John Herron and his ‘a-ha’ moments

In the last couple of years I have gotten to know former MP John Herron (current head of the Atlantica Centre for Energy) quite well.  He’s an interesting cat having served as a young federal politician and then – after what I would imagine was a gut wrenching time – switched parties on a matter of principle.

We have been chatting recently about this disconnect between the public expectations relating to public services and the social safety net and its support for the economic development efforts need to pay for those public services (and the social safety net).  There is no contradiction between protesting on one day to have a mining project scuttled and protesting the next against cuts to the local hospital.

Herron thinks social media has changed the dynamic in a fundamental way.  Chris Baker believes the traditional media – increasingly marginalized by those same forces – latches on to any wedge issues even harder these days because it brings them into relevancy and gains them more market share for at least a short time (I am paraphrasing – I hope I got that right).

I honestly struggle with this.  I live in a world of data.  I see a trend in data – i.e. public spending has been growing at an average rate of 6.4 percent since the early 2000s – and I try to draw conclusions based on evidence.  I haven’t (at least yet) ignored hard data and shaped my views on the number of  ‘likes’ on a Facebook page.  In fact, I haven’t been particularly good at marketing this particular blog.

But, in my gut (yes – I am a victim of Gladwell’s Blink phenomenon) I think this new reality matters – the intersection between social media and public policy and at the same time people rushing back to the traditional media seeking credibility.  I think most people these days are shaping opinions based on what they read, see and hear on the Internet but they are coming back to the traditional media (CBC, Times & Transcript, Rogers News, etc.) to try and validate their hunches.

That puts even more pressure on traditional media to present the full contours of public policy issues.   How we handle health care moving from an era where 2,000 people per year moved into their retirement years to one where 6,000 are doing so?    The national economy is becoming ever more reliant on natural resources industries while New Brunswick’s traditional natural resources base is receding.   Richard Florida and others are telling anyone who will listen that only the mega cities will attract creative industries in the future.   New Brunswick still has the second highest rural population in Canada – and I believe in North America.  We still suffer from an annual migration of our young people.

For each of these you can easily see how a myriad of views could be proffered in the social media space.    Fight against health care reform at all costs – how dare they?    Fight against natural resources development – I just want to be left alone and in peace.    Forget about trying to attract the creative industries – people should move to where the jobs are in the MTV.    We should immediately eliminate any focus on rural New Brunswick and focus on our urban centres.  No, wait, our urban centres are doing fine – we need to pour more money into rural NB.    As one parent of three kids that all left NB recently said to me “oh well, it gives me a reason to visit Calgary and Toronto I never had before.”

I am glad that guys like John Herron are worrying about these things and calling me up while washing dishes to chat about them.

2 thoughts on “John Herron and his ‘a-ha’ moments

  1. The unsurprising fact is that the public wants unattainable things.
    OF COURSE I want lower taxes AND more government services.
    OF COURSE I want more jobs but no risk of pollution.
    This is just a truism about how we feel about the individual items.
    I like chocolate. I don’t like exercising.

    This is why it is vitally important for governments to listen yes, but to do the right thing, and to build and maintain trust that when they do things we don’t want, it is because that is in our best interest. “Best interest” as opposed to “childish wish list”.

    The real deficiency I see in the media so often is the failure to actually talk about that best interest. Sure protesters don’t want health care cuts, fair enough: what do they propose as an alternative to bring public finances into balance? Of course people would prefer we develop industries which don’t ever pollute: what are they and how realistic is it to think we can develop them.

    Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no-one wants to die.

  2. “This is why it is vitally important for governments to listen yes, but to do the right thing”

    In my opinion, social media make it very hard for politicians to ‘do the right thing’ when that ‘right thing’ is unpopular. Getting things ‘right’ is often partly about looking at data and choosing the best option, but it is also about compromise and consensus-seeking. The latter are difficult when social media tend to promote organizing against a policy proposal. That hardens opinion and makes even seeking a compromise a losing proposition politically.

    Its become too easy to form a strong opinion without looking fairly at the data. The experts on various subjects have just become another ‘voice in the crowd’. In NB, seems to me, there is room for more policy forums on various subjects, but we need a way to get those discussions into the public view.

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