated (the government didn’t even follow its own financing laws and allowed VLT operators to basically spend what they wanted), there was still lots of information out there on VLT’s.

    The media HAS lots of alternatives to AIMS, most aren’t local but that doesn’t matter. It’s not a coincidence that if AIMS isn’t around, then they call the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which says basically the same thing. However, there are lots of organizations like the Canadian Centre for Policy ALternatives, Pembrina and others.

    I should add that deficit spending is not lost on most canadians, since the nineties its been bludgeoned by the media that deficits must be eliminated. So much so that governments passed laws enforcing them-although now we see what they are worth.

    And its also no coincidence that the only person likely to try to find the voting patterns and records of MLA’s is Charles-and he was banned from the building. STU has a journalism faculty that works closely with the CBC, and for some reason they don’t even BOTHER with electoral issues.

  5. ” most aren’t local but that doesn’t matter….. However, there are lots of organizations like the Canadian Centre for Policy ALternatives, Pembrina and others.”

    Sorry, but none of those organizations offer 24/7 talking heads. That’s what is needed to act as a counterpoint to AIMS. You need talking points, backed up by data, that are accessible to media. CCPL, Pembina, et al rarely deal with NB issues and so are largely irrelevant. NB needs a research centre (one that unlike AIMS actually does scholarly research) that addresses these issues.

    California’s problems are largely due to referenda and their impacts on tax revenue, both local and statewide. But the issue is not referenda per se, its (as I said above) who controls the information flow. By controlling information, you can determine the outcome. That’s the key, not whatever mechanism you want to propose to reflect the public’s will. The history of propaganda shows it is fairly easy to sway the public, referenda or not. Referenda in NB would likely change little given our current media.

    “We might have to continue playing hockey outdoors on ponds and lakes as we want to build schools rather than hockey rinks. ”

    Point taken. One of the most discussed issues in Freddy over the past few years has been the debate over where to build the new hockey/rec centres and whether to keep or tear down York and Na’sis arenas. Bread and circuses, bread and circuses.

  6. Richard ASSUMES that having more information means something about political power-it doesn’t. EVERY New Brunswicker knew they were getting screwed on the LNG-Irving deal. There was TONS of information on the government’s french language educational changes-there were over 10,000 members of ONE organization that started simply to combat those changes. People were dissecting all the various reports from experts, and talking about the issue at length. That made ZERO change in policy. There is a reason that voter turnout across the country has been plummeting-and it certainly isnt’ lack of information, there is more varied information out there now than there has EVER been.

    I’ve posted about California before, Richard simply refuses to believe the evidence. There have been studies done and available at that conclude that California’s problems were NOT a result of referenda -if anything Enron and energy deregulation is far more culpable, go download the documentary “Enron-the Smartest Guys in the Room”.

    That is very true about information, even in referenda-particularly in Canada, government typically has an agenda and attempts to control the outcome through various means. But what applies in Saskatchewan often applies to NB, it certainly isn’t like the CCPC is on Neptune or something and their results don’t apply-New Brunswick isn’t THAT special. And again, there are lots of economists working in NB, there are lots of studies. I’m not saying such a research centre wouldn’t be NICE, in fact I’ve posted on here that the REASON that Pembrina and CCPC don’t talk about NB is that there is no NB branch of the schools, like there is in Nova Scotia. AIMS, by the way, isn’t ALL bad, even the CCPC have used some of their studies. And just because such a centre existed doesn’t mean that the Irving press would use them, in fact since an Irving is chairman of AIMS, thats pretty good evidence they wouldn’t.

    However, people have to be careful that a research centre may not mirror what is often claimed at this website-this is a personal blog and research may not show the ‘popular’ outlook shared here. Just because ‘you don’t like it’ doesn’t make it bad research. There are problems in NB, but those problems aren’t all exclusive to NB. And aren’t even endemic to the whole province, if northern New Brunswick were part of Quebec then this blog would have little evidence of its claims. This blog isn’t always ‘right’ and its policies MAY not be what is best for the province. Just because a small group of bloggers THINK they are right, doesn’t make it so.

  7. Since its doubtful Richard will check out the research from the Marshal School of Business, here’s the smoking gun:

    “A review of all initiatives approved since 1912 shows that no more than 32 percent of appropriations in the 2003-04 budget were locked
    in by initiatives, and initiatives placed only minimal constraints on the legislature’s ability to raise revenue.

    Moreover, it seems likely that the legislature would have allocated much of the money to its dedicated purpose even if not required to do so by initiative. Initiatives do not appear to be a significant obstacle to balancing the state budget in California.” The complete study is available for download at the above site.

