Wednesday, November 23, 2011

6 Ideas for Reforming Business New Brunswick

Regular readers will know that I've questioned the Alward government for focussing on the deficit at the expense of a real jobs agenda. Yes, the fiscal balance needs to change, but if we are going to withdraw public money from the economy during a global slowdown, we had better have some solid plans on economic development.

The government department that quarterbacks this strategy needs to be part of that plan.  So far, the promise of more private sector expertise at InvestNB has not really changed how the department operates. Judging by the flow of press releases in the Minister's name, it's the same game plan with an advisory board in place. 

At a recent leadership candidates' forum I was asked about BNB reform. Here are some ideas I offered...

(1)    Re-think staff structure.  Good businesses guide employees through incentives, not micromanagement. Business New Brunswick should reflect this -- each unit should have measurable goals and targets, with staff paid based on results, with incentive pay for bringing companies and jobs into the province.

(2)    Build government's skill-set.  Too often, economic development teams hire those with experience in government agencies, affirming the culture of subsidies and saving existing businesses. Priority should be placed on bringing in private sector talent skilled in sales and global contacts, and we should use headhunting agencies where appropriate.

(3)    Go after the markets with emerging middle classes.  The fact we have no emerging market strategy to go after the 500 million new middle class consumers in China, India and Russia...let alone one for the African nations like Ghana and Rwanda who had double-digit economic growth rates, shows how locked BNB has been in subsidizing what we have.  For emerging markets, there needs to be a clear strategy to establish business contacts with countries that have growing economies, like China and India, with staff to support them. For instance, the lack of a China strategy, and staff with language skills and connections to that market, needs to be remedied.

(4)    End preferential treatment of industries.  We have rigid rules about what sectors we will, and won’t support, which sounds like government picking winners and losers to me.  Let's use community plans and strengths to develop cluster strategies that offer effective job creation tools with clear measurement of results and greater focus on mentorship and angel investor help to foster new enterprises and jobs rather than bailouts.

(5)    Create an Entrepreneurship Desk to deal with the soft barriers to new business.  Too often, new businesspeople from the Maritime Provinces lack the mentorship and help they need in finding needed angel investors, or capital, or just advice. We need to encourage private sector leaders to design networks across the province, country, and world that erase the competitive disadvantages faced by rural communities in New Brunswick.

(6)     Ensure every department understands its job creation mission.  InvestNB's private sector expertise should be used to have a jobs audit of every department, maximizing their role in the economy. For example, the National Governors' Association in the U.S. has a Rural Arts-based Economic Development manual, but our Culture department doesn't have a desk for those issues. The Education Department hasn’t gotten strategic advice from BNB in leveraging their foreign schools to open markets. Reinventing government for a jobs-based mission should be a government-wide initiative led by BNB. 

These are just a few steps that can be taken to reform Business New Brunswick, and make it an effective agency to foster entrepreneurship, open new markets, and especially create jobs.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


As they often do, a Twitter exchange has really got me thinking.  Here's how it all started....

Jeff Thompson, a gentleman well worth following @thomjeff , was kind enough to read a recent blog post of mine on economic management, and to offer up some words of praise.  After doing so, he asked a question -- why hadn't these ideas been raised, or heard from, during the Graham era? Did this mean the cabinet was ineffective?

I offered up, in explanation, the observation that Donald Savoie once made that cabinets have evolved into being focus groups for the Premier's Office. 

The observation is a general one, by the way, and true of the cabinet structure almost everywhere.  Ministers receive proposals that have already developed in the department, in consultation with the Premier's staff.  Ministers can offer thoughts, critiques and even attempt to stop these things, but the ability of, say, the Minister of Agriculture to steer a new idea for, say, health care reform through is very limited. She may debate the ideas that come, but there isn't a way for a new idea to come up unless it is adopted by the Department.  And since those departmental proposals don't usually come to cabinet until the department has worked on them for months, and the Premier is at least generally disposed to allow cabinet to pass it, an entirely new idea may be unwelcome at that late stage. This, structurally, may explain why you might see former ministers of health and/or education offering ideas today on economic development and natural resources that are new. 

After the keen-eyed Jacques Poitras retweeted my thoughts, my friend Chris Baker, who has sat in those rooms, offered an observation and a question.  First, he pointed out that I likely sat in the same room as BNB Minister Jack Keir and yet had expressed differing levels of satisfaction with the cabinet process.  He then asked, fairly, what is wrong with focus groups?

On the first point, I would simply say that two decent, thoughtful people can always sit in the same room when a decision is made and have differing levels of satisfaction.

No two sentient people, let alone folks as ornery as me and Jack --could deal with all those cabinet issues and agree on everything.  I would allow that I'd agree with Jack and other Liberals more than I would with the Alward team....and if I had to trust someone enough to disagree with them but have faith they might be right, there's no one I'd trust more than Jack Keir.

But that's not the big issue.....

Since I have allowed my name to stand among those who might aspire to sit at the head of that table, I figured it is fair to ask me just what I think is wrong with the cabinet structure.

I do believe that our governments have become too weighted in favour of the first minister and the unelected advisors that surround them.  Savoie's use of the "focus group" phrase is pretty fair. In the cabinet system, the Premier's Office and Executive Council determine which proposals are ready to go cabinet, and that means that issues that haven't yet won their support rarely get debated, and things on the agenda have largely already been vetted by the advisors and recommended to the Premier.

In general, if you have an idea on how to do things better, unless it is in your department, you would have a quicker route to get your idea heard if you were an advisor in the Premier's Office than to be a cabinet minister. 

(Let me say something VERY important here, and if anything here is quoted out of this context, then the quoter is trying to mislead you.This is true of how the cabinet structure works in Canada today, and that's what Savoie was saying.  This does not emanate from any particular event I witnessed while serving in cabinet in 2006-10, and it is not a veiled attack on anyone.  Our cabinet functioned like the others, and with men and women of good faith and high ability playing their roles in it -- the roles the system assigned to them).

The problem with the focus group model is that, in the end, it is all about influence on one person.  And that structure too often shields the premier from hearing real debate and diminishes the role elected people are meant to have.  To justify that statement, let me explain how cabinet works.

Cabinet works on consensus, in theory. Now, anyone who thinks about it for thirty seconds would know that this is a legal fiction....twenty politicians in a room won't agree on everything for four years with no debates or differences.  Consensus simply means that once the decision is made, those who got to have the debate at the highest level agree that they all support the decision publicly. This is done so real debate can happen in trust that people can be completely honest in the discussion, and so there is a cohesive executive running the government afterwards.

So, where does "consensus" come from?

You don't vote, by the way.  And no premier could possibly wait until every minister agrees before moving ahead -- a room with 20 vetoes can't work.  Once you accept that, you accept that there will be moments where a premier has to say "OK, we are moving forward, and this is our decision.". And, as you know, once a premier does that, then ministers must either support the decision or resign from cabinet (and in today's political reality, that often means leaving the caucus and party as well).  So, that's a big moment, and every premier can do it differently. 

A premier may try to involve many ministers in drafting the proposal, or try to broker a compromise at the table.  He may ask debating ministers to work out a proposal, or simply round off controversial parts of a proposal.  He may also tell the whole cabinet that he is the premier, and this is how it will be.  On different issues, the same premier may even take different approaches, willing to compromise on some things but insistent upon others.

