Crowding out substantative policy discussion

Peter Lindfield made a really good point in his column this week in the TJ where he talked about the fact that the NB Power debate was essentially crowding out debate on a wider range of very important public policy issues.  I would take it one step further and say that, in a strange way, NB Power is providing political cover for the governing party and the opposition.

I am sure that if Premier Graham wanted to find a diversion, he wouldn’t have picked NB Power but it has meant that meaningful, thoughtful public debate on tax cuts, deficits, energy policy, etc. have been all but ignored in the public square for months.

And for the opposition, all they have to say when someone asks about their ‘policies’ is ‘NB Power’ and all is forgotten.  It’s amazing.  We have an election coming up in a matter of months and I haven’t seen any substantitve policy framework coming out of the Opposition.  It looks like they will fight the election on NB Power supplemented with a few platitudes about every other public policy issue from deficits to health care.

The sitting government also has been distracted by NB Power.  Their plan to reduce the deficit by 2014 (as I covered here before) is not credible.  They are forecasting spending growth to drop to almost zero and revenue growth to increase by something like 6% per year.   That’s not going to happen.

The federal health care deal runs out in a couple of years and the Feds have already said the go forward arrangement will be far less lucrative.

The feds have already hinted that Equalization and other transfers will start to be tightened in order for them to get their books in order.

We need to have a serious discussion about this tsunami of economic forces touching down in New Brunswick and at the same time rectify a genuine need to invest seriously in the kinds of public investments that will lead to more business investment, job creation and economic growth (and the tax revenue to pay for our public services).

Even people that are supportive of the NB Power deal (as I am) need to realize that the pocket book implications for the average New Brunswicker are far greater from these other issues than from NB Power.  In fact, getting NB Power behind us should be the #1 priority of both the government and the opposition. 

I haven’t changed my mind on this at all.  I think that the deal with Hydro-Quebec will take NB Power off the table as a concern for at least 10 years – and probably more.   If we keep the status quo (as Volpe pointed out) NB Power’s problems will be compounding the rest of the problems.  But even if NB Power’s asset sale gets scuttled, it won’t change the broader facts.   It will continue to be a problem for government going forward. 

Whenever people talk like this the responses can be mixed.  I don’t think the sky is falling in New Brunswick – I haven’t felt this at all since I came back in 1992.   The system we have in this country means that there will be no massive hammer coming down on the province.  We have a fairly good debt to GDP ratio and governments will likely run deficits for the foreseeable future.  They will try to curb spending growth and they will raise taxes – that is unavoidable.  And we always have the federal government as the safety net.  If the economy in New Brunswick collapsed, the Equalization program would provide a cushion.

But I, for one, don’t want to spend the next ten years just sputtering along as a province.  Cutting here and there, tweaking taxes, hoping for the best.  The last 10 years or so should have been a great time of progress but we saw very little.  Canada wide from the mid 1990s to the late 2000s went through an unprecedented period of growth – economic, population, tax revenue, new industries, etc. 

I think we still can figure out a grand strategy for the province but I think it is far more likely we will continue to sputter along.

I have to close by taking another little swipe at the media (of which I am a part in some small way).  For much of the media in this province, NB Power is being covered like the OJ Simpson trial.  They have to get their one or two daily NB Power stories into every news cast.  It’s like the T&T’s Al Hogan and the toll highway in 1999.  Every single day for weeks there was a story hammering the toll highway – nothing new just a kind of written titillation.  Use pejorative words, quote another expert, hammer away until the public is sick of it.  That’s the NB Power sage.  Would it kill us to go two or three days without a single NB Power story?   The media justifies it because it’s such ‘an important issue’ while everything else is what – not important?

5 thoughts on “Crowding out substantative policy discussion

  1. Let’s put this in perspective, even if you AGREE with the deal you can’t doubt its importance-even forgetting the, dare I say, ‘fascist’ way it was brought in-if you are going to throw around Volpe’s comments at least include Jamieson and Lord’s comments that New Brunswickers should have the final say. THEN perhaps people would get down to brass tacks and look at the issue. Again, thats Graham’s fault. It’s quite bizarre that at this point he would have called Bernard Lord to ask HIM what he thought of the deal. I hate to say it, but does this guy have ANY idea what he’s doing?

