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August 31, 2006

No Fear and Loathing in NB Election

Boredom and the Ballot

HERR Magaazine
Volume 7, Issue 35
Aug. 31, 2006 - Sep. 7, 2006
www.herenb.com


There really isn't much at stake in this, New Brunswick's 36th provincial election.

“On a variety of issues - such as abortion, forestry, and economic development grants to business - there is little philosophical difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals,” wrote the CBC's Jacques Poitras who's been touring New Brunswick with the campaign buses. “When they clash at all on these issues, it tends to be over the details.”

There doesn't seem to be any fear and loathing on the campaign trial and it might be nice to have a little.

The 'major campaign issues' are squabbles over pocket change and disagreements over the dilapidated details of home care management.

The Liberals are hammering the Tory's policy of gas price regulation. The whole debate concerns a margin of about 7.7 cents per liter of regular gasoline.

Bernard Lord thinks his regulation scheme has saved gas consumers up to 10 cents a liter some weeks; probably a significant numerical over-statement and peanuts nonetheless. Liberal leader Shawn Graham says he would reduce the provincial gas tax by 3.8 cents a liter.

The parameters of debate aren't so narrow in other places.

Take oil price regulation for example. In Venezuela right now, a liter of gasoline costs about 9 cents. Subsidized fuel is a sweeping policy the socialist, and oil rich, Venezuelan government supports, so they enacted it. It probably isn't a great idea, as it encourages people destroy the environment with wasteful use, but regardless it's an interesting and ambitious plan.

The Canadian state, and certainly New Brunswick's comparatively tiny and insignificant provincial government, is too constrained by other institutional and financial actors to go against the grain in any serious capacity.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) can (and does) over-ride domestic legislation. The unelected three lawyer tribunal who rule on disputes within the trade agreement are arguably a lot more powerful than New Brunswick's 55 elected MLA's.

Provincial Governments really don't have a lot of room to move in the era of globalization. If New Brunswick isn't willing to bend lower for capital investment, groveling with tax write-offs and incentive packages for the latest call center, than Nova Scotia will be happy to do so.

Capital calls the shots and The Legislature responds. In a sense, economics has eclipsed politics as the defining discourse of power.

Thus, it's not really any one person or one party's fault the campaign is lackluster and the parameters of debate are definitively narrow: it's a structural problem.

Constrained debates, and well planned government impotence, have taken a tole on the electorate, especially the youth; only 38% of people in the 18-25 crowd voted in the last federal election.

In the 2003 provincial election, voter turnout dropped to 69%, the lowest level since 1967. Voter turnout is dropping across the developed world; constraints diminishing the power of New Brunswick's government are global.

Although government can't do a whole lot, the legislature certainly houses a few respectable characters. There's Abel LeBlanc, the Liberal former longshoreman from blue collar St. John Lancaster who stands shoulder to shoulder with anti-poverty activists and defends the crucial right of legislative press access, even for eccentric bloggers.

And Oromocto-Gagetown Tory MLA Jody Carr, who won his first legislative election at the ripe old age of 23, and has since campaigned constantly for victims of agent orange spraying by the military in his riding.

Carr has been little more than a silly functionary while holding a cabinet seat as Minister of Post-Secondary Education and Training. But it seems like he still has activist roots, or at least deep concern for the rural residents and military families he represents.

Either way, as campaigner or a figurehead of bureaucracy, Carr is a kid to keep your eye on. He's certainly going places, this columnist just isn't sure where.

It's certainly better to have decent people sitting in the legislature, even if they can't really do a lot. Voting for a respectable local candidate, if such a person exists, is a good thing.

A strengthened, or more accurately existent, NDP presence in the legislature would be nice and could widen the scope of debate. But, even if the party is brought back from life support, it will invariably have too few seats to seriously affect what legislation gets passed.

Even with a bleak and boring electoral outlook, and declining voter turnouts, individual candidates can make some meager additions to policy debates and the relatively minor differences between parties on issues like care for seniors and education can still make major differences in the lives of average people.

Liberal democracy, even its toothless, clashless New Brunswick emaciation, is certainly better than religious theocracy or single party dictatorship.

And, the right to vote didn't just fall from the sky one day. People had to fight for it.

New Brunswick women won the right to vote provincially in 1919, prior to that they were banned from ballet casting by a 1849 Election Act amendment specifically designed to dis empower female voters.

The government's official website notes that, “Until the reforms of 1967, it was necessary to be a land owner to vote municipally and provincially in the province of New Brunswick.”

If voter turnout trends continue, more people will voluntarily abdicate the rights they have won and not show up on election day. That's worrysome. The ballot may have less power than ever, but it's still a tool worth using.



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