Campaigning and governing in N.B.: two solitudes
No. 19 in a series of expert articles on major issues in the 2010 N.B. election
Last Updated: Wednesday, September 22, 2010 | 4:07 AM ET
The New Brunswick election campaign has established that campaigning and governing in this province do not meet when it matters.
Those seeking political power view political campaigns as distinct stand alone exercises, not to be confused with a proper public policy debate about governing.
The objective of political campaigns at least for the two major political parties, it seems, is not to inform New Brunswickers about the challenges ahead and how best to meet them.
Rather, the goal is the pursuit of political power as an end in itself and only worry about difficult decisions after the election.
But that is not all, political parties in New Brunswick, as elsewhere for that matter, have abandoned their roots and their traditional policy positions.
They have embraced the "what matters is what works" mantra. Without putting too fine a point on it, what matters is gaining power and what works is hugging the political centre and avoiding addressing issues that may cost votes.
At the start of this campaign, I wrote that there was a perfect storm taking shape on the horizon — New Brunswick's fast deteriorating fiscal situation.
The province's debt is increasing to the tune of $1 billion a year at a time when New Brunswick's population is aging, when Ottawa will very likely reduce its transfer payments to the provinces in the years ahead to deal with its own deficit challenge and when jobs created under the federal-provincial stimulus package are coming to an end.
'There has been some creative accounting going on in the past few months as well as promises made that were nothing short of outlandish.'— Donald Savoie
I found it revealing that the parties that have little hope of gaining power have sought to address the fiscal challenge issue.
The New Democratic Party, the Green and the People's Alliance parties have all highlighted the difficult fiscal position confronting the province and all have advanced policy prescriptions.
These may not have been sufficiently ambitious but, to be sure, they were a step in the right direction. They, however, know that they could mix politics and governing, given that they have little chance of gaining power.
The two main parties decided to offer a plethora of campaign promises.
At the same time, the leaders of both major political parties insisted that the other party did not provide an accurate costing of its campaign commitments.
I took the time to read "Our Plan for the Future" (36 pages full of spending commitments with only a vague reference to the province's fiscal challenge on page three) and "Putting New Brunswick First for a Change" (34 pages also full of spending commitments with some references to the province's fiscal challenge on page 22).
The spending commitments are much greater than what the two parties are claiming and I can only conclude that both leaders are right in accusing each other of not providing a true costing of their party's platform.
There has been some creative accounting going on in the past few months as well as promises made that were nothing short of outlandish.
I have been a student of economic development since the 1970s and I cannot understand how a political party can tell New Brunswickers that, if elected, it will create 2,700 jobs in the north over the next three years and 20,000 in the province over the next four years.
The numbers were grabbed from the air, based on nothing other than wishful thinking.
I also do not understand how a political party can commit to a number of new spending commitments without a dollar figure attached to it and pledge not to increase taxes and suggest that the $750 million to $1 billion deficit will somehow disappear in four years.
'Be happy, don't worry, vote for me, may have some merit on the campaign trail, but it is not reality and it is disconnected from the art of governing.'— Donald Savoie
In short, the campaign commitments of both major parties are not realistic and they fail to address the most important challenge confronting the province. Be happy, don't worry, vote for me, may have some merit on the campaign trail, but it is not reality and it is disconnected from the art of governing.
In a few days, the government, no matter which party wins power, will sing a different tune.
Campaigning and governing will suddenly reconnect. Politicians may ask once again why citizens do not respect their profession? They only need to look at the election campaign to find the answer.
Economic reality will set in. The dominant policy theme for government, no matter which party wins on Sept. 27, will be how best to address the province's fiscal reality in the coming years.
Economic reality will also bring home the point that dealing with the province's fiscal challenge will be felt in every sector of the economy and in every community of the province.
The past several weeks have been wasted days in informing New Brunswickers on the most critical issue confronting the province and how we may address it.
What now? There is a need to come to terms with reality with a sense of urgency.
What is required is a tremendous wrench of the wheel on both the revenue and spending side and an aggressive pursuit of economic development.
What we are looking at is a brave new world, a world that New Brunswickers have not experienced for several generations. Instead of adding to our public infrastructure, developing new services, introducing new activities and establishing new offices, the New Brunswick government will have to put its gear in reverse.
We will be rationalizing all things connected to the public sector.
One can only hope that politicians have learned one thing over the past several years — the challenge cannot be met unless New Brunswickers are given a chance to participate in shaping this brave new world.
The discipline of governing will require political leaders to speak truth to New Brunswickers to address the province's fiscal challenge — one only hopes that it will not be too late.