Joey Smallwood was on one extreme.  He tended to assemble his cabinet, read the proposals and declare them passed.  In "No Holds Barred", his former minister John Crosbie tells of a new minister who joined the cabinet and was so excited he offered an opinion on every proposal.  Afterwards, Premier Smallwood asked him if he liked cabinet, and when the new minister expressed his love of the new job, Joey replied "Oh, you were talking so much I thought you weren't enjoying it.". The message got through.

That is an extreme example. But the thing with focus groups is that you only have to listen if you want to.  A premier can, in theory, tell a cabinet before an issue is debated that it will pass no matter what. He may bring limit debate and say he's heard enough. If she is tired of hearing complaining, she can even skip hearing the debate all together and leave instructions with a deputy premier to chair the meeting and declare the matter passed. Again, IN THEORY, that is how absolute a premier's power is.

There were checks and balances on this in a parliamentary system, but these have been lost over time.

The usual check and balance on this is that if a premier ignores caucus opinion, caucus may vote to replace the leader (in Britain, this is still the case -- Margaret Thatcher was deposed and her replacement elected by her caucus). But in the leadership convention era, caucus must accept the leader.  The selection is more democratic, but once selected, the leader's power is more absolute.

As well, in small legislatures, often over half of caucus is in cabinet and bound to silence after a matter passes.  That means that if a matter passes cabinet without full debate, caucus is likely neutered as well.  

So the only check and balance on a premier's power is the ability of a minister to quit.  However, this is obviously an extreme solution.  After all, most of us don't go to work believing we either agree with everything our boss does, or we quit. Most of us live in between.  That's especially true in politics -- after all, if you walk away from your job over one issue, you walk away from all issues. If you quit over the sale of NB Power, for example, you also quit on poverty reduction.  You quit, and that school you wanted to get built and that constituent whose mom needed help getting into a nursing home and that new policy you were working really hard all goes.  And most issues allow you some reasons not to quit; there are often decisions you don't love but were made better because you were at the debate, or things that are bad but not as important as that project you've been working on for months.  And besides that, even if you disagree with your party today, would you disagree with another party more often? Governing isn't a buffet. 

Most people in politics care about the work they are doing, and would find it hard to walk away unless they've tried everything.  For me, there are issues where I would have to vote against my party -- but only at the very last minute, when forced to vote on the passage of the measure, and only after trying behind the scenes to kill the idea without a vote.  To leave to protest a matter that may never get voted on would be like a captain  bailing out of a ship because it might hit an iceberg an hour away.  So the premier's power to declare a matter settled has real power.

In the short term, the focus group model serves the premier well.  But in the long term, a party is not well served.  Because the premier is so powerful in determining if issues live or die, a culture sets in where people may not speak truth to power, and a premier can pursue an unpopular idea and be unaware of it. As well, since most premiers spend more time with advisors than with caucus, the unelected wing of the party grows more powerful than those who must get an earful at community breakfasts.  In a democracy, absolute power will get you killed eventually.

So, OK, smart guy....what would you suggest to break away from the focus group model, short of some pie-in-the-sky constitutional amendment?  

Here's what I would advise a premier to do.

Create a functional standing cabinet committee structure. Have some issue-oriented committees chaired by ministers, not the Premier.  Give them the power to review issues and develop new proposals, and let their chairs have day-to-day authority to direct research from deputy ministers. Involving more ministers in making policy, instead of just reacting to proposals, will broaden debate.

Give legislative committees a real role in studying issues and proposing solutions.  And create more legislative time for the study (not just choreographed debate) of private members' bills.

Get on social media for regular question periods with the public.  And, no, having your staff tweet for you doesn't count.

Ask the party to amend the party constitution to allow caucus a role in determining leadership reviews to restore their power to get your attention. 

One last point....don't read too much into this. This is about a structure that exists in all governments. I will never tell you who, on what issue, was pushing the issue forward or begging the team to stop.  I will allow that even if you knew, I make no claim it would make me look better....I made some big mistakes in argument in that room and benefitted from the debate and loving butt-kickings some colleagues gave me.  I will even say (because I can say this), on the French Immersion file you can credit the whole team for the courage to finally tackle the streaming issue, but blame me and me alone for a process that rushed the solution without bringing the public in on the problem and humbly asking for help.  Please read this essay as a structural critique, not some over-hyped tell-all.

In the end, though, it isn't all about structure. Premiers have to be able to make up their own mind and have their own values without being scripted by back room advisors, and confident enough to welcome debate and criticism.  You want to know that when you raise objections with a premier, you're actually debating them and not some advisor you'll never see.  That's why I've been telling audiences of Liberals that the leader we elect today must be the best person to be premier tomorrow, not just the right one to get elected.  It's also why any of us who run should be tested on ideas and values.  There is no one biography that makes one ready for the power of the Premier's Office...there are only individuals who the public has a duty to scrutinize closely.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


We've seen this show too many times before - a candidate says whatever a pollster tells them to say on the campaign trail, often making unrealistic promises, and then they disregard these promises once faced with the hard realities of governing.
You can find examples of lots of politicians skimming the truth, but David Alward's Progressive Conservatives take the prize, with their repeated campaign pledges in 2010 to not raise taxes... only to have raised taxes in their first budget and now talk about raising taxes again in their second budget.
As this Bob Jones piece on the CBC shows clearly, the Tories' rhetoric was always to deny they would have to raise taxes. "We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem" was part of their written talking points, and they ran as the party of low taxes. When you hear the Premier now say when he said "we will hold the line on taxes that affect ordinary New Brunswickers" that he really, really meant only sales taxes, he makes the error worse because it is doubling down on a lie. He would be better to cop to the fact that he ran not knowing much about the job of Premier, and people were so mad at the incumbent that he chose not to think to hard about it.
The real problem is that politics-as-usual avoids the serious discussion we need in this province about our budget and about our economy. I've often said that I believed that in a global recession, New Brunswick was right to spend to keep people working and money flowing in communities. The capital budget and the enhanced social spending for working families (who tend to spend money in their communities) kept businesses afloat and families solvent. That's why every Western democracy -including the Harper government- did similar things. It's also why, as even Premier Alward acknowledged after he disposed of the Liberals at the polls, "New Brunswick weathered the recession fairly well". In many cases, like in the U.S. and Britain, governments who cut too quickly after saw the recovery swoon again and jobless numbers rise.
But I've also said that I think it was an error to keep the deep tax cuts (which are inefficient stimulus) for the wealthy, because it left a structure in place that would hurt our ability to repay that necessary stimulus.  It never weakened my resolve to be a Liberal - the Tory line then was to cut spending and keep the tax cuts, which was worse - but I do think we should roll back those tax cuts for folks like me who can share in the sacrifice.
But David Alward got to rail against deficits, promise more social spending, and say he would hold the line on taxes. He should be grateful he got away with it; mere decency would suggest he should acknowledge it now and thank people for the chance to put it right by governing with more intellectual integrity than he showed in the campaign.
The real weakness of Alward's approach -- that in the campaign he seemed to suggest government had failed if it made any decision that angered anyone; that with enough consultation no one need ever disagree -- is that it leads to bad government.  Alward's Tories want to please everyone, which ultimately means that those with the least voice - the poor and vulnerable - suffer, as seen with the Alward government's rolling back of our government's anti-poverty program.  It's a program David Alward proclaimed his support for on the campaign trail, but it harms those who don't have much power, so a weak leader who fears controversy will drift into picking on the weak, like school kids and the poor.
We need a frank and adult conversation about our province's finances, and we need to be honest. I have already put out my position that we need to look at new sources of revenue. I have proposed - in the spirit of bi-partisanship - to roll back the Graham tax cuts for those earning over $100,000 per year and use that money to invest in education (K-12 and post-secondary) which is vital if we are to have a growing economy, as a skilled workforce is essential in a 21st century global economy.
David Alward was never willing to have this discussion. But I say we challenge him, and ourselves, to rise above the tired politics as usual.  Let's attack the deficit without this doublespeak, and phony consultations where the Minister passively let's everyone vent and then says he's decided, say, that schools needed cutting because he's sure he heard that somewhere.
A short-term deficit was a tough, but necessary, decision to weather the recession together.  Now, let's come together as citizens to share in the sacrifice of paying for that necessity.  We can start by engaging in a public consultation process similar to that undertaken during the development of the poverty reduction strategy. We bring government, private business, and citizens together; we open the books and we work through solutions. When engaged as responsible adults New Brunswickers take to the task at hand and come up with solutions that are recognized and praised nationally.
We need to do this again for our finances. Let's get a citizen's assembly of 100 citizens together with business and NGO leaders.  Make sure teachers, and parents, and entrepreneurs, and those living in poverty are in the room.  Open the books.  Let citizens see what cabinet sees.  Make the deliberations live on the web and invite feedback and questions.  Develop a people's budget plan based on real, honest debate.
 And when asked how we will rein in a $700million deficit without more revenues or cutting expenses, let's be honest enough to say it will actually take both.  You can't find $700million by cutting the poor -- if they had it, they wouldn't be poor. You won't find it in schools that were the lowest-funded in Canada under the Lord government and only started to catch up under Shawn Graham.  But we will trust the voters with real information and engage, because citizens could hardly show less courage or do worse than the politicians are doing right now.
We need a serious discussion about New Brunswick's economic future. Mr. Alward did not run as a serious candidate, and he is losing time to act as a serious premier.  As Liberals, let's trust that the people grasp the seriousness of the moment -- and reward honest leadership.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Innovation and Entrepreneurship in 21st Century New Brunswick

