Want to get engaged?

The former head of UNB gave a speech over the weekend where he called for dramatic change.  He thinks we need “new institutions” and that the “role of government needs to be retaught”.   I only met Dr. McLaughlin a couple of times and I found him to be an interesting guy.  He seemed to get the inter-connectedness of UNB with the success/failure of the wider NB economy and not just in the submission to government for funding sense.

I might be getting more cynical in my old age but while I agree with most of his points I don’t think he or anyone else has made the case that systemic, broad-based change is necessary.  We say it – I say it on a daily basis – but nothing changes ergo the people don’t seem to want it.

You could easily make the case that NB doesn’t need to change a thing – it just needs to float along and drift with the winds of change.  If the feds cut back transfers, you cut back the budget a bit, raise some taxes a bit, hope the restart of the economy with generate more revenues.  The system in Canada won’t let a province collapse.   Just promise to cut ambulance fees, reinstate a ferry or two, talk vaguely about budget management and public engagement and you will get elected.  And this is definitely a non-partisan issue.

For me this goes back almost 15 years when a senior advisor to Frank McKenna told me that economic development-issues rank 5th or 6th on all their internal polling.  Even back when unemployment rates were very high this was the case.  The only time that economic development raised higher on polls than potholes was after a flashpoint issue like a major plant closure but in general the public never really made the link between government action and public policy and economic development. 

But there is not much need rehashing all this stuff – it all comes down to practicality.  Most New Brunswickers don’t like change.  The ones that are in good public and private sector jobs are doing just fine.  They have a relatively low cost of living and a pretty good quality of life.  The folks that are struggling could have left for Alberta but haven’t so they are likely not leaving unless there is no other option.  And the rapidly growing group of retirees or close to retirees have no interest in change. 

People over 60 were against the NB Power sale two to one over people under 25 (although that one poll had a high margin of error).  I get myself in hot water when I say this because I do have a lot of respect for the older generation and I am very thankful for the massive changes of the 1960s and 1970s on the social front.  New Brunswick made massive strides in those decades in social policy but now that very same generation is highly resistent to the kinds of economic change that we need right now.  Many of them – based on my interaction – are the most resistent to attracting investment and even immigration.  You must remember the rant in the Telegraph-Journal recently from a guy who had moved back to Saint John and didn’t want it to become “Los Angeles”. 

Well, no one in the world is talking about transforming Saint John into Los Angeles but this is symptomatic of the broader reality.  What demographic group in New Brunswick would wholly embrace the kind of change Dr. McLaughlin is talking about? 

How about the government sector?  There are 90,000 people working in public administration, health care and education in New Brunswick.   When people come in talking about ‘rightsizing’ government and better management of costs – which one of the 90,000 is going to put their hand up and say me first?  

How about the seniors?   I was in a smaller NB community not that long ago where the local economic development officer wanted to make some pretty impressive changes like expanding the industrial park, etc. but the older people were by in large against it.  When he said “your property taxes will have to go up if we cant build up the commercial tax base” they responded “put our taxes up” we like things as they are.  It’s hard to fight that logic.

How about the younger generation?  I appreciate some of the initiatives such as 21Inc. to raise awareness among young people but my sense of it is they aren’t getting all weepy about the state of NB’s economy.  If they have a great job here – most of them are content to stay – if not they are content to leave.   It’s been a preoccupation of mine in recent years to try and understand what makes a culture sticky – what things need to be in place for people to want to stay or to really miss a place once they leave (think Cape Breton or Ireland)?  Do we need more Anne Murrays?

How about the small business sector?  Are they standing up demanding full bore economic development?  Not in my experience. 

Who then is going to champion a broad-based change initiative that re-invents a smaller, more nimble and successful government?  Who is going to champion an economic clusters strategy that might mean saying no to the current model of sprinkling taxpayer dollars across the province across dozens of industries?  Neither the Tories nor the Libs have done so in the past so I think it is unlikely they will in the future.

It a bit of a longer rant this morning but I really think that change in society – true change starts with a clearly articulated view of what that really means and finding groups in society to help generate broad-based support. 

Change will come to New Brunswick but it will be forced on us by outside influences.  The Feds will cut hundreds of millions out of their transfers to New Brunswick over the next few years (maybe not in hard cuts but cuts in the growth of transfers which amounts to the same thing) and there will be no call centre sector to channel in thousands of new jobs.  So public spending will be cut – no matter who is in power they will have no choice and we can look forward to a decade of anemic economic performance and population stagnation or decline.

But if it is forced upon us – people will grumble but they will accept it.  If a provincial government tries to initiate it without being able to blame the federal government, I think they will not accept it.

I’ll keep pounding away here, though.  It’s kind of fun and what else am I going to do?   I earn a living working with a wedge of folks in this province that are trying to change things from within and I am happy to do so.  It’s just hard to see how these folks will ever get any real traction without a broader collective will to change and I don’t see that happening.

