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Why GNB should reject a Crown transit corporation.

Acadian bus lines’ decision to cease operations in the Maritime Provinces has lead to a serious political debate about public transportation in our region, and in New Brunswick specifically. On the heels of this announcement many groups began calling for the establishment of a new Crown corporation to provide public transportation to our citizens.

Most recently, a guest column from Glen Carr, president and business agent of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1229,  appeared in Monday’s Daily Gleaner.  In the article Mr. Carr rightly points to a number of deficiencies with the current transit environment, however his conclusion that a public transit service paid for by taxpayers is the solution to the current turmoil, is ill conceived.

Public transportation is not a profitable enterprise and the government would begin losing significant revenue from Day One, revenue it does not have.

The Province of New Brunswick requires policies that will make our economy competitive in the 21st century. The most important areas on focus should be on developing economic policies that will allow the Government of New Brunswick to properly fund it’s education systems (early education to post-secondary/trades), assist in attracting top notch 21st century employers, and returning to balanced budgets.

These are the policy areas that will allow New Brunswick to prosper in the future. Unfortunately the current deficit situation will prevent New Brunswick from being able to fulfill these policy objectives in the short term. As such, any policies that would jeopardize the province’s ability to carry out these objectives in the long term should be rejected. A public transit corporation is that sort of policy.

A Political Landmine:

The decision made by Acadian bus lines puts the province and those people who rely on inter-city and inter-provincial bus service in an extremely difficult position.  Indeed, the decision to end services in November seems to have been motivated to put maximum pressure on New Brunswick politicians, specifically those representing David Alward’s Conservative government. The chosen date, right before the Christmas season, will cause significant outrage from students, their unions, and their parents. The general traveling public will also be more engaged during this time of year as it will significantly impact traveling over the holidays. Being close to Christmas, the added pressure of some 180 Acadian bus line workers being left unemployed will add to the voices and pressure to find a solution – with Acadian or without. The real impact on people’s lives, and the political fallout for the government will not be insignificant.

It is not just the needs of the traveling public that will be hurt. Many businesses rely on the courier service provided by Acadian bus lines. The courier service provides a vital mail service connecting rural communities with each other and the province’s urban centers.

The issue has sparked a conversation about inter-city and inter-provincial transportation in each of the affected Maritime Provinces.  In New Brunswick, the Tories have suggested reviewing the current regulations and making changes to permit more competition from smaller providers. I am not accustomed to agreeing with the Conservative Party, however on this issue I agree that the solution to this issue is found in reforming regulations to increase competition among private enterprise.

In my opinion the question that should be asked is this: does the establishment of a Crown corporation make sense given our financial state? In other words, it’s a question of priorities. When the province struggles to pay its debt, and fund its education system – a key to economic prosperity in the future – should the Government of New Brunswick add the cost of providing a transportation service?  Is the enormous cost of a Crown transportation company justified when we struggle to just barely fund services that will have long term, positive economic benefits to New Brunswick?

The Saskatchewan Transportation Company

Many proponents of a public transportation system have pointed to the STC as an example of a provincial Crown corporation providing transportation for New Brunswick to emulate.  Established in 1946 the STC is the longest operating and only Crown Corporation providing public, inter-city and  inter-provincial transportation in Canada. In its long history it has rarely made a profit, endured sustained periods of ridership decline, and has been impacted by a national industry trend away from government regulation.  The establishment of a Crown corporation is no small matter, and should not be entertained lightly.

A quick review of the STC’s annual reports from the past decade shows that the Crown Corp lost just over $7.5 million. Between 2001 and 2003 significant investments in capital infrastructure were required leaving annual losses of $1 million in 2001, $930,000 in 2002, and $2 million in 2003. Indeed the only year that the STC made a profit in the last decade was in 2010 when the company posted an operating profit of just $9000.00. Despite a 7.4% increase in ridership in 2011, an increase the STC President and CEO Shawn Grice noted has happened “very few times since the company’s origins in 1946, the STC still posted an operating loss of $299,000. To Mr. Carr’s point that part of Acadien’s issue is that they have not advertised in years, the STC has increased it’s advertising budgets, the result of which has been an increase in ridership but has done nothing to increase it’s profitability.