Radian6's Fredericton Headquarters: An example to be emulated.
A recent news story about New Brunswick from the Globe and Mail caught my attention (you know it's a big deal when Canada's "national" newspaper actually notices us). The story was about a successful Fredericton entrepreneur, Chris Newton, who was behind the founding of two successful New Brunswick IT companies, Radian6 and Q1 Labs.

The article refers to these success stories as: <em>"Transforming the image of New Brunswick from a have-not province dominated by pulp, petroleum and potato barons to an innovation hotbed populated by smart young techies and risk-embracing entrepreneurs."</em>

The older industrial and agriculture sectors - pulp and paper, petroleum refining, and agriculture - are important parts of New Brunswick's economic heritage. Yet even these are changing; and a new emphasis on skilled labour will demand that we reward companies that invest in R&D and worker training. We need to look ahead, seize on new opportunities in bio-technology, green sectors, and information technology. On economic development, we have to move beyond the old smokestacks approach - something that was brought home with the failure of the second oil refinery in Saint John to materialize. We also cannot just recklessly throw money around in fits of crony capitalism.

Such a forward-looking approach also means we cannot pine over past industries, such as the building of wooden ships in the 19th century, and we cannot seek to get by on nice-sounding platitudes and generalities.

The internet and new communications technologies have opened up new opportunities away from major urban centres such as Toronto, Montreal, New York City, and Boston. Through "telecommuting", employees at Radian6 in Fredericton can have meetings with colleagues in New York, Toronto, or Tokyo. These are opportunities which Chris Newton has been able to seize upon, and which our province as a whole must now act to seize upon too.

Compared to larger cities, New Brunswick offers many quality of life advantages: shorter commutes (Toronto has among the worse commutes in the world), closeness to nature, outdoor recreational activities, beautiful scenery, historic cities and towns, and of course the friendliness of New Brunswick's people.

Smaller jurisdictions such as Vermont and Fargo, North Dakota (yes, THAT Fargo), have seized upon such advantages and built strong creative and high-tech economic sectors. We need to do the same in New Brunswick.

So what needs to be done? In an earlier post I offered some thoughts on economic development. Building on these themes, it is important to invest in education and post-secondary education (which includes promoting accessibility rather than limiting it as the Alward government has done through reintroducing the parental contribution requirement for student loans).

Also, we need to explore how our post-secondary institutions can work with young entrepreneurs and local businesses to foster new economic opportunities - as, for example, Waterloo University in Waterloo, Ontario has done in fostering the growth of a strong IT-sector in that city. These same universities will be instrumental in finding ways to modernize New Brunswick's traditional industries while our Community Colleges can help upgrade our current labour force while training young New Brunswickers with the necessary skills to work and build careers in forestry and manufacturing like so many before them.

We cannot take a laissez-faire approach of relying only on tax cuts - as the New Brunswick NDP would do with its plan to abolish Business New Brunswick. BNB desperately needs reform and refocus, and the next blog post will touch on that. But the idea that we don't need to build contacts in a global economy is naive in the extreme. We must promote programs that actively encourage, mentor, and provide support to new entrepreneurs. Radian6, in its early days, recieved crucial backing from the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation. We need to build on success stories like this.

The opportunties are there - Q1 and Radian6 prove that - but we need a provincial government that recognizes and seize upon these opportunities. New Brunswick a lot of potential, we cannot afford to waste it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


There is widespread talk among NB Liberals about the soon to be released renewal report. This report - and the following debates over its recommendations - will play a crucial role in charting the course for our party as we prepare for the 2014 election.

The renewal commission was formed out of concerns that, during the last government, it was clear many people who had been with us for years didn't see their liberal values reflected in some of the policy decisions made by the leadership. This included the decision to sell NB Power to Hydro Quebec despite a firm campaign promise against selling the public utility. It also included flattening the tax rate - drastically cutting taxes for the wealthy - which represented a hard-right turn that was a clear departure from the centre-left platforms of 2003 and 2006.

The Fredericton Fort Nashwaak riding association released its proposals on renewal, which highlighted the importance of policy in the renewal process. In particular, these proposals emphasized the need for the party's leadership to clearly reflect the values of its members in policy-development, something that would include engaging and listening to members rather than treating them as drones, used at election time and discarded soon after until the next election cycle.

Recommendations in the Fredericton Fort Nashwaak discussion paper included organizing the party along the lines of issues, to attract new members - and engage existing members - on concerns such as environmental conservation, poverty-reduction, and population growth.

I would encourage you to read the Fredericton Fort Nashwaak renewal paper and don't worry, it is a quick read at nine pages. Party renewal is an essential step moving forward if the Liberal Party is to be a viable force in 2014, one that can stave off a challenge on the left from a newly confident NDP while offering a clear contrast to the closed-door operations and muted caucus of the Progressive Conservatives.

Our party needs to seriously re-think how to engage members, and what being a 'Liberal' really means.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Newfoundland, Ontario, and Lessons for NB Liberals

I cannot say I am an expert on the politics of Newfoundland and Labrador, but one story struck me, one that shows that province's Liberals in third place, badly trailing the second place NDP and first place Progressive Conservatives. This holds a warning that New Brunswick's Liberals must heed, we cannot be complacent.
In the last provincial election, our party lacked a clear narrative, being all over the place ideologically and on policy. We lost badly, but at least retained official opposition. Next time we may not be so lucky, especially with an NDP aggressively looking to replace our party as the centre-left alternative.