9 thoughts on “Want to get engaged?

  1. Some times the laws of physics applies in other areas. Here it would be: “An object at rest will remain at rest.”

  2. “Change will come to New Brunswick but it will be forced on us by outside influences”

    That is likely true, but it is not clear what kind of change we will see. Funding cuts delivered by Ottawa will hurt, but will that lead to any substantive change, or just hardship (for some) and an increased emigration rate?

    In order to change directions, we need, first of all, a widespread appreciation of what the data say. We don’t get that from the media in this province. For example, I am sure that Jacques Poitras (perhaps with the aid of Robert Jones) are busy putting together a book on the NB Power deal. They need to get it out by the end of the summer in order to generate lots of sales in the election campaign.

    Do you think that they will revise some of the ‘information’ they presented to their listening audience a few months ago? Not likely; the book will be just as misleading as some of their reports on the subject, broadcast on CBC Radio. On the one hand, we have the Irving Press, which tries to protect the interests of its owners; then on the other hand, we’ve got the CBC, which seems most interested in playing to the crowd, rather than telling the comfy something that might make them uncomfortable. NB does not have the media it needs (although perhaps we have the media we deserve).

    In order to get support for certain kinds of changes, you need to be able to get people to look beyond the short term. That’s very hard to do in this province because too many people are relying on short-term, low-wage employment. We need to find a way to convince people that their self-interest, and the interests of their kids, lies in these changes. For those whose kids have already left, or those who have moved here to retire, the argument will have to be different; perhaps by underlining the need for much more tax revenue to just maintain health services, etc.

  3. > Who then is going to champion a broad-based change initiative that re-invents a smaller, more nimble and successful government? Who is going to champion an economic clusters strategy that might mean saying no to the current model of sprinkling taxpayer dollars across the province across dozens of industries?

    I have yet to see evidence for the assertion that a smaller government would be “more nimble and successful.” Generally what happens when you downsize (*not* the prejudicially loaded “rghtsize”, thnk you) government is that you end up with a bunch of overworked people and short-staffed offices, and a lot of contracting out to former staff for twice what it cost to do the work in the first place.

    A better case might be made regarding funding priorities, but despite what I’ve read here I don’t think you’ve made it. The preference for provincial funding in New Brunswick doesn’t appear to me to be the scattershot approach described above, but rather, grants and tax breaks to the exceptionally large incumbent.

    That said, the case is otherwise established. There is a great deal of resistance to change in New Brunswick – and a certain amount of resistance directed against economic development in itself. People don’t want changes to power generation, they don’t want changes to the school system or health care, and they definitely don’t want new-fangled inventions like public transportation, electrionic health care records or literacy programs. Let alone uranium mines, windmills, fibreboard plants, and the rest of it.

  4. David – enjoy your blog and column in the TJ. Thought I’d chime in briefly on the reference to 21 inc : “I appreciate some of the initiatives such as 21Inc. to raise awareness among young people but my sense of it is they aren’t getting all weepy about the state of NB’s economy.”

    I’m a participant in the program this year and I’d agree we aren’t all “weepy” on the economy – but there is conviction and frustration here none the less.

    We wrapped up our last accelerator this weekend in Bathurst. It was the best one yet! Merv Symes of JDI actually led a terrific session this weekend as part of the Accelerator on the leading change topic and emphasized the need to do more in bringing awareness to the “gap” and less selling of the “solution” in managing change. While NB Power is an obvious example to dissect, we also talked about the (non) toll-highway. Nobody wants to pay tolls when asked, but ask them if they want safer highways…and then if they want higher taxes to do it…or to mortgage more of their children’s future in NB to do it. Let them then help with developing the solution and be a part of the process. The point is not about advocating for toll highways – but rather that we don’t do change well in NB as is obvious with the results on a myriad of files. We don’t understand the process of how to do it successfully for the most part. Our leaders haven’t traditionally been adept at it. Its hard – doesn’t mean its not worthwhile. Practice usually yields improvements.

    Mr. Symes referenced allot of his material to Kotter’s books on leading change you are likely familiar with and our group at 21inc have a lengthy summer reading list. I think it should be required reading for all in the province who are part of what you describe as the “wedge of folks in this province that are trying to change things”. And if you’ve already read it – maybe pick it up and browse it again. One of the problems is the “wedge” still tends to develop solutions in their own collective vacuum and then unveil them like it’s the latest and greatest gizmo ever. Humans are natural skeptics. It may be THE best idea ever – but it doesn’t matter – people will naturally criticize before compliment. Its funner after all isn’t it?!

    As a population we may be more risk and change adverse – but it just means our leadership “wedge” needs to be that much more talented in the processes of leading change. And “wedge” is the perfect term…as defined… it is something used to initiate an action or development. Our wedge needs to get bigger, more diverse, and more importantly more skillful in leading discussions around change. But ultimately, the “who” is less important than the “how”.