Providing public transportation in provinces with large rural populations spread over large geographies is not a profitable business. Acadian bus lines’ financial struggles are a case in point. Citing declining ridership and increased costs to operate rural routes is not unique to New Brunswick.  Faced with similar financial realities in Alberta, the government allowed Greyhound bus lines to stop servicing unprofitable rural routes as a solution. In 2006 the Liberal government in Quebec issued a report titled “Better Choices for Citizens: Quebec Public Transit Policy” which noted declining ridership in rural Quebec and vanishing public transportation links when routes became unprofitable – over 20 routes in 50 years.

Other Factors to Consider

Aside from questions of profitability there are other issues to consider. In general the history of Crown corporations is not one that inspires confidence. Crown corporations are not known for efficiency and often become the subject of political manipulation. New Brunswick’s own history with Crown Corporation underscores this reality as NB Power and NB Liquor become subject to political patronage at the executive level and below.  There is no reason to think a ‘NB Transit’ would be immune to this pattern.

A 2011 G8 report entitled “National Strategies on Public Transportation,” argues for the establishment of a national transit fund that would help financially sustain public and inter-provincial transportation links. The report does not advocate for government ownership of public transportation, favoring government regulation with private enterprise partnerships instead. Reviewing government owned transportation companies the report notes that:

” … private operators can help reduce spending on capital assets and human resources, lower costs as a result of competitive bidding, lower potential for labor unrest, and allow the use of existing operators’ knowledge of market demand, routing and scheduling.”

In other words, private enterprise is ideally suited to avoid the pitfalls that plague Crown corporations. We know from our own experience that the current regulations make it difficult, if not impossible for private enterprise to make a profit. There is no reason to think government will ever be able to make a transit corporation pay for its self. As a result I must conclude that it is irresponsible to pursue this policy.

Alternatives

As with any issue that arises in New Brunswick it is difficult to find alternative solutions. This particular issue is one that has the potential to be politically damaging to the Tories, however, their current approach is not unreasonable. New Brunswick cannot afford a Crown transit corporation and Acadian bus lines cannot make a profit. The regulations need to be changed. To that end I propose the following:

Short Term:

  • In the immediate short term the Government of New Brunswick should support regulation reform that will allow Acadian bus lines to stop servicing the majority of unprofitable, rural routes while maintaining service of the urban areas in the south and at least one route connecting Northern New Brunswick to Southern New Brunswick.
  • The Government of New Brunswick should consider removing the monopoly granted to Acadien buslines to service the Southern inter-city route (the only profitable route) opening it to competition.
  • Government of New Brunswick should encourage the establishment of smaller, private transportation operators to service rural routes.
  • The Government of New Brunswick could explore allowing municipalities to generate tax revenue dedicated to paying for satellite bus service. (This is a policy that has been put forward in Quebec).

Long term:

  • Announced in the short term, the Government of New Brunswick should study the current research related to a national transit fund in Canada. Such a fund would primarily be paid for by the creation of revenue streams by federal government with the provinces providing additional funding.
  • To date the national transit fund has primarily been concerned with providing funding for urban public transportation, however interested provincial governments with large rural communities and smaller urban centers could make a case for being able to spend national transit fund dollars to meet the unique needs of their citizens.

Conclusion

This position reflects my own conclusions based on research that I have conducted on my own. The idea of a public transit company is appealing to many, including myself, but it is financially irresponsible given our economic realities.

Are social media conversations driving voters to the Coalition Avenir Quebec?

For the last three weeks I have been keeping tabs on Quebec’s provincial election while monitoring conversation trends on social media. What party is getting the most mentions? What leader is sparking the most conversations? How are daily events impacting those conversations? What topics are people talking most about?

When compared to polling the social data raises some interesting questions; chief among them: to what extent is social chatter fueling the Coalition Avenir Quebec’s rise in the polls?