This brings me to my second example, Ontario. Earlier this summer, many commentators were ready to write political obituraries for Dalton McGuinty, a premier no one has accused of having charisma or likeability. However, McGuinty, who initially badly trailed that province's Progressive Conservatives and had to fend off a strong challenge from the NDP, made an election that seemed a foregone conclusion against him highly competitive. He ultimately won on election day and while still one seat short of a majority – pending recounts – it is still an impressive result given earlier predictions of impending electoral doom.

It is also an impressive results given the electoral collapse of the federal Liberals only a few months earlier.
What is behind this amazing political comeback? McGuinty's Liberals had a strong narrative for their election. The Ontario Liberals offered a clear progressive agenda on the environment and education - outflanking the NDP while also providing a clear contrast to the Progressive Conservatives. At the same time, they tied this into an economic development agenda - green jobs, investment in education for a skilled workforce - understanding that the best social program is a good well-paying job.

Also, McGuinty’s campaign platform was not just words, he had been implementing these progressive policies – on the education and environment – in government.  McGuinty shows that a familiar face, even one with perceived baggage, can win if he projects competence, consistent values...and of course, the right ideas.
McGuinty's Liberals offer an example the New Brunswick Liberals must follow if we are to survive as a viable political force, or else the party of Robichaud and McKenna may be consigned to the dust bin of history.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


So as soon as I suggested that Premier Alward's economic approach was stuck in the 1970's, the man shows a determination to prove me wrong. The premier has now identified the business of electing senators is his top priority.  This clearly shows that the premier can update his thinking, because Senate reform is an issue from the early 1990s.  For some, this would be nostalgia; for the Alward Conservatives, this is actually progress.
Some commentators have suggested that the Premier's new agenda means that Liberals need to scurry over to this new topic and be prepared to debate this agenda. Some Liberals have joined in.  But I'm here to tell you, as Prince said, there's something else.

First of all, before New Brunswick joins in full-throated support of Stephen Harper's old Reform agenda for federalism, let's remember WHY conservatives love Senate Reform.

Forget the old canard about regional representation.  In different times, when politicians worked more across the aisles in Ottawa, having twenty-four senators instead of ten MP's may have mattered. Today, in the partisan circus in Ottawa, federal politicians are a function of their party’s central command, supporting and spouting the lines from their leaders. The quality and independent thought of our representative’s matter. The number of seats that can swing and decide who becomes Prime Minister may affect platforms. But anyone who thinks senators would form post-partisan regional blocs to defend the same issues regardless of political stripe is dreaming in technicolour. 

The real reason conservatives want a second elected chamber is because it will render the national government even more ponderous and dysfunctional, which is a good thing if, like Stephen Harper, you want a national government whose entire agenda consists of national defense and locking up young offenders. Watching President Obama's mandate to create a national health care plan for a nation that had millions without health coverage is instructive -- if you want to slow down the creation of national social programs and new shared endeavors, you'll love having two elected chambers squabbling over every step forward. 

It's rational for conservatives to want divided government.  It's crazy for Liberals and progressives. And for New Brunswickers, it is irrational.  New Brunswick benefits from having national standards in social programs. In a decentralized Canada, wealthier provinces can use their advantage to slash taxes and start a race to the bottom where New Brunswick will lose. Having a minimum safety net that every province has to maintain keeps social programs safe, and a weak national government can't do that. Sometimes, putting New Brunswick first also means putting Canada first. 

But, of course, the best way to deal with Premier Alward's sudden passion for constitutional minutiae is to let him have it. In a province where unemployment has never been lower than the day before he took office, where too many kids still struggle to read and too many parents are trapped in poverty, and where our Premier says things are so dire that we simply have to let environmental concerns go, families are not going to reward politicians who want to return to a debating society on Canadian federalism.

In the New Brunswick Legislature, there's a beautiful room upstairs where committees meet. Sharp-eyed observers will notice an old speaker's chair at the back. It's there because that room used to be our Provincial Senate, which was a second chamber. While New Brunswick is a bilingual province of diverse regions, I can think of no time when any serious person has suggested that the common good in jobs, schools or public safety would be immediately improved if we restored the New Brunswick Senate. We haven't missed it, and neither would Canada. To borrow a tongue-in-cheek quote from John Crosbie, a Triple E Senate isn't as good an idea as a Triple A Senate.... arthritic, alcoholic and abolished. 

Come on, Liberals.  We have a solid history and the right ideas for the future on jobs, education, and social progress. Falling in the polls, David Alward has every reason to distract New Brunswickers from these issues. Let's just make sure he doesn't distract us.

Monday, October 3, 2011

No, Premier. Fracking ISN'T The Only Way To Create Jobs

Premier Alward's recent comment that his government can only deal with poverty if gas fracking moves forward is not encouraging. Besides reinforcing the government's dubious choice to speed up fracking and slow down poverty reduction, it suggests that the Premier doesn't understand how modern economies work.

The things that Mr. Alward's government says it can't afford -- improving schools, raising literacy rates and lifting people from poverty to work -- are not things we do once the economy grows. They are actually HOW we help the economy to grow.

Mr. Alward is trapped in 1970's thinking -- that investment and jobs simply come to the place where it is cheapest to do business. In this model, if he slashes wages, cuts taxes for those already doing well, and short circuits environmental regulations, jobs will come.

Trouble is, going into the modern economic marketplace with that old philosophy is like heading to the club in a Nehru jacket and bellbottoms. You're telling the world that you didn't notice the last 40 years happening.

Today, with capital and information so mobile, low cost jurisdictions are places like China, India and emerging South American economies. They do cheap like we never can...and never should. To fight them on cheap is to choose only to manage New Brunswick's economic decline.

The jobs we're competing for go where there are people with the skills to work smart and learn quickly, and where there are markets for their products. - We're a small market with under a million people, and too many are sidelined by poverty, illiteracy, or a lack of access to post-secondary education. In a world where people and skills are the new currency, we need more of both.

Spurred by competition from emerging African economies, the countries that do cheap today are spending and working to get smart, too. Right now, we get the jobs they lack the skills to do. If they catch us on smart and stay cheap, we've got trouble.

The Alward approach -- cutting back on education and retraining, threatening more interprovincial trade barriers that keep our companies out of big markets, and making low wages an economic development tool -- is one that will make us easier prey in the new economy. If the Premier believes that skills and investment can wait until after the economy improves, he'll be waiting like sad Miss Havisham for the groom who never arrives.

Liberals can't just scream "more economic development" at the government. Here's six concrete suggestions to turn around a year of lost ground and stagnant job growth.

Fund people, not politics. The Premier has found money for political gimmicks like funding redundant courthouses and vehicle registration reminders...then says we can't afford better schools. Here's a non-partisan offer....roll back all the Graham government's tax cuts for those of us making over $100K per year, and put all the new revenue towards funding poverty reduction and access to college and university so that we can have a goal of having the most skilled, literate workforce by 2020.

Invest in growth sectors. Work with municipal governments to allow targeted regional tax credits in areas where a region has a competitive advantage. From ecotourism in the north to green manufacturing clusters in the Fredericton-Moncton corridor, we need to empower the regions where we have a headstart on the world in the sectors that are creating jobs.

Front-end tax cuts to improve access to capital. Competitive corporate tax rates are a must, but low rates alone only help your business once you have profits -- and many start-ups have trouble getting capital. Allowing companies to use future tax cuts for front-end capital (if approved by a private sector board like InvestNB) can help emerging companies survive to create jobs.

Be first in R&D. If we want green job clusters, we need the brand of having the most aggressive tax treatment of research and development. Let's work with industry to design a credit that allows the highest write-off of R&D expenditures and allows deferral of credits forward to a company's profitable years.