    I can’t comment on US media circuses, but this is CLEARLY much bigger than OJ Simpson. I haven’t found too many CBC reports that were ‘out of line’. I’d bring up Richard’s point-one can perhaps argue that CBC should have been talking about NB Power BEFORE, but essentially it is doing now what it should have been doing before-that goes double for Irvings media.

    As for elections, keep in mind an election is over half a year away, not ‘a few months’. The last election you had in New Brunswick was over and done with from announcement to vote in less than HALF that time, so that argument isn’t that credible. I’ll say it again, this is NOT the time to talk policy, the horrible way this policy was made means that attention needs to be on killing policy, otherwise, NB is a complete joke as any kind of credible ‘democratic’ country. While I do agree with the serious economic problems NB (and much of the world) faces, it pales in comparison to the problems the political system faces. Right now its like a three ring circus in Fredericton, with resignations, both caucus and cabinet, MLA’s rapping and giving the finger and screaming like lunatics-even moreso than usual. You can’t make that argument until after the March vote at the earliest.

    But it’s hard to get a ship to a good designation when you don’t have control of the ship, and even harder when those in control seem to be insane.

  2. I was also going to mention that similar sales of public utilities usually have even more media coverage. The BC Rail deal is still being played out in the courts and media, another sale of public assets which it may turn out had outright criminality built right in.

  3. I see very little prospect for sensible policy discussions any time soon. Media do not have the reporting depth or talent to help us discuss these issues, and there is no way the Irving media or the CBC are going to put more resources into this. The CBC has been very disappointing on this issue; its one thing to have a point-of-view, but is it necessary to throw all professionalism out the window in your on-air reporting? Terry Seguin, Jacques Poitras and Robert Jones should be ashamed of themselves. The Irving media, for all their faults, have provided provided plenty of thoughtful opeds on both sides of the issue.

    For the policy discussions we need to have, you need to have be able to bring some expertise to bear, not just expertise in the sense of independent analyses, but expertise within the reporting fraternity in these areas as well. We need a few ingredients to get things going: transparency in govt, legislation to create media diversity (with incentives for policy wonks), and some public institutions that give a damn about NB.

  4. The CBC’s job is NOT to provide “thoughtful op eds”. They are not print media. Their stories, by and large, have covered the issue from most angles. Terry Seguin grilled David Alward for five minutes trying to get him to make a concrete statement as to whether NBPower should EVER be sold. I don’t know what Richard expects, I suspect ‘thoughtful op ed’ simply means “people who say what I think”. The CBC has had reports from both sides, however, many stories have been ‘sensationalized’, but thats mostly because this government doesn’t seem to have two brain cells to rub together. It’s not the CBC’s fault that almost every week the energy minister and the premier were saying two different things. Its been ‘sensationalized’ because its a sensational story.

    I do agree that many of the Irving stories haven’t been as bad as I suspected they would be, but there were several doozies-like the headline that read “Unions come out against revitalized deal” or something like that, when the story had nothing to do with unions AT ALL. I will agree with one point, its unfortunate the way its played out that people are SO angry, but again,they SHOULD be angry, in fact they should be far angrier than they are. That means there isn’t much point to reading the 300 comments on CBC stories or Irving stories for ‘new content’. But again, all that is understandable and is the fault of government. Discussion needs TWO sides, and obviously there is really no point in talking to the government, so yelling becomes the only way.

    Again, had the government simply said “look, we got an offer, you know what I said, now we have a referendum”, then the ballgame changes completely-but thats not the situation that exists.

  5. While looking for background information on QC and power deals with other jurisdictions I came upon some reports from 2005 in Vermont on the topic of starting a study with public input to review the long term power contracts with QC. These contracts start to expire in 2015. Vermont gets approximately 1/3 of its power from QC. The intention was to try to determine the best strategy for ten years in the future.

    There is not enough information to know if Vermont does better or worse than NB in such deals. The fact that someone there believes in long term planning and analysis involving the public for a decision to be effective ten years in the future, however, is a clear contrast to what has been presented in NB.

Comments are closed.