The campaign so far.

Quebec premier Jean Charest dropped the writ on July 26th after months of sometimes violent student protests over proposed tuition increases. The protests have forced the resignation of two education ministers, Line Beauchamp in May and her replacement, Michelle Courchesne, who announced in mid-July that she would not run in the next provincial election. Charest’s Bill 78, a law aimed at putting limitations on when and how students could protest the government, was denounced as Draconian by student protestors, the province’s opposition parties, labor unions, and Canadians outside Quebec.

Polls released just days before Charest called the election showed that his Liberal Party would find themselves in a tight race with the Parti Quebecois (PQ) but would still win a small majority government. Seat projections said the Liberals would win 60 seats and the PQ 55. The Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), in it’s first general elections since amalgamating with the former Action democratique du Quebec (ADQ) in January of this year, was expected to win eight seats.

Four days after the campaign launched polls showed that the PQ had overtaken the Liberals, moving into minority government territory. As of August 15th the PQ’s lead had moved into majority government territory. Naturally, the PQ’s stance on Quebec sovereignty emerged as a major theme in the race, however it has not proven to be detrimental their electoral prospects.

The real gains have been made by the CAQ. Despite low seat projections as the campaign began, CAQ leader Francois Legault opened a new front in the campaign against Charest’s Liberal Party when he announced his party’s star candidate: Jacques Duchesneau, who claimed that CAQ was the only party to “clean up” the province. Ducheneau had been appointed by premier Charest to investigate rampant corruption and collusion between the provincial government and the province’s construction industry in 2010. After submitting his report to the government Duchesneau leaked the report to the media for fear of the government burying it. The report turned out to be a quite damning.  Almost over night seat projections for the CAQ increased from eight to fourteen.

The Social Conversation.

Monitoring all mentions of the major political parties and their party hashtags in conjunction with all mentions of the #qc2012, #qcpol, #quepoli, and #polqc revealed the following conversation trends.

As noted above the mainstream media has been focused on the question of sovereignty as the Parti Quebecois moved into majority government territory in the polls. Quite natural but social conversations are less concerned with questions of sovereignty then they are about corruption, by a significant margin.

Sparked by the CAQ conversations related to corruption have dominated social media conversations.

Is social chatter impacting voter intentions in Quebec?

It’s impossible to link social chatter to voter intention, as I’ve written about previously, but it is clear that it has had a significant impact on social media. What is clear is that while the mainstream media is largely focused on the PQ’s march to a majority government and the Liberal Party’s downfall, social media users are receiving CAQ’s central campaign message and repeating it widely.

Politicos of all stripes will tell you that the opinions of friends and trusted sources of information generally have a more significant impact on voter intention then the messaging coming out of party war rooms. So while it may not be possible to link the CAQ’s rising political fortunes to social media conversations, it’s not so easy to simply dismiss it either.

Ryan Announcement Pushes Romney Social Media Mentions Ahead of Obama

This post was originally authored by me and published by Radian6.

On Saturday morning, the world awoke to the news that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney had chosen his vice presidential running mate, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. It was particularly interesting for me, as I had just published a blog on Friday looking at the social chatter among the rumored vice presidential candidates, of whom Paul Ryan led in social media mentions.

Data from this blog was picked up and used by Mashable.com. You can check out that article here.

Once announced, a vice-presidential candidate becomes the center of intense media focus and public debate, but what is the impact on social media? The answer: profound.

Ryan’s Social Profile Skyrockets

In my post, Wikipedia, Stephen Colbert Drive Romney VP Speculation on Social Media, I noted that out of the serious contenders for the vice-presidential nod, Paul Ryan received the largest jump in social media mentions – 6,121 mentions between August 6th and 9th, compared to just 1,342 mentions between August 2nd and 5th.

After being named Romney’s vice-presidential nominee, mentions of Paul Ryan skyrocketed to 167,808 mentions between August 11th and 14th.

In addition to social media mentions, OhMyGov.com reported that followers and fans on Ryan’s Twitter and Facebook page saw significant increases, reaching 274,000 followers on Twitter and 197,000 Facebook fans.

