Published in the Telegraph-Journal 21st February 2012
Canadians are adverse to change and risk. At least, that is the prevailing wisdom. In the face of growing deficits and a burgeoning debt, the recently-released Drummond Report featured almost 400 recommendations for the massive overhaul of Ontario’s public services. The torches and pitchforks are already out over the potential impact of these recommendations, wielded by public service unions, academics, business interests and the public at large. One can fully imagine that, in perhaps six months or so, there will be not one single recommendation contained in the report that will not have attracted its share of detractors.
In New Brunswick, government is under pressure to resolve growing social and economic challenges including health care, education and infrastructure. As the demands on public services have been expanding, so has the burden on taxpayers. In response to this service delivery expansion, the New Brunswick government has been forced to run larger budget deficits leading to increasingly higher levels of public debt. This is a consequence not only of running its operations but dealing with an unprecedented array of calamities that include the financial crisis, demographic shifts and energy prices. Additional complications associated with government’s soon-to-be released forestry plan and shale gas regulations have environmental and social implications which will make government’s decision-making more difficult.
So, although its problems differ in scope, scale and origin, New Brunswick is faced with challenges similar to Ontario’s. The key question in this province is whether there is any appetite for real change in the face of these challenges?
It’s easy to think of New Brunswick as historically and culturally predisposed to resisting change. Upper Canadians have developed a cartoon stereotype of Maritime culture more backward than forward looking. Because the Maritime Provinces are small, it is difficult for them to compete directly with their much larger cousins. But New Brunswick can lay claim to energizing an unlikely transformation under the leadership of Premier Louis Robichaud in the 1960s.
Against substantial opposition—some of which still resonates today—Robichaud introduced the Equal Opportunity Plan. Under the Plan, the jurisdiction for education, rural road maintenance and health care was transferred to the provincial government which was adamant that equal coverage would be provided across the province. County councils and rural areas now fell under direct provincial jurisdiction. In 1969, New Brunswick’s Official Languages Act made French an official language. New Brunswick remains the only constitutionally bilingual province. The consequence of these monumental changes was to dramatically reduce the geographic and linguistic isolation of northern New Brunswickers, many of whom were Acadians.
This feat of government reform matches any other in Canada’s history. That this transformation involved no inherent boost to economic growth or rise in revenue makes it even more remarkable that the necessary public support to underpin it was found. And Robichaud’s actions involved enormous political risk to himself, his government and political party.
Was that set of transformations an isolated moment in the history of this province or is it embedded in the DNA of its citizens? Are we more risk-averse today than fifty years ago?
Some of the answers to these questions involve technologies that have democratized information and knowledge to an extent that government officials are only beginning to understand. The Internet generally and social media specifically have made it much easier for citizens to get involved and to create coherent interest groups. Overnight, thousands can convey intense opposition to a proposed plan or policy. This is occurring at the same time that the need for accountability and reliability in the modern economy has resulted in selection against radical transformation. It is a paradox that the most comprehensive proposals for reforms are being promoted when the resistance to them is greatest.