Breaking free of history: Our true opportunities lie in front of us

Written by Don Dennison

December 12, 2014

It was past midnight on a cold January night in 1973 when the van rolled up to the entrance of Fredericton’s Lord Beaverbrook Hotel, an adequate hostelry that quite never lived up to its name. The gaggle of passengers discharged had been driven up from Moncton, where their flight had been diverted due to ice fog.

It was my second arrival in Fredericton, the first having been three years earlier on a pleasant, late August driving trip through the Maritimes. This visit was for a different purpose – to do research on the policy making process in the government of New Brunswick. I was in a Masters in Public Administration program at Queens University, and the Director of the program – a seasoned Ottawa veteran from treasury board trenches, had urged and arranged for me to undertake this research on what was happening in New Brunswick.

New Brunswick wasn’t selected randomly – it was chosen because it was regarded as having developed most advanced policy and budget making process in the country at the time. The Province had gone through the most significant restructuring of provincial governmental responsibilities seen in Canada since WWII, and in the fifty years since the brave 1960s.

The groundbreaking spirit of the Premier – a young and determined Acadian, Louis Robichaud, had led to a one-man Royal Commission whose widespread recommendations were reached after only a year-and-a-half, and had been translated into a fully legislated restructuring of provincial roles in the short span of three years. It was the celebrated Equal Opportunity program, and it saw the province dissolve county councils and assume full delivery of education, health, justice, and social services.

The implementation was driven by the Premier and carried out by a select team of bureaucrats recruited to the task from both inside and outside the province. Under Robichaud’s successor, and political but not ideological adversary, Richard Hatfield, the reform impulse was carried forward by establishing small but key central agencies a board of management, and a cabinet secretariat designed to bring focus to addressing the economic and social challenges faced by this perennially ’have-not’ province.

Within six months I, born and cultured a central Canadian, had joined that team. It seemed like the most exciting place in the country to gain experience – I had previously worked in an Ottawa secretariat supporting the First Ministers Conferences, but the field of provincial government had come to offer less hidebound development opportunities.

An imagined two-year stint turned into a 28-year span. But over that period we witnessed a slow but steady erosion of New Brunswick’s position and influence within the Canadian family. The McKenna years saw a spurt of energy, but in the end did not translate into permanent economic gains.

Others looking into the New Brunswick experience early on identified a ‘crisis in confidence’ wherein expectations are raised but not met, and the inclination to reach toward more ambitious goals is blunted. For example, another young Premier, Shawn Graham, campaigned on a platform of going from “worst to first” in education, but once in office was dissuaded by those in the education establishment from drawing attention to trailing test score results, and from aiming too high. And when Graham leapt at the serendipitous opportunity to make a game-changing move by merging the Quebec and New Brunswick electric power utilities, he was defeated by a fearful electorate, becoming the first one- term New Brunswick premier in the modern era.

The crisis in confidence factor is certainly not unique to New Brunswick, indeed it is pervasive throughout our country. Big ideas and national projects are no longer being generated within our national government or bureaucracy the way they once were. Balancing budgets has become the very limited but primary goal.

Today, New Brunswick, along with most provinces, must more and more imagine and independently create its own future. We don’t lack the resources or levers to do just that. We operate within a weakening but still generous system of fiscal federalism, and we possessing the full tool kit of powers available to provinces, plus a little extra, due to the Equal Opportunity centralization of control over the education health and human resource supporting services.

Immigration is possibly the main field in which we are constrained by national policies. As one of only a few jurisdictions with a declining population, we simply need to be more creative and step outside the imposed boundaries, as other provinces are doing.

The truly limiting factor is the acquiescence to norms and traditional roles. In today’s society and economy making lasting change requires clarity of purpose and concerted efforts of governments, business and civil society. Governments understand and admit this reality, but habit still propels them to try and occupy leadership roles exclusively and prevents them from sharing.

Canadians have not been particularly good at creating the spaces where players can come together in a collaborative mode to seek greater consensus, and thus generate wider support for bolder initiatives.   Needed and warranted advances in areas such as tax, energy, and incomes policies are held back due to failure to generate sufficient understanding and agreement on bigger goals.

In New Brunswick we have been trying to make such a process work. The 2003-05 NextNB/Avenir N-B exercise was the first attempt, independent of government, to draw the citizenry into taking a hard look at our circumstances and opportunities. On the heels of that process, a gathering of business leaders and presidents of our two largest universities formed a business council that initially took aim at what those two sectors could do in terms of supporting governmentally led to improve performance in education and wellness. In 2006, Premier Shawn Graham, who had proposed a 20-year goal of self-sufficiency, agreed to participate, along with Opposition Leader David Alward, in the creation of a roundtable of leaders drawn from various sectors and backgrounds to try and define some priority goals, align efforts, and measure progress. He also committed his government to working with Canada’s Public Policy Institute in a series of pilot projects in which people and government would come together not in ‘consultation’ but in actual formation of objectives and programs. This commitment was overlooked when it came to a big test, the electric power deal. That lost opportunity only served to prove the need for developing bold steps collaboratively.

The field is open for New Brunswick and New Brunswickers to imagine and chart a course toward a more prosperous future. Peering into the future that will befall us, as McKenna, Savoie, Richard Saillant, and others have done recently, is convincing enough. Maintaining current roles and attitudes will not get us where we want to go. We have learned enough about what can bring significant change that we have no excuses for not aiming higher and trying harder. We have sufficient resources, institutional capacity, and our hands on the key levers for driving change. Our sister province, Nova Scotia, sharing the prospect of an unappealing future has formed a One Nova Scotia Commission to focus on attitudinal changes, diminishment of partisanship, and the need to get behind strategic initiatives.
When do we get started?

 Don Dennison is a former deputy minister and the founding Executive Director of the New Brunswick Business Council.

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