Vice-Presidential Nod Gives Big Boost to Romney Mentions

It’s clear that Saturday’s announcement had a major impact on Paul Ryan’s individual social media profile, but it had a more significant impact for Romney.  The announcement of Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate pushed mentions of Mitt Romney above those of Barack Obama for the first time in more then three months.

The lead was considerable. On August 11th, Romney mentions totaled 882,955, compared to 529,538 for President Obama. This was the first time Romney had taken such a large, single day lead in social conversations over Obama since the GOP primaries concluded.

Mitt Romney chooses Paul Ryan for VP running mate; social media does too.

This blog was originally authored by me and published on the Radian6 website. I’m posting it here for posterity.

The speculation as to whom GOP candidate for president Mitt Romney will choose as his running mate went into overdrive this week after the blog TechPresident.com suggested Wikipedia held the answer. Published Monday, the blog made its way around the social networks until it was picked up by mainstream media outlets.

On Tuesday evening, Stephen Colbert picked up on the story and used his show, The Colbert Report, to urge his fans to log on to Wikipedia and “make as many edits as possible to your favorite VP contender.” Wednesday, it was reported that Wikipedia had protected the entries of rumored vice-presidential nominees.

Back in June, I took a look at the social buzz being generated about rumored vice-presidential candidates. At that point, the last of the GOP presidential primaries had been decided and the summer campaign was just beginning. Given that vice-presidential speculation reached a fever pitch this week, I thought it was time to revisit the data.

The Candidates

I based my search on the individuals listed in Micah Sifry’s TechPresident.com blog, as well as an additional name contributed by The Drudge Report, Gen. David Petraeus.

The candidates I included are:

Rep. Rob Portman (OH)
Sen. Marco Rubio (FL)
Rep. Paul Ryan (WI)
Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA)
Gov. Chris Christie (NJ)
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (NH)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN)
Gen. David Petraeus

I looked for all social media mentions of these individuals in conjunction with the words “vice president”, “vp”, and “veep” between August 6th and 9th. I then used our topic analysis widget to compare the percent change in mentions over the previous four days: August 2nd to 4th — to measure the impact of this week’s buzz around the TechPresident.com article.

Retired General David Patraeus has seen the largest jump in conversations — 2,085 mentions between August 6th and 9th, compared to just 43 mentions between August 2nd and 5th — but should be taken with a grain of salt. Until the Drudge Report published his name, Patraeus, who is currently serving as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was not many lists of possible contenders. The Christian Science Monitor has suggested that the likelihood of Patraeus accepting the role is “slim”.

The other contenders have been discussed widely over the past two months and most people feel one of them will be the likely choice for Mitt Romney. Of those individuals, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin saw the single largest increase, with 6,121 mentions between August 6th and 9th, compared to just 1,342 mentions between August 2nd and 5th.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was the only contender on the list to receive fewer mentions — 794 between August 6th and 9th versus 939 mentions between August 2nd and 5th.

Interested in how the vice presidential conversations looked like in June? Check out Who’ll Be Romney’s Running Mate?

Presidential Campaign Social Media Check Up. Part 3 of 3: The Republican and Democratic Conventions

This blog was originally authored by me and published on the Radian6 website on July 6, 2012. I am posting it here for posterity.

The presidential primary season has come to an end and the summer campaigns are gearing up. Last Wednesday and this past Tuesday I looked at the social media buzz around the two presidential candidates: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.

Today, I take a look at the buzz being generated as Republicans and Democrats look forward to their respective nominating conventions.

GOP chatter slightly edges out DNC chatter

Both the GOP and DNC national conventions are a couple of months away but people are chatting about them now. Looking back over the last 30 days there have been 26,500 mentions with both the GOP and the DNC conventions sharing a roughly even share of the conversation.

The trend line shows that for most of the last 30 days conversations related to the GOP national convention have lead social mentions.