Create a Rural Entrepreneurship Institute. Too often, new businesspeople in rural areas lack the mentorship and help finding angel investors that all entrepreneurs need. We can challenge our private sector leaders to design networks that erase this competitive disadvantage for our rural communities.

Empower communities to win the skills race. A lost opportunity of the Non-Profit Secretariat was it only added a little money to the existing way non-profits work, I stead of rethinking their role. In areas where large government bureaucracies have failed to solve stubborn social problems, like illiteracy and homelessness, let's use UK Prime Minister Cameron's model of entrepreneurial government to allow local partnerships of community groups to bid for government funding to tackle these tough, community problems.

We don't have to sit around hoping the world will be kind. New Brunswick can win on jobs and growth -- if we have the courage to think of ourselves as competing not the cheapest, but the smartest place to do business.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

There's No Excuse, Mr.Alward.

The announcement by the Alward Conservatives that they will be taking away a promised raise for the lowest paid workers in the province should be a sign to New Brunswickers that this will not be a government constrained by basic concepts of honesty, fair play or compassion.

With any new government, people rightly want to give them the benefit of the doubt. The first few times that campaign promises were broken, people frequently chose to believe that commitments would be delayed while government learned the ropes or evaluated its options. Even when the Alward Conservatives delayed a promised boost in health benefits for people working but stuck in poverty, and vision care for their children, folks like me who worked passionately for the poverty reduction plan were somewhat muted in our concern.

After all, David Alward sat right in the room, along side dozens of citizens, including people living in poverty who told all of us politicians how much they were counting on us to justify their faith in the process and keep our word. He looked those people in the eye, the moms and dads who put aside their fear and skepticism to sit next to political and business leaders and tell us what it was like to struggle to escape poverty, he told them that he would keep his word. He heard what I heard, that people living in poverty who came had told so many people that they weren't crazy to believe things could change, and he saw the tears that were shed by people who were desperate to believe that their stories had really led to change, to a little bit of a better deal for the families who live in poverty.

And he signed the covenant on poverty, and he told the media and the people who had worked on the plan that this was a plan beyond politics, and he would deliver.

Today, I'd ask all those who have downplayed the other broken promises, who have tried to describe them as politics as usual or the result of a tough job, what excuse can there be for Mr. Alward breaking this promise to some of the most vulnerable people who counted upon the most powerful politician in the province to have their back?

Can you really buy the excuse that canceling the minimum wage hike is to provide for consultation? Really?

If you buy that, you have to ignore a lot of facts. Like the fact that the minimum wage hike resulted from a poverty reduction plan that heard from 2000 New Brunswickers in over a dozen public meetings, and was negotiated among 60 citizens and both political parties in a two day final forum?

In fact, in voting for the act to implement the plan, Mr. Alward himself said in the Legislature "...unlike the secret deal to sell NB Power, the government actually listened to New Brunswickers in developing this plan. That is why the Opposition fully supports this bill...."

So, it isn't just that I say there was consultation. He said it, too.

Can you believe that there's a need for more study? I can tell you that Mr. Alward sat at that final roundtable, and there was a full debate over the pros and cons of raising the minimum wage to a level more like other provinces. The option of a two-tiered wage was debated. And the consensus, including the advice from business leaders, was that the level set was the right balance.

Having heard all this, Mr. Alward could have, of course, told people there and in the media that he didn't agree. He could have said he wanted to hear from others, and reserved the right to make a decision.

But he didn't do that. He signed the document. He got his picture next to Premier Graham's as supporting the deal. He sat and accepted the times I praised his party for having put these issues beyond debate.

He didn't once express even a doubt or desire to reflect then.

Can we believe that this is a tough choice brought on by deficits? Really? After all, attacking the government's decision to run deficits to keep services and jobs flowing during a recession was a centerpiece of Mr. Alward's campaign. In March 2010 his party web site placed a huge debt clock front and center, and Mr. Alward spoke of the need to "rein in runaway Liberal spending".

Five months AFTER condemning that spending and sounding the deficit alarm, he signed the deal and even called upon government to move MORE quickly on implementing the plan.

So, how can we believe he signed the deal without there were deficits, when he signed it five months after pledging to balance the books?

How can we believe that he did anything other than lie to the most vulnerable people in the province.

Liberals and progressives, and anyone who sees the fiscal sense in getting people off welfare and into the workforce, should be prepared to have a real debate. It isn't good enough just to point fingers and say "ha, ha, the Tories screwed up". We need to explain why the policy was important then, and why it matters now.

What we learned from people living in poverty was that the rotten deal we give our lowest wage workers keeps people trapped in welfare. After all, you can't get social assistance until you give up all your assets, sever your living arrangements and exhaust EI. Then you get a small amount on which to live.

Yet if you get a job, you often lose your help for health benefits, child care and housing, and you're worse off than you were on social assistance. Not because welfare is to generous (it was, when we started, the lowest in Canada). You're worse off because (when we started) we had the most miserly minimum wage in Canada.

That raise may seem small to a guy earning the Premier's salary, but to a single mom trying to raise kids on nine bucks an hour, another forty bucks a week matters a lot.

We pay more costs keeping people on welfare than the small increase will cost business. And having people outside the workforce hurts our ability to attract businesses here, and means more kids grow up in homes that don't model the value of work. The tax burden of poverty alone is a big cost to business than the minimum wage hike, which is why business leaders supported it.

If we want people to leave welfare for work, then entry level work can't be inhumane. And at a time when many blue collar jobs are shipped overseas, we shouldn't be denying service workers a chance to earn their way, with tips and hard work, into the middle class.

Minimum wage opponents never do find a North American correlation between minimum wage levels and employment (it doesn't exist -- some high minimum wage US states have low unemployment, and some states with no minimum wage still have high unemployment). They never do explain how we move people off welfare with the lowest minimum wage in the country.

They do offer some fake objections. They argue that it isn't alone a cure for poverty -- except no one is suggesting that it is, because it is part of an extensive plan. But surely this is a odd argument, that because something is only part of a solution we shouldn't do it. That's like arguing that a hockey team down 4-1 shouldn't score a goal, because one goal won't tie the game.

We need to make the argument, forcefully, that getting people into the workforce requires work that allows a certain level of dignity, and making that first step too fraught with poverty will cost us more in the long run with higher welfare costs and families trapped in a vicious cycle. And we need to demand that Premier Alward give us his plan, since he has rejected the advice of 2000 New Brunswickers, for lowering the number of people in poverty.

And we need to stop making excuses for this betrayal. Premier Alward has begun his deficit reduction by attacking school kids and the poor. If this is not meanness of spirit (and I still hope it isn't), then it is simply an act of weakness-- faced with tough choices, this premier defaults to attacking those least able to fight back.

If we Liberals can't rally enough to fight back on their behalf, then we can never call ourselves a party renewed. I still believe that the Liberal Party will have the courage to fight this fight.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Lost Moment For Leadership

Legislative committee meetings in late June aren't often big news stories, so if we do nothing else, let's recognize that poor Glenn Tait and Sherry Wilson have at least managed to buck the odds When they came out and critiqued the cost and principle of duality in our education system, they made news as government backbenchers in the usually-muzzled Alward government. That isn't easy.

Perhaps in recognition of how rare this dubious achievement was, the Alward Message Control Center somehow managed to ensure that the story survived the long weekend and continued on into the next one; first by inexplicably having the Premier publicly complain that his MLA's weren't returning his calls, then by issuing one of the stranger "apologies" imaginable.