    That being said, any time ANYBODY wants to start up a branch of the CCPC for New Brunswick, or any kind of research institute, I’d gladly join in. I did a comprehensive counter study of one of AIMS ‘studies’ from years ago and it gathered dust because there was no place to send it. There was a group opposed to the Atlantica concept that had a website for awhile, but they are long gone. I went to see Ralph Nader last spring and he said (like Richard) that the most important thing to do is START ORGANIZATIONS. My point to Richard is the same as to myself when discussing direct democracy-if you have an idea, nobody else is going to champion it for you. They may JOIN you, but it has to start somewhere. I doubt it would have much affect, but you never know, and I’d definitely chip in, I’ll bet David would to. If he could reference a study on X for his articles or when Irving contacts him, I’m sure he’d be delighted.

    By the way, for Richard, the CITI here in Waterloo apparantly started with one guy in an office. The ‘Dominion Institute’ likewise started with two people, one being the originator.

  8. “Richard ASSUMES that having more information means something about political power-it doesn’t”

    I have no idea what that means. If you are suggesting that popular opinion is not influencing govt policy – that`s obviously wrong for a number of hot-button issues – tolls, FI, ferries. Govts do listen when the public gets upset. Problem is the public shows little or no sign about getting upset about the fiscal situation NB finds itself in. That`s unfortunately not a hot button issue.

    A basic problem in NB is that there is very little data-based discussion in the mass media on the fiscal issues that NBers face. The message in terms of tax policy and fiscal issues is dominated by AIMS and their allies. They have talking heads available 24/7. I have talked to reporters on a couple of stories and asked why they quoted AIMS and no one else – the answer was that no one else was available quickly enough to meet the press deadline. That’s was NB needs – a reputable source of data-based analysis prepared for rapid distribution. Then and only then can a rational discussion take place. You don`t need a popular uprising – you just need to get a rational discussion taking place among enough people to make a difference.

    We are not talking about hot button issues like FI (which by the way, was significantly modified after the protests) but we are talking about NBs fiscal situation. AIMS and their allies control that discussion now – and that is what has to change. Not just because they are wrong but because their talking points are based on beliefs unsupported by proper data analysis. We need an NB or Atlantic organization that can provide talking points 24-7 based on good data analysis. That`s the only way to get a discussion going in the press. Right now we are not having data-based discussions; we are just getting opinions, and uninformed ones at that.

  9. F1 significantly modified after 100 mostly kids protested! And does that tell you anything? Probably not. The facts of its damage doesn’t either. Learn to enjoy what you got, because it will only get worse.

  10. Like I said, I SHOWED the evidence where that is wrong. In fact, if you look at tolls, it was NOT the public, it was the Irving press who pushed getting rid of tolls for obvious reasons. The assumption has since been made that since the liberals lost the election ‘therefore’ people were opposed to tolls.

    Like I also said, in the LNG issue and french education debates there were HUGE protests, but did nothing to change government policy. So thats Richard’s opinion, which isn’t based on evidence. FI was modified, by the way,but primarily because it was a COURT ORDERED process.

    Finally, AIMS views are NOT ‘uninformed’, they are just biased, and all studies will have some bias. A reporter may SAY that’s why they chose a particular view, but reporters don’t control content-editors do. And we have pretty graphic testimony as to how rigid that is at the Irving press, particularly the Telegraph Journal. There are LOTS of economists who are just a phone call away from any reporter, so the idea that they ‘just can’t find anybody else’ is pretty specious.

    By the way, I am very much suggesting that public opinion doesn’t influence government policy. SOMETIMES it does, but just take a look at NB legislation. There were HUGE protests to BAN uranium mining-it was only modified. Its true that the protests influenced government enough for them to make some changes, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. People wanted to BAN uranium mining, but government refused. People didn’t want the LNG deal, it went through anyway. This is very true in NB because there are only two parties who essentially say almost the same thing. Again, just because the public knows something, doesn’t mean its going to do something about it, and in doing something about it, it doesn’t mean government will listen.

    There is a bit of an elitist assumption lurking in that view though, the idea from a lot of people is that ‘everybody else just doesn’t know what I know’ and the assumption is that ‘if only they knew what I knew they’d agree with me’. And even that ‘what I am suggesting is ‘right’ for the province. That’s not remotely true, and even if it WERE true, people have the right to make political and economic mistakes.

