By Peter Lindfield, published in the Telegraph-Journal 27th July 2012
As Canada’s Council of the Federation meetings convene in Halifax in the waning days of July, the economic news from the rest of the world is grim. In the U.S., consistently weak industry performance has defied analysts’ more rosy forecasts. An electoral crisis in Greece, a banking crisis in Spain and Portugal, and a bitterly fought election in France have all taken place within the previous months. Canada has not been spared. The unemployment that remains stubbornly high in some provinces is emblematic of a growing regional disparity. And the commentary about the world’s economic problems, with dire predictions of further unemployment, defaults, and recession would appear to set the stage for pessimism at the meetings.
At the Council meetings, there are the usual and expected complaints about federal government’s lack of commitment to provincial concerns. But we are also hearing measured optimism and a continued focus on Canadian competitiveness. And we are hearing this from Canada’s business sector.
This expression of confidence comes from a business community that customarily is disinclined to support government while being prone to complain about excessive government regulation and meddling. This perspective is also in contradistinction with the views of much of the business media which is more content to report the bad news. So it appears that, despite the uncertainties that the 2007-2009 financial crisis and subsequent recession have exposed in contemporary capitalism, a substantial number of business leaders neither want the current system to break apart nor think that its fragmentation is inevitable.
Canadian business leaders do want transformation. They believe in radical political and economic changes that support competitiveness and promote greater centralization in governance structures. They believe that transformative change will encourage the recovery and the capacity to generate growth and prosperity. They also believe that this capacity is not distributed equally across Canada.
In New Brunswick, who really wants transformational political and economic change? Judging by the array of opposition to new thinking in health care, pension reform, education, energy, municipal governance, natural resource management and fiscal stabilization, the answer is very few want any change at all. Nova Scotia businessman John Risley expressed it succinctly when he said that “Atlantic Canadians don’t like change and want the world to leave them alone”. Mainstream, status quo thinking has made it more difficult for political parties to support the needed changes to institutions, regulations and laws to keep up in an increasingly fast-moving world.
The 2007-2009 financial crisis has made the world even faster moving. But at the same time, the recent impact of the crisis has been to raise the need for and the intensity of proposals for reform, even in New Brunswick. There is an enormous push building for reconciling pension practices. The goal of a more rational approach to municipal governance, which has been stalled for decades by fruitless negotiation, now stands a chance of succeeding. Major changes in health care, education and social service delivery are now at least on a discussion agenda. Looming in the background is the specter of government’s growing debt. To say that the debt constrains our choices is an ambitious understatement. Very few voluntary changes will be possible if government’s deficits and debt are not brought to heel.
Crises arise because critical questions are inadequately addressed. Viewed in this way, the current fiscal crisis in New Brunswick should be welcomed as the catalyst it is. It will force leaders and the public to closely examine the transformative measures and reforms that have been resisted, held back or postponed for years. Whatever one may think about the current challenges, or the discussions they have fostered, the consequences of future efforts should be a stronger, more cohesive New Brunswick, not a lesser, weaker one.