In language befitting one of those odd statements hostages are forced to read, Tait and Wilson apologized for "asking questions", and referenced the fact that their party, the PC's, actually believe in duality. The Premier at no point appeared to explain why the party believes this, and poor Tait and Wilson disappeared, presumably to a re-education camp where they will be treated to daily self-criticism sessions.

What was odd about the statement, by the way, is that a real apology usually is offered in the words of the person apologizing, and explains what they feel they were wrong to do and what they have learned. This statement had a strange Orwellian feel to it, as if two MLAs signed it but have no real sense of what they did wrong, if anything.

People have correctly taken umbrage at the fact MLA's are apologizing for asking questions, because sincerely asking questions is exactly part of an MLA's job. Michel Carrier, who passionately and logically defended the policy of duality in education, even welcomed afterwards the opportunity to explain why duality is the right policy, and called for more teachable moments.

The pity here is that the Premier of New Brunswick didn't rise to the occasion and do the same, leaving the historic responsibility of our premiers to explain and lead to faceless backroom spin doctors.

I don't believe in criticizing without offering up what I would do differently, so let me offer some specific suggestions.

First, please understand that I'm not defending Sherry Wilson and Glenn Tait. As some of you may recall, I once had to stand up to a prominent member of my own party, Justin Trudeau, when he questioned the need for duality while visiting here. I did that by appearing in unscripted interviews and explaining why duality was the right policy. When I was asked if he should apologize, I said this....

"No, I don't think any politician should apologize for expressing what he believes. But I would like him to change what he believes, because I think he spoke without understanding the New Brunswick reality and if he reflects, he will change his view."

I think a forced apology is meaningless in this case, and I think that's why no one seems really satisfied here.

First of all, even the line "asking questions" is really a lie. The reason Tate and Wilson are in trouble is because they don't ask questions. If you read the transcript, certain things become clear.

They aren't bad people, but they haven't taken any time to learn what should be basic civics for MLAs. They don't really know what the difference is between duality and bilingualism, so they kind of lurch about between examples of what they like and don't like hoping something coherent comes out.
The things that get them in hot water aren't questions --they are statements of opinion. Tate never does ask a question, he rhetorically asks if having separate schools is bilingualism or segregation, and then answers himself "to me, that is not bilingualism", and just asks the commissioner to respond to his statements. Wilson states that "there must be a more cost-effective way" with no suggestion that she might not know enough to make that statement.
The thing they really don't get is that raising the canard about cost is offensive to francophones. After all, elections cost money. Having a Legislature costs money. having trials instead of a police state costs money Yet these give force to real rights each of us have as free people. No one ever says "I don't want to come off as being against democracy, BUT can we really afford having an election every four years?". The reason they don't is that the right is so accepted you just accept it as a cost. When you ask if bilingualism or duality is affordable, yup expose not a question but a belief that it isn't a real right in your mind.

The real "apology" is, of course, changing your mind. But Tait and Wilson were ill-served by the spin doctors here. They first lie about what they really did, then in the words of others say they are sorry for contradicting party policy without explaining why they now support the policy. All this may explain why francophones again see a Conservative Party that accepts their rights begrudgingly, and anglophones see a premier who ran on openness muzzling his caucus.

In their own words, it might have been cleaner had Tait and Wilson said something like....

"I've had a chance to reflect on what I said in committee today, regarding maintaining duality in education and the financial costs of allowing kids to be educated in their own language.

I'm elected to ask questions, and I'm always going to ask if there are better ways to do things. But I made a mistake today when I went beyond asking questions, and made some statements without thinking things through.

I want everyone to know that I do understand that in an English community where kids will hear English everywhere, francophone kids need a place where there own language can develop first. I also understand that for francophones who fought hard for that right, it must be insulting to hear someone like me, who had the comfort of growing up with my own language all around me, to suggest that their right is negotiable when money is tight. After all, I would never suggest educating English students in French only schools was an OK way to save money.

I don't apologize for asking questions that I hear, and we shouldn't hide from the fact that a lot of people in my riding wonder about why we pay for two systems. But as an MLA, I have a chance to learn from people whose experience is different than my own. I should have asked more questions before I opened my trap and expressed strong opinions,and I will do better next time."

As for the Premier, he deserves credit for having swiftly laid down the law to his party. And yet......

There are times in leadership when, for all the nastiness and noise in politics, a leader rises to the occasion and reminds us of the better angels of our nature. That comes with the job, and the way one commands this bully pulpit often separates leaders from lieutenants in politics.

It would not have killed the Premier to show he doesn't just accept the political reality of supporting duality, but that he supports the idea and is willing to explain those views and persuade others. It would not have been a bad idea to consider coming out and making a statement like this.....

"Today, I reminded two of my MLAs that our government, and our party, support the principle that both English and French citizens of New Brunswick deserve their own school system, in their own language.

Glenn and Sherry aren't bad people. As they said often in their comments, they understand that having two languages and two great cultures is a good thing for New Brunswick. What they hadn't thought about was that learning your own language is a little different if you grow up French than if you grow up English.

We have done pretty well, here in New Brunswick, with two cultures each learning over the years what it's like for the other guy. Because even good people can sometimes wonder why we need two school systems, and why education is a little different than other services where it's enough just to offer bilingual services, I wanted to explain why it's so important to me that my party support duality in education.

Part of what makes us who we are is the culture we share with people around us. We know Canadians are different from Americans -- we have our own shared historical moments, from Paul Henderson's goal to Terry Fox's Marathon Of Hope. We have our own history we learn in schools. We may watch CSI and House, but we also have our Rick Mercers and Hockey Night in Canada. It's the little things we share that make us who we are.

Being English in Woodstock, my kids never had to wonder who they were. They never had to look for English shows, or music, or books. It was just how the world works.

Over the years, I've learned that not everyone grows up like that. If you're growing up French in Saint John, The Simpsons and Katy Perry and most of what goes viral on YouTube is there in the majority language. If you join a community team or club, the kids there will mostly speak English. To learn your own language, and to learn it perfectly, you need one place where you grow up living in that language only.

Trust me on this. I've struggled to learn French and I'm proud of that. But even speaking a second language well isn't the same as fully commanding your native language. When I speak French, I'm not really able to be completely me. I can get my ideas across, but it's more formal. My personality, my humor, the expressions I use, my own way of looking at the world, and even the little ways of phrasing things I probably picked up from my parents and their parents, that isn't there. Everyone can only be who they are if they have a language they don't just learn, but that they command, one that lets them not just ask where the bathroom is, but that gives them a personality and all the tools to express who they are.

That doesn't mean francophones don't want their kids to be bilingual. We all want our kids to share and know as many cultures and languages as possible. But we only fully do that when we first know who we are. In North America, the world does that for us anglophones. For francophones,yup have to do it despite the world around you.

Education is just different. For those who think you can just ram them together and teach bilingually, let me tell you you're wrong. The French equivalent of Shakespeare isn't translated Shakespeare. That might tell you how Hamlet ends, but we teach our kids Shakespeare to learn how language can create image and nuance and emotion when it's used by a master. In French, you do that with Rostand and Moliere and, here, Chiasson and Leger. We should all know that Trudeau gave us the Charter, but each group may wish to understand our own language's history in greater detail. And the folks who know how to design a curriculum in one don't usually know the other.

And for those who want one bilingual school, or one shared school bus, I'd ask this....does that mean you're ready to accept that all teachers have to be bilingual. All bus drivers? After all, anything less means one group isn't really equal -- they are just adapting to someone else's system.