    Adam Harris
    Fredericton, NB

  5. I like 21Inc. Tim Coates is a bit of a mensch and I expect he will find his way into politics at some point. I haven’t met Symes but I think his pint makes senses. People need to realize there is a problem before we jump to solutions to the problem. Sounds like you have your own little petrashevsky circle going on with 21 Inc. Keep it up.

  6. Do you REALLY think people in NB are ‘against change’? Oh yes, I’ve noticed all the horse and buggies and people still using smoke fires to communicate.
    Come on, you’ve got two parties that essentially govern the same. When ‘change’ is mentioned by a government, it RARELY means something good.
    As for rural areas, if people are willing to pay higher taxes for services rather than build up a larger industrial centre, which MAY give them cheaper taxes, but also may end up polluting the water, air, cause constant noise, etc., then who are you to complain?
    The reality is that politicians in New Brunswick simply don’t represent the people, full stop. Which means when people hear ‘change’ they reach for their wallet. I suspect its that people have such low expectations of their politicians that potholes at least is something tangible. For economic development, what do people hear? A tax break for Irving.
    However, I’m posting here because there are two news items which I’ve noticed haven’t shown up here. First, it seems NBPower isn’t in the dire financial condition first expected. And second, there has been more progress on the natural gas field near Sussex where gas companies have stated there may be more gas than many western fields.
    So, the gloom and doom may make for good critical analysis, but you guys are really only looking at half the picture. The reality is that those people you are criticizing may actually be ‘right’, or at the very least just as justified as you in your beliefs.
    And finally, there are BIG changes, you just don’t see them because they aren’t in the economic sphere but in the democratic sphere. A new political party has started up, but more importantly you can literally see the politicians jump through the public hoops thanks to social networking. It took less than a week for Alward to change his policy from ‘consultation’ on NBPower to a definite referendum. It took less than that for them to announce revisiting the MLA’s generous pension.
    Whether it sticks is something else, the election will determine a lot of that. However, its an interesting dynamic to look at-at several facebook and website groups are people talking about political ‘change’, which you guys don’t like, and you guys talking about economic development change, which they aren’t interested in. You gripe about them being resistant to change, and they say the same about ‘you’.

  7. ” First, it seems NBPower isn’t in the dire financial condition first expected. ”

    Wrong again. You, like many, have been fooled by the fact that NB Power was broken up into several units a number of years ago. The recent stories concern Disco, the distribution unit, not the entire structure. The Lepreau costs are thus not included. This has been well-documented at teh EUB website.

    “And finally, there are BIG changes”

    None of the events you describe are BIG changes. They’ve all happened before, and have not changed anything.

    “more importantly you can literally see the politicians jump through the public hoops thanks to social networking”

    Do you know what ‘literally’ means? In any event, the same was said when the internet appeared and politicians found it necessary to erect websites. Talking about change and getting it done are not the same thing.

  8. NBPower WAS broken up into many units, and the reports, so far, state that according to NBPower, DISCO is probably in the worst financial situation of all the other units. According to the CBC report, its likely that the others are in even better shape. The Lepreau costs are of course not included, since Lepreau has nothing to do with distribution, duh.

    Dude, you’re living in your own closet if you think social networking hasn’t changed anything. Even critics admit that. Websites never got people ‘networking’, and a website is just an online flyer. If you think those are the same things, think again.

    I gave concrete examples of the change, people are even saying that the facebook group helped kill the NBPower deal. We don’t know if that is true, but look at it this way. IF there was absolutely no way that 30,000 people getting together and protesting and reading articles had any effect, then thats quite a slap in the face you are handing to David, who probably doesn’t have as many readers as even Charles Leblanc. You are essentially telling him that he’s been wasting his time.

    Of course Richard can believe that if he likes, but nobody can predict political change. But just the fact that Graham created a positional head for “people consultation” and that Alward is constantly talking about consultation says a lot about the future. There’s no doubt that in a place like NB with more uphill battles than actual hills (literally) that that doesn’t ‘necessarily’ mean change, however, there’s no way of knowing that now. If the election is a blowout like McKenna had then Alward simply won’t NEED to listen to the population at all. That’s a real fear and a serious situation.

    So there have been big changes, you’ve seen it even in NB. NBTel got sold off and hardly anything was heard, but with NBPower it was a far different ballgame, and that was thanks to social networking. You may not LIKE it, but you can’t write it off as ‘same old same old’.

  9. The political class in BC, AB and SK are already agitating to cut off the transfer payments, and the chorus grows louder and louder. Its time to sick or swim, to fish or cut bait. The lastest claptrap about merging parts of NB Power together again is nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Sell off DISCO! Sell off GENCO! Sell off Pt. Lepreau! But keep Transmission and merge it with the NBSO, that’s where the money will be made.

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