The spike in GOP conversations on June 19 was fueled by reports that the University of Tampa was requiring all freshmen to take “RNC 101”, an introductory course designed to teach students the history of political conventions and keep them updated on the daily happenings at the event. The July 2 spike was the result of an announcement that Kid Rock will be performing at the convention.

By far the largest spike in the conversation occurred on June 26 as a number of Democratic politicians let it be known that they would not be attending the DNC convention in Charlotte, NC.

GOP social chatter trends older than DNC

Digging into the conversations a bit further with Radian6 Insights reveals that of those who listed their age in their social profiles the conversations trended slightly older for those discussing the GOP convention and younger for the DNC convention.

When running these Insights the 25-34 age demographic, in almost every case, is the dominant age bracket. This makes sense as the 25-34 age demographic is the “social media generation”. Seeing them at the top of both the GOP and DNC age graphs is to be expected. What is less common is to see the 45-54 and 55-64 age demographics be so dominant.

In the GOP graph (red) the 54-64 age group makes up the third-largest demographic chatting about the convention on social media. The 45-54 age group is right behind them in fourth place. In the DNC graph (blue) the 45-54 age group makes up the third largest demographic with the 55-64 age group fifth. In both cases the 65+ age group are active in the social conversation. This age group rarely shows up when running these insights.

A long, engaging summer

With two months to go until the GOP and DNC national conventions the social chatter will only increase as the summer progresses. Will you be attending either of the conventions?

Presidential Campaign Social Media Checkup. Part 2 of 3: Barack Obama

This blog was originally published on the Radian6 website on July 3, 2012. I’m posting it here for posterity.

The presidential primary season is over, Mitt Romney is the “unofficial” GOP nominee, and the summer campaign season with the inevitable fried-food gaffes is set to begin.

What kind of buzz are the two candidates generating at this period of transition? Wednesday I looked at Mitt Romney; today I take a look at President Obama.

All the President’s Numbers

Going back 30 days from June 26 Barack Obama has generated 9.5 million social media mentions.  This obviously dwarfs the 3.5 million mentions generated by the Romney campaign. It is important to note that, as President, Obama’s every word and move is news, and therefore captures more attention than any other politician in the United States. The line between Obama “governing” and Obama “campaigning” is necessarily blurred.

The White House is the largest political podium in the United States, and indeed, the world. These numbers provide insight into how large a podium the individual working from the Oval Office has on social media.

Does Social Media Lean to the Left?

After publishing my blog Wednesday I had an interesting conversation with a colleague as to whether or not social media defaults to the left of the political spectrum. Citing the fact that the largest spike in conversation for the Romney campaign resulted from the “Amercia” gaffe, as well as the overwhelmingly negative sentiment graph, the evidence seemed to support that hypothesis.

However, automated sentiment analysis of the social media mentions related to Barack Obama shows the same negative trend.

If both Obama and Romney mentions trend negative what feeds the impression that social media trends to the left (or right) of the political spectrum? I would suggest that those impressions are gleaned from personal bias and the online communities people associate with.

The evidence gleaned from automated sentiment doesn’t seem to support the suggestion that social media carries an inherent political bias. What it says about the general impression people on social media have of politicians in general may be another story.

Presidential Campaign Social Media Checkup. Part 1 of 3: Mitt Romney

This blog was originally authored by me and published on the Radian6 website on June 27, 2012. I’m posting it here for posterity.

The presidential primary season came to a close Tuesday evening as voters in Utah cast their ballots in the final GOP primary. As we head into summer, the Democratic and Republican parties will begin their unofficial campaigns. Conversations will shift to who Romney will pick to be his vice presidential nominee, each party’s respective nominating conventions, and which candidate is showing momentum.

Given that we’ve come to a milestone in this year’s presidential campaign, I thought I would devote my two blogs this week to looking at the volume of social media buzz each candidate has generated to date. First up: Mitt Romney.

The Social Media Primaries

Mitt Romney has had a long road to travel to emerge as the Republican nominee. Early in the race, Romney was the hands-down favorite, but as more candidates put their names forward, social media users took their time conversing about each candidate in turn. At times, other candidates gained a larger share of the conversation than Romney as people debated the merits and demerits of each candidate.