That's why education is different. In a second language, we may get by, but we all need a language where our personality shines through. I want that for my kids. Francophones want the same for their kids. It is right, and it is a right. And just like voting, or having a fair trial, rights aren't things you need to justify when times are tough. They are just the cost of living in a society as blessed as our own.

Good people can always ask if there's a better way to do something, and we all have to stop and remind ourselves why we have the rights we do. That's why I wanted to explain why I wanted Glenn and Sherry -- and all of us -- to think about how someone else's experience might be different than our own. Not because I said so, but because it's the right thing to do."

Premier Alward is a good man with a tough job. But it's a job he asked for. And in this first moment of leadership, he shrank when the job called on him to lead.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A PARTY OF IDEAS - Liberal Renewal Document

We've gotten some requests for the draft renewal plan "A Party Of Ideas", that our riding is circulating. I thought I'd post it here. If our party is going to rebound, we have to connect to liberal ideas and invest in having clear values we fight for before, during, and after elections. All of us working on this would love your comments.

Permanent Renewal of the New Brunswick Liberal Party

Submitted to the Fredericton Fort Nashwaak Liberal Association
Kelly Lamrock and Ben Sullivan
June 7, 2011

Making Renewal Count

Clearly, Liberals want to renew their party. In defeat, a party often learns who its true believers are. Without any of the perks of power, hundreds of Liberals have shown up at meetings of the Renewal Commission to offer ideas, take the chance to be heard, or even just hear their fellow Liberals offering ideas for how we make our party more democratic, open and principled.

Here in the riding of Fredericton Fort Nashwaak, we are supportive of the direction of the interim report of the Commission. We believe that the party's grassroots have offered solid suggestions to make the party more accountable to the Liberals who raise money, volunteer for campaigns and work hard to elect Liberal governments. In particular, we believe these particular directions are deserving of support.....

We fully support the regular updating of party membership lists and renewal of individual memberships, because to make membership meaningful there must be an efficient way for the party to both inform and consult its members. This cannot be done with the added expense and difficulty of sending information to lapsed or inactive members.

We urge the Commission to follow up upon recommendations to make party officers more accountable to the membership. In particular, we would support the creation of requirements for open meetings and regular membership contact on the part of regional representatives, whose roles should be clarified. Under the current system, once elected to the executive, representatives actually have very few incentives to support a more open, visible, accountable party, for the simple reasons that more debate, profile and new members make re-election challengers more likely. The party's interest in renewal must trump its individual directors' interest in continuity.

We support the Commission's interest in developing a full set of options for changes in how the party selects its leader. We are confident that a number of models and voting mechanisms can work, but the "One Member, One Vote" principle needs to be a bottom line for reform. If we are to attract new members and non-traditional supporters into the Liberal tent, they must have the ability to cast a ballot directly for the candidate which has inspired them to join. To buy into the old delegate system would be to put in place a system which encourages candidates to battle over dividing g up the status quo, rather than encouraging candidates who can grow the party and reach out to new members -- which by definition a party needs if it didn't have enough votes to win the last election.

We support the call, made by many Liberals, for a regular leadership review mechanism. Once in power, a party leader controls a great many levers over an elected caucus, including not only membership in cabinet, but membership in caucus and effectively, the party itself. If a leader pursues policies without input from elected caucus or party members, those wishing to dissent are often faced with an "all-or-nothing" decision where they walk away from all policies at great cost to the party, or remain silent. There should be checks and balances on leaders departing from the values and platform of their party, and regular reviews will do that. It is worth noting that the parliamentary system is premised on an elected caucus being able to choose and replace its leader, which makes leaders keenly aware of the need to be inclusive. While the more inclusive leadership convention has replaced this caucus power in Canadian politics, if those who elect have no effective power to unelected, we give our party and government over to an elected monarchy, which depends entirely on the instincts of the leader to be democratic. We support checks and balances.

It's (Mostly) About Policy

The party is speaking loud and clear through this renewal process -- the party's grassroots wants to be involved in developing policy and making sure that the party's values are reflected in the policies we pursue once elected.

Both the open meetings and the Commission's interim report paint a picture of a party's grassroots that felt left out by the sharp right turn in policy that occurred in the second half of the last government's mandate. The decisions to bring in deep tax cuts where most benefits went to the wealthy, to make cuts to areas of social spending that our party had funded very generously, and to begin selling a public utility with very little discussion all seemed in direct conflict with not only our party's platform but the first half of our party's mandate, where the Liberal government aggressively added funds and brought needed reforms to the health, education and social services departments.

There are lessons to be learned by the fact that when our party pursued the liberal goals we campaigned on, the party remained well ahead in the polls even through contentious reforms. And when we abandoned those principles and the purpose of reform was unclear to party members, the controversy proved fatal.

Certainly, people could learn from that experience that the Liberal government became too insular, with a small circle around the leader making decisions and working to minimize dissent, rather than welcome debate. We could also conclude, with enthusiasm, that Liberals joined the Liberal Party because they support liberal policies, and any attempt to govern as a second conservative party will likely result in the election of the genuine article and the defeat of our party.

The most important lesson, however, is that the modern political party has changed. Parties are not instruments of getting power, paving roads and rewarding supporters, and party members are not there to wave signs, raise money and leave policy decisions to unelected political machines, as long as they deliver power. Today, people want the decision to join a political party to be meaningful, and to express what they believe. They want to shape policies and debate ideas.

To lightheartedly borrow a line from Bill Clinton's campaign, it's about ideas, stupid.

If we don't speak to the desire of many new, young, or disengaged voters to join parties because of ideas, we will not regain power soon. We will lose many bright, capable, progressive voters to parties like the NDP and Greens. Because these parties are small and have no spoils of power to fight over, they can offer new members a chance to be included in policy decisions and to focus on ideas.

It is clear that Liberal members have spent a great deal of the renewal process expressing a desire to get members more engaged in policy, which strongly suggests that we are lacking this now. Yet, the Renewal Commission's mandate is not to start a policy process or to write a platform, so how can we ensure that the biggest issue identified by Liberals is actually heard?

The Dangers of Life After Renewal

After the party's defeat in 1999, many of the same concerns around the need for principled policy and inclusive policy making were raised, and a renewal process was undertaken. Yet, after rising and falling electorally, the same concerns are there.

Once the renewal process is done, the party will turn its mind to the election of a leader, and that new leader will themselves be surrounded with advisors and supporters who will have every incentive to return to the "king and court" model that defines leader-driven parties. Even as the party has made it clear that we want renewal to take precedence over the drama of a leadership convention, there are very few ways to make sure that once a leader is in place the structure will protect the ideas expressed in the renewal process.

For members of our riding association, correcting the mistakes that cost us government is not about electing a new face, replacing old back room advisors with new ones, and waiting for the Conservatives to mess up. For Liberals in Fredericton Fort Nashwaak, it is essential that we change the culture of the Liberal Party.

Five Suggestions for an Ideas-Driven Party

Even if the renewal process doesn't launch policy debates, now is the time to look at changes that will turn a leader-driven party into an ideas-driven party. While the structural changes proposed in the interim report are a solid start, we would like to respectfully offer five suggestions that will make our party one which is built around ideas and inclusion.

Structure the Liberal Party around ideas and interests, instead of only geography.

Parties historically organize by riding association because these are effective political divisions. Ridings can organize for elections, riding presidents can structure communications of the party's message, and once in power they are effective ways by which local representatives can have an area in which they make decisions on local projects and decisions. Yet, these are proving to be out-of-date ways to organize in a world where people's interests may be broader than the neighborhood in which they happen to live.

