New Brunswickers tilting at windmills

From a recent TJ column:

While it would be hard to argue there is widespread unrest across New Brunswick, there certainly are a lot of spirited battles underway on a number of fronts.

Civil servants are outraged about proposed changes to their pensions. There are rolling protests around the province decrying the injustice of Employment Insurance (EI) reform. A determined group of environmentalists and NIMBYists are determined to halt the development of shale gas and, I suspect, are ramping up to protest any plan for a new oil pipeline.

Even the province’s windmills once a sign of our green pedigree are coming under increased fire for despoiling our pristine landscape and causing migraine headaches among nearby residents.

Welcome to democracy. Everyone’s a rebel with a cause. Everyone fights for their rights. To paraphrase former federal Cabinet Minister David Dingwall, everyone is entitled to their entitlements.

And yet interestingly, after the recent by-election in Kent County, morning newspapers led with “Party leaders agree: voters worried about the economy”.
Really? I am suspicious of that claim. My hunch is that EI reform, shale gas and all of the other targeted grievances were at play far more than any view that Party X or Party Y was going to ‘fix the economy’.

Not that long ago, Premier Alward went to the Miramichi to announce a new company was setting up in the beleaguered city. Was he met by protestors demanding more jobs and economic growth? No, he was met by protestors outraged that hospital beds might be cut.

Of all the causes mentioned above, which ones will address the Kent County voters’ so-called angst about the economy? Rolling back government retiree pension reform? Halting shale gas and stopping an oil pipeline? How about cancelling the EI reforms? Will that fix the economy? Certainly tipping over the windmills and shipping them off to Ontario is not likely to put us back on the road to economic prosperity.

New Brunswick’s economic performance has lagged for decades because there hasn’t been enough private sector investment and ambitious entrepreneurship.
It is unlikely we will see protestors pouring out if Tim Hortons’ with placards demanding the government attract more private industry to the province. It is unlikely you will see social groups extolling the virtues of entrepreneurship, profit making and wealth creation.

Other than that poor, solitary sign on a vacant lot in Blackville that reads “Say yes to shale gas!” it is very unlikely you will ever see a serious protest in favour of shale gas, oil pipelines, mining projects or any other kind of industrial development.

I’m not suggesting pension reform, EI changes or even windmills shouldn’t be vigorously debated in the public square. I am saying that most of the battles we fight as citizens – those that get us whipped up into a frenzy – won’t get the province closer to addressing our longer term economic (and increasingly demographic) challenges.

We need to find a way to get the public seriously interested in the economic development of our communities.

But it’s not easy. Previous economic downturns in the 1970s, 1980s and the early 1990s all featured high unemployment coupled with a younger workforce. New graduates and young families were understandably worried about their personal future.

Now, a large percentage of the workforce is closing in on retirement and not particularly worried about the future. In addition, the high level of migration out of the province has reduced both overall unemployment and the percentage of young people still in the workforce.

It’s much easier to get a retiree to protest windmills than to protest lack of jobs and entrepreneurial activity.

That, in a nutshell, is our problem.

4 thoughts on “New Brunswickers tilting at windmills

  1. David, that is the problem of all democracies, it is sometimes referred to as tyranny of the minority.

  2. I think that the people who are out protesting in NB know that economic development in the province will not be the result of (what you call) “the virtues of entrepreneurship, profit making and wealth creation.”

    This produces wealth that will be absorbed by large corporations (we all know who they are) and shipped out of the province and stashed in overseas accounts. We in the province are left with the cleanup and (as always) low wages.

    Rather, people here understand that the province’s future depends on clean energy, strong social systems, and a professional public service. It depends on enterprises that work for the people of the province, not a few absentee owners. It depends on quality of life, not handouts to corporations and minuscule corporate tax subsidized by exorbitant personal tax.

  3. “This produces wealth that will be absorbed by large corporations ”

    Actually, most of the wealth created goes to employees who live here. You can’t have it both ways – entrepreneurship might be looked down upon by certain civil servants with secure jobs, but it is a key to the development of healthy, vibrant societies. You know, the ones that have enough of a tax base to provide strong social systems and a professional public service.

    The same people who gripe about certain large corporations are, in large measure, the same ones who resist any change that might allow other business sectors to establish here. New Brunswick’s biggest problem isn’t the weight of those large evil corps, it is the resistance to any change, anything seen as foreign.

  4. First of all, there are no civil servants with secure jobs. The constant threat of layoff is a reality for everyone working in the public service these days, no matter how important their function. Those people who are laid off will not be remaining in the province.

    Second, it is not clear that “most of the wealth created goes to employees who live here.” Even if true, it is irrelevant. Wages are low. That’s a fact. We live in a low-paying resource-based province with poor (and declining) services, which is not attractive to industry or immigration. More of the same will not improve the economy.

    If we actually look at countries with “enough of a tax base to provide strong social systems and a professional public service,” what we find are not resource-based societies, but countries like Germany, with a high degree of government involvement in the economy, significant union activism, leading-edge environmental regulation, and a strong labour movement.

    As one of the people who gripes about certain large corporations, I can say that, contrary to being against change, such people are arguing that there is not *enough* change in this province. This is a province that should be welcoming immigrants and taking advantage of its placement in a clean, democratic, egalitarian and technologically advanced country, not trying to sell its resources at any price and attracting industry on the basis of low wages.

    When I leave, and offer my well-educated technical skills to support an advanced information-based economy, I won’t be looking to relocate to a one-industry smokestack town pushing the average wage as low as it can go, no matter how low their corporate taxes get. And companies located in such regimes will find it much more difficult to recruit me.

    So… how are your entrepreneurs doing now? They can’t create wealth without labour. And what’s labour doing in New Brunswick? Leaving.

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