The peaceful quality of life in New Brunswick belies the structural challenges that churn below the surface. (Michael Hawkins photo/Wicked Ideas)
Weird news, bumbling politics and civil unrest: congratulations New Brunswick, last week we hit the trifecta of regional stereotypes.
There was the guy with the dead mouse in the bottom of his fast-food coffee cup. Of course that went viral.
We had the sudden resignation of Gary Keating, the successfully-elected Liberal candidate in Saint John East who decided, after slogging through a tight election race and a recount, that he really didn’t want to be a politician after all.
And we marked the first anniversary of the Rexton anti-shale gas protests, which was the defining image of 2013 in New Brunswick.
All national news – and all fit so nicely into the well-established narrative about this place.
As John McLaughlin and I write in our new ebook, Who Gets to Lead When We Don’t Know Where We Are Going or What We Want to Become, New Brunswick is rarely the hero in the stories told by others.
In the national conversation, New Brunswick has, for well over a century, been assigned the role of one of the have-nots – a forgettable, semi-rural place populated by fishermen, loggers and socially-conservative senior citizens. It’s the drive-through province; barely worth a glance in the rearview mirror as the rest of Canada hurries past.
Save for the beer ads on Saturday night that laud the East Coast ethos of the impromptu kitchen/cottage party, the region’s primary role in the national conversation is to stand as an example of what Canada does not want to be: saddled by debt, under-employed and over-represented by graceless and/or meek public officials. That this describes every region in Canada is conveniently ignored by our national storytellers.
Truth be told, we just might live up to their expectations. New Brunswick, along with Nova Scotia and P.E.I., is running out of options. Quite simply we do not have enough money to pay for all the things we take for granted – local schools, hospitals, roads, parks and businesses. More importantly, we have failed to secure new sources of funding, which means we will lose what we cherish because we can no longer afford it.
Over the past decade our economy slowed down, driven largely by global forces, most notably the downturn in the U.S. economy caused by the 2008 financial crisis. However, while other jurisdictions got to work looking for new sources of revenue, New Brunswick faltered.
If we’ve proven ourselves adept at anything, it is our ability to quietly accept incremental loss. How else to explain the last 10 years?
Why can’t New Brunswick change? This is the central question John and I ask in our ebook and our conclusion identifies a painful truth.
In our research, we went in search of other jurisdictions that undertook deep, transformative change in a short period of time and we found great examples in New Zealand and Estonia. Our interest isn’t in what they did, but HOW they did it.
Over the course of two terms, in the mid-1980s, New Zealand’s Labour government radically changed the country’s economic structure under the direction of Prime Minister David Lange and Finance Minister Roger Douglas.
Faced with a staggering public debt – the result of years of government intervention in the economy – Lange and Douglas’ solution was to campaign for reelection on a platform of utter honesty about the country’s perilous financial situation.
Voters returned them to power with a 17-seat majority and Douglas interpreted this as a mandate to moved quickly. His reforms, known colloquially as Rogernomics, reduced the size of the state by instituting deep reforms to the welfare system, reducing the civil service, and ending many economic controls.
A decade later, Estonia followed a similar route. In 1991, it emerged from the Soviet era with a crippling debt and a society out of step with the modern world. In response to their specific situation, Prime Minister Mart Laar and his government introduce a flat income-tax, free trade, its own currency, and privatization – and they did it in less than two years.
During that transformation, Estonian officials visited New Brunswick to learn about Service New Brunswick, at the time a world leader in e-government services. We aren’t anymore.
While we floundered, Estonia surged ahead, and now it is New Brunswick officials travelling to Estonia to learn from them.
What did New Zealand and Estonia have that New Brunswick lacks?
Analysis of both countries’ economic and social reforms always mentions three things: crippling debt, the distain of the world economic community and young leaders who represent generational change.
Check. Check. Check.
New Brunswick has had all three components for the past 17 years – and yet change never arrives. Why?
We believe there is a fourth element that New Brunswick has always lacked: the belief that we are on our own.
Precipitating New Zealand’s reforms was the entry of Great Britain into the new European Union, which ended old colonial-era trade patterns. For Estonia, it was the fall of the Soviet Union and a desire to build a bridge to the open economies of the West.
Here in New Brunswick, despite all the dire warnings, we continue to believe that Canadian federalism won’t let us fail. No matter how bad it gets, Ottawa will bail us out.
If New Brunswick is to stand on its own, we, its citizens, must learn to let go.
Lisa Hrabluk is the founder of Wicked Ideas. Follow her on Twitter @lisahrabluk.
About our e-book; John and I think of it as a working document, designed to get you thinking and prompt you to join us – in person and online – to expand upon the ideas in this e-book and to add your own ideas to the mix.
But we don’t just want to sit around talking – we want to identify a new cadre of community leaders who will step up and lead the charge for change.
We know who some of you are – and we’re excited to meet more of you and to hear what you’re doing.