One common complaint many Liberals have made is that when new people want to join the party, there is not always effective follow-up. Sometimes, this is because local riding associations are small and lack resources. Many riding executives have also expressed concern that the usual event in a riding, the riding association meeting, is a poor fit for a new member. One can imagine a young couple in, say, York joining the Liberal Party because they are concerned about the Tory record on the environment. If they even hear from the riding president, all a riding president can do is invite them to a riding meeting, where they will generally join a group of strangers who have known each other for years, and hear about an agenda of internal party issues such as local fundraising and provincial delegate selection. Even if they might qualify for groups because they are young or female, these groups have a mandate to first organize their constituency association, not address issues. How do we make new members feel like joining our party advances the issues they care about?

One way to do this is to reinforce the old region/riding hierarchy with organizations based upon common issues, that may unite a new member in Albert with a new member in Caraquet if both care about, say, education or seniors' issues.

The Liberal Party should create a number of issue-based constituencies, on issues such as Education, Health Care, The Environment, Social Justice, Economic Development, Community Development, Population Growth, and others. Members can join these groups when they join the party a be connected to Liberals who share their interests and passions.

Each of these groups can be headed by a Chair elected by the party's convention and responsible for organizing their interest group. This organization will involve establishing common social networks, launching policy debates, undertaking political action with elected caucus and at the grassroots level, liaising with NGOs who may share an interest in the issue, and reaching out to members who join the issue constituency. It is recommended that these Chairs attend executive and membership meetings but not have automatic voting status, so that this work does not become politicized by leadership or party politics.

Not only does this allow for an open party that values discussion, but it is a smart political organizing model. Campaigns such as the Obama presidential campaign have found the value of reaching out to groups based upon issues as well as regions, because it allows the party to assemble a coalition of people interested in a variety of issues, gives the party an interface with NGOs that are non-partisan but may help the party communicate its message, and to open up new avenues for members in regions where party organization is weak. It is not meant to replace riding and regional structures, but to add to them in a way that does things the old structure is not good at.

2. Give the Liberal Party grassroots an independent voice in policy making.
3. Define the platform development process, with grassroots involvement, in the party's constitution.

Certain points keep recurring in the renewal process, like the fact that the last election platform seemed to be a surprise to almost everybody, including elected caucus members. In an ideas-driven party, where members have a say beyond being an election machine, this should not be the case.

Traditionally, consultations and engagement around platforms are organized by the Leader's Office. Especially in government, the apparatus around the leader may have interests that compete with inclusion of the grassroots, including the need to avoid controversy on government policy and the desire to use the knowledge of the civil service. However, the platform cannot grow divorced from the issues that motivate our volunteers. Even though an elected premier and caucus will have responsibilities to a group larger and more diverse than their own party, there should be an ability of members to shape key policies and values in the platform we present to the electorate. Even if the leader must finally sign off, there should be a constitutionally-guaranteed role for the party grassroots.

We recommend that an independent position of Vice President (Policy) be created, elected by and accountable to the membership. This officer will be responsible for chairing the council of policy chairs, oversee the party's ongoing policy engagement mechanisms, and oversee accountability of the leader and caucus for party policy.

We further recommend that a platform development process be entrenched in the party's constitution, wherein the Vice President Policy and a member elected by caucus will co-chair the platform process with independent resources at their disposal, with the leader's approval of the final platform being required.

4. Give the party, not the Leader's Office, final say over how accountability sessions are organized at party meetings.

One advantage of having an open, democratic party is that they can warn a party's elected wing when they are heading for trouble. If a policy is unpopular, it is better to first hear that from those who are going to vote for you. At the same time, if a policy struggles to be accepted by those who are likely predisposed to support you, it can be a sign of trouble ahead.

Many Liberals felt that accountability sessions were stage managed to minimize debate rather than to give our elected caucus the full benefit of what the grassroots were hearing. The result was that we went in to the last election campaign with many Liberals still debating whether or not they felt inclined to support the party's candidate in their area. While no party will ever see all its members agree, a process that makes everyone feel heard can ensure more people feel included in the final decision and inclined to defend it.

We recommend that one half day at each biennial be organized by the Vice President (Policy) who can design accountability session formats and processes. We further recommend that the Vice President (Policy) and the policy chairs council be given the authority to designate certain parts of the platform as requiring regular updates from the leader and caucus to ensure that they are being followed.

5. A party of ideas must invest in ideas.

One lesson Liberals learned from the last federal election is that we cannot let our party become a bland, undefined option. The center isn't just the space between two beliefs, but instead liberalism is a unique and principled philosophy itself. We are the only party which stands for both individual freedom and equality, and believes that sometimes people are only fully and equally free if government stands up for the underdog on economic and social issues. Conservatives only defend liberty by refusing to act to guarantee equality, and New Democrats are quick to leave the individual aside by protecting their privileged groups such as labour. Liberals are the party of the underdog, and will take principled stands to defend the little guy.

Yet we have seen Conservatives and NDPers,and even the Green Party, become more defined brands in the minds of voters. In part, this is because they invest in ideas and are willing to stand for the same thing from election to election even if they have to work to take ideas from skepticism to acceptance. These parties all support foundations and research that advance ideas within their ideology. Liberals have shown remarkable skill at defending our past victories, from Equal Opportunity to the economic development tools of the McKenna era, but we haven't always invested in the ideas of the future that allow us to fight and win elections.

We recommend that the party set a goal of investing 10% of provincially-raised funds in a New Brunswick Liberal Policy Institute, which will support research and policy development papers from a liberal perspective from party members, NGOs and riding associations.

We further recommend that the party establish a permanent social media presence inviting ongoing debates, papers, videos and ideas on emerging issues. Both the Institute and its on-line presence should be overseen by the Vice President (Policy) and the issue chairs, and accountable to the party executive.

Renewal Is About Real Change

Here in Fredericton Fort Nashwaak, we are committed to rebuilding our party and returning Liberal values to government. However, to really show New Brunswickers that we have received their message, change must be based upon substance and ideas.

Some pundits from outside have framed our challenge in stylistic terms, arguing that new faces, or slogans, or brands will be enough to "break" from the past. We disagree with that. In fact, we think superficially running from the past is as futile as superficially embracing it. The goal is to be clear about what we embrace, and what we change, and to do so with wisdom and principle.

After all, the past Liberal government did good things, had good people, and left behind real achievements, from higher literacy scores to strong anti-poverty programs to more accessible universities and colleges to improved health care and a growing population. While we made mistakes that put these gains at risk, we should not run away from those things we did well. After all, as the Alward government slashes women's health services, cuts classroom education and cancels key poverty reduction planks designed to help poor families through tough times, the strong part of our past gives us strong, principled grounds to challenge the Conservative agenda in the future. Just wiping the slate clean and waiting for our turn won't work -- the absence of baggage is not the same as the presence of vision.

We can accept, though, that the way in which we brought in change, with too few people included, and with our principles either unclear or inconsistent, made many New Brunswickers uncomfortable with change. Mr. Alward has overread his mandate, too, returning us to the do-nothing days of the rejected Lord government. But we need to make change trustworthy again if we want to win.

We can start by making our party open and welcoming to all those who know that New Brunswick can't stand still; a place where we are more about developing ideas than protecting power. We start by showing the humility to learn from our mistakes even as we have the courage to defend our achievements. By making our party structure one that supports the politics of ideas, we change the perception and reality of what the New Brunswick Liberal Party is about.

We look forward to discussing these ideas as Liberals.