New Brunswick·Opinion

Tony Tremblay: The hardening of N.B.'s political narrative

Regardless of the election outcome, powerful members of the province's political class are refusing to allow Mr. Gallant his position on shale gas, and, by extension, refusing to acknowledge the choice that New Brunswick voters made.

Pro-shale gas lobby and political class put pressure on new Premier Brian Gallant

Pity the political newcomer to New Brunswick. And pity new Premier Brian Gallant, who was not yet in office when the insistent and very public lobbying started.

Pity also the New Brunswick citizen whose opposition to shale gas fracturing contributed, at least in part, to putting Gallant in the premier's seat.

Lest those citizens get too smug with the idea of a working democracy, reminders are constant in the provincial press that what really matters is industry, energy development and policy reform that serves both.

New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant campaigned on a moratorium on shale gas development in New Brunswick until more is known about the hydrofracking process and any safety or environmental concerns. (James West/Canadian Press)
In the wake of the recent provincial election, one could be forgiven for thinking of Mark Twain's view of democracy: “If voting made any difference they wouldn't let us do it.”

So appears to be the situation in New Brunswick: regardless of the election outcome, powerful members of the province's political class are refusing to allow Gallant his position on shale gas and, by extension, refusing to acknowledge the choice that New Brunswick voters made.

Given the abundance of problems we have in this province, that is very, very troubling.

It is troubling because it treats democracy as an inconvenience and troubling because it will be citizens of diverse interests and perspectives who will have to be part of solutions if our province is to move forward.

It is also troubling because New Brunswick citizens are ready as never before to be part of the change. What they are being told by Liberals and Progressive Conservatives alike, however, is that their choice at the ballot box didn't matter. 

Is it any wonder that cynicism is rampant, that young people have mostly absented themselves from the democratic process and that, when viewed from the outside, New Brunswickers appear to be disinterested in steering their own course?

Province in a 'death spiral,' warns McKenna

So said former premier Frank McKenna in a speech at the Atlantic Canada and Northeast U.S. Energy Summit in Saint John on 24 October 2014.

The story was on the front page of the provincial edition of the next day's Telegraph-Journal. And the message was consistent with what we've been hearing, and continue to hear: "We're in an endless cycle of high deficits, declining population, higher interest rates and payments, an aging population, higher cost of services, less equalization, less personal income, higher taxes and consumption taxes. It's a death spiral that we're in if we don't do something about it."

What followed the "warning" int he article was McKenna's "strident" view of the need to develop resources such as natural gas, which he described as "a moral choice."

Former premier Frank McKenna is pushing for the development of shale gas production in New Brunswick. (CBC)
How should we read such stridency and sermonizing? Does it matter that these "moral" imperatives are appearing in a paper affiliated with the province's largest energy corporation or that McKenna sits on the board of Canadian Natural, one of the world's biggest natural gas and crude oil producers?

Perhaps those things would matter less if there were not so much thematic consistency around them. It is curious, for example, that the Telegraph-Journal did not give as much coverage or profile to Maude Barlow's talk in Saint John five days later.

Her talk opposed the Energy East Pipeline project. The day after her talk, the Telegraph-Journal's leading headline read "Potashcorp Needs Natural Gas." The story of Ms. Barlow's talk was on B5.

Provincial challenges

The logic we are being asked to accept is very clear: that royalties from energy development will pave the way to provincial prosperity.

Tony Tremblay asks how the provincial government is going to deal with other challenges, such as health-care delivery and climate change. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)
The consequence of not accepting that logic is also very clear: failure to do so will result in "death." In other words, to avoid "death" we must start fracking. Put another way, we have no choice!

Lest my own view in writing this is misunderstood (or misconstrued), I am not denying that New Brunswick has serious demographic and fiscal challenges.

Those have been well documented and are clear for all to see. But what about the province's other challenges? What about health-care delivery, climate change, public education, linguistic differences, uneven income and service distribution, rural/urban and geographic divides, and aboriginal self-determination, to name just a few?

The logic that McKenna and others present us with is that those challenges are fixable by the anticipated revenues that will accrue from shale gas royalties. It is a logic that they are working very hard to instill.

But does that logic stand up to what we know from history? Does it stand up to the fact that New Brunswick has had largely the same industrial and resource-based focus for the past 50 years and that focus has not created the wealth that we are now promised.

Does it stand up to the fact that the last few provincial governments (including McKenna's own) oversaw the deindustrialization of large parts of New Brunswick and the provincial economy?

And how does the logic square with the long history of concessions to major industrial players in the province — concessions on taxation, water rates, energy consumption?

What would the difference have been in New Brunswick if those concessions had not been in place and what sort of concessions are in play today with shale gas and other energy developments? Is prosperity calculated before or after concessions?

Finally, what is the more nuanced view of our demographic and fiscal impoverishment? Are we the first generation of New Brunswickers to experience out-migration?

Is 'death' imminent?

A more studied view of history shows that we are not. So what, then, is at the root of what has been a 150-year-old problem?

Likewise, how does our per capita debt in New Brunswick compare with other parts of Canada? Cast in broader perspective, is our "death" as imminent as some would have us believe?

No doubt there are many on Bay Street who wish to end the wealth transfers that come our way, but are the bond traders in New York really that close to foreclosing on us?

Those questions point to an irrefutable fact: what we really and urgently need in New Brunswick is a balanced, calm, and informed discussion — a discussion, ironically, that is characterized by exactly the "more light and less heat" kind of deliberation that McKenna calls for.

Contrary to what he claims, however, it is not New Brunswickers who are turning up the heat. Rather, it is New Brunswickers who want (and have voted for) more light, by which I mean more opportunity to be part of multi-faceted solutions instead of being cast, as always, in the role of naysayers and impediments to progress.

What is happening is a hardening of vision: an aggressive and quite unprecedented lobby aimed at shaping and normalizing the discourse of New Brunswick.

Is there a conspiracy going on in New Brunswick? A conspiracy crafted in the boardrooms of the province's largest industries?

I seriously doubt it. But what is happening is a hardening of vision: an aggressive and quite unprecedented lobby aimed at shaping and normalizing the discourse of New Brunswick so that themes of austerity and financial calamity make rapid energy development loom large and insistent.

What is positive about that is that it reflects the vision of committed industrialists (and their ideological loyalists) working hard to bring opportunity to the province.

What is negative is that that hardening of vision also works to exclude other perspectives. In fact, it works very hard to exclude other perspectives, other solutions, and other ways of defining problems.

And when the print media in the province is so closely aligned with these same committed industrialists and their interests find a way into circulation (as Jacques Poitras' recent book Irving vs. Irving illustrates), then the hardening of vision is especially problematic, for the sheer repetition of its mantras acquires a status akin to truth.

That, of course, is the point of such narrowing of vision, which blunts the voice, vote, and agency of citizens. The disenfranchisement that results, however, is counter to what that narrowing ultimately serves. In other words, such tactics rarely work in the ways intended.

The challenge, as many citizens see it, is to conceive of New Brunswick as larger than any one set of industries or interests, no matter how strong their lobby.

In meeting this multi-dimensional challenge atop what appears to be his less-than-friendly welcome to office, our new premier will need a kind of Herculean strength.

I know I am not alone in wishing him well and not alone in hoping that he remembers that New Brunswickers from all regions and persuasions are ready to roll up their sleeves and help.

About the Author

Tony Tremblay

Professor and Canada Research Chair

Tony Tremblay is a professor of English and Canada Research Chair in New Brunswick Studies at St. Thomas University and the founding editor of the multidisciplinary Journal of New Brunswick Studies.

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