  11. ‘everybody else just doesn’t know what I know’

    Mikel, you have it backwards. I am not putting forward a particular view here; I am asking for a rational discussion of NBs fiscal policy and approach to taxation. That can only be done thru a proper data analysis. By proper, I mean analyses that do a fair job of assumption creation and data collection. AIMS’s problem is not that they are biased – AIMS’s problem is that they cherry-pick data and ignore all data that might contradict a pre-conceived opinions. Like you, AIMS has a set of pre-conceived opinions, and like you, they ignore all contrary data. See your above post for evidence of that. A proper data analysis provides that basis for rational discussion – ignoring unfriendly data is bad public policy.

    “There are LOTS of economists who are just a phone call away from any reporter, so the idea that they ‘just can’t find anybody else’ is pretty specious. ”

    Good grief, if you want to call the reporter a liar, fine. He told me that he called 4 individuals – all but the AIMS rep were unavailable to meet the time line so the AIMS view got reported and none other. No need to invoke consipracy theories.

    “People didn’t want the LNG deal, it went through anyway.”

    What evidence do you have for this?

  12. If Richard wants evidence he just provided it. I was thinking the EXACT same thing about Richard’s view. Months ago I referenced the study that showed that California’s budget issues had little to do with referenda, but here we are months later and he’s saying the same thing. So who really doesn’t look at evidence?

    As for the LNG deal, the evidence was all over the place. This was when there were still a few call in shows, and they were practically unanimous. Letters to the editor were showing up so often the papers implemented a policy of only having one letter per month on a specific topic. Go read the latest book about the Irvings, this was a public relations book with little controversy, but even there it was stated that the side of the Irving family that ran the pulp and forestry side were so miffed at the petroleum side for the constant negative publicity that they refused to socialize with them.

    I assume thats the evidence being asked for, since the ‘it went through anyway’. So as we see, its not AIMS thats the problem, its Richard. Any view that is contrary to his he sees as ‘biased’. In other words, he doesn’t want to see research, he wants to see research that supports HIS view, because he thinks his view is right.

    As for the reporter, this sounds like a single incidence kind of story, where something that happened once is assumed to happen all the time. So what was the story and who were called? I don’t believe everything I read, so lets see the evidence. It could have been recent,in which case we know that professors at a couple of universities have refused to be interviewed for Irving articles because of the numerous indiscretions there. And obviously if professors are ‘boycotting’ that assumes that at some point they WERE available for comment.

    That’s not ‘conspiracy theory’, it was all reported at CBC. That Richard doesn’t even think such coverage is ‘rational’ says it all. The problem is not so much a lack of studies as a lack of alternate views. You don’t need a study to ask why New Brunswick only gets 3% of its budget from Corporate Income Tax. What you need is some way to get that out there. Its a simple fact and people don’t know it. So yes, I’d agree we need more alternative media.

    Finally, one caveat I should mention is regards to many social issues. We see a very good example with abortion of how a small vocal group can make a government take notice. Thats very much the exception though.

  13. By the way, finally on this, if Richard wants more encouragement to set up a Research Institute, over at the CBC the reporter who did a story on the Premier’s use of Twitter used Charles Leblanc as a interview about the subject. If a crazy blogger can get interviewed then certainly the field is wide open.

  14. Make up your mind mikel! Either suck up to Charles or use him as a laughing tool. Try to narrow your proclamations down to at least only 3 variations. You sound so, Nouveau !

  15. There’s no point in sucking up to Charles, there’s no benefit in it. And as for a laughing tool, he freely admits that himself-sometimes he’s funny, sometimes not. But he calls himself a crazy blogger all the time, and he clearly is. Being crazy is nothing unusual, as posters here clearly show, but certainly Richard’s posts, while sometimes contradicting the evidence (also not unusual), are pretty level headed. He probably has a point, particularly lately since the boycott, and I suspect if he just sent a press release with some credentials and saying why he’s interested in a topic, the press would use him. David has shown up in several stories, so its probably partly laziness. More importantly though I would think right now is a good time to contact Neil Reynolds, maybe get on an editorial board, and get some of the more complex economic stories out there. It’s clear that Irving uses freelance writers, even bad ones, so with that bar that low and with them needing lots of content,the onus is on the individual who wants change to do something about it, not wait for it to magically appear.

    I’d even volunteer, but for the life of me I’m not sure exactly what type of story Richard refers to, so maybe its just the repetition of a theme. I did an economic study once opposing an AIMS ‘study’, but unfortunately statistics canada doesn’t provide nearly the information the US does, and Canada doesn’t have the variety of policies that the US does.

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