In the end, there can only be one and Mitt Romney has emerged as the last Republican candidate standing.

Mitt Romney’s Social Buzz

Going back 30 days from Tuesday, June 26, Mitt Romney has received a little more then 3.5 million mentions, the most of which occurred earlier this month during the now infamous iPad app spelling error.

The Romney campaign has also generated a lot of social mentions for more substantive matters. On June 14, Mitt Romney and President Obama gave major policy speeches on the same day and gave social media users their first opportunity to compare the two men one-on-one.

Conversations and rumors concerning whom Romney will choose to be his vice presidential nominee also caused spikes in social mentions of the Republican nominee.

Social Media Doesn’t Love Easily

Running automated sentiment reveals that the social media world isn’t exactly enamored with Mitt Romney to date. The majority of mentions with identifiable trigger words are overwhelmingly negative.

The Romney campaign shouldn’t worry that they are all alone in this regard, as President Obama suffers the same issue. Check back on Friday when I take a look at the President’s social mentions going into the summer campaign months.

Want to get a head start on the conversations related to GOP vice presidential candidates? Check out Who’ll Be Romney’s Running Mate?

How Canada’s Green Party Leader Elizabeth May’s Social Media Engagement is Paying Off

This blog was originally authored by me and published on the Radian6 website on June 13, 2012. I’m posting it here for posterity.

As summer approaches and the temperatures begin to rise, so too does the level of political drama unfolding in Ottawa, Canada’s capital. The issue at the heart of the drama is the current debate on the passage of Bill C38, the federal budget.

Amid the clamor, Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party of Canada and the party’s lone Member of Parliament, has grabbed the attention of the national media with her list of suggested amendments to the Government’s budget, nearly 300 in total.

Since being elected in 2011, May has built a following on Twitter and is constantly engaging with her community.  I even got a congratulatory tweet from her after snapping a picture of her former campaign headquarters in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. May’s commitment to using Twitter to amplify her voice seems to be paying off during this year’s budget debate.

A Brief History

In the parliamentary tradition, budget bills are typically contentious affairs, as the Government puts forward its priorities for the nation and how it intends to pay for them. This year’s budget bill has been particularly contentious, as the Government has introduced a number of measures that have met with controversy. Listing reforms to environmental protection, employment insurance premiums, and increasing the age when Canadians will be eligible to receive Old Age Security pensions to name just a few, this year’s omnibus budget bill has fueled social conversations amongst Canadians.

Which Political Parties are Leading on Social

Each of the nation’s political parties have taken various stands on different aspects of the Government’s budget and are competing with one another to communicate their points of view to Canadians. Let’s take a look at how their efforts are impacting the conversation on social media.

Canadian Political Party Mentions

Between June 1 and June 12, there have been 18,212 mentions of Canada’s political parties.

Searching the various hashtags being used to discuss the budget bill between June 1 and June 12, it is clear that the governing Conservative Party of Canada and Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the New Democratic Party of Canada (NDP) have dominated social mentions. The Liberal Party of Canada, the third -lace party in the House of Commons follows the NDP for social media mentions. Finally, the Bloc Quebecois rounds out the party mentions.

What is interesting here is the share of conversation garnered by the Green Party of Canada. In Canada’s 308-seat House of Commons, May holds the Party’s only seat. Her ability to impact legislation is extremely limited based on the rules of Canada’s parliament. However, to get around this, May has taken to Twitter to amplify her voice in the national political discourse, and it appears to be working.

A Look at the Leaders

The leaders of Canada’s political parties have also been a major topic of conversation related to the budget bill, generating 8,933 social mentions.

Canadian Political Leader Mentions

Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Stephen Harper generates the most mentions in relation to social conversations about the budget. It is his government’s bill and so the Prime Minister’s name is often used interchangeably with the terms “government” and “conservative party”.

This graph further indicates the success that Green Party leader Elizabeth May is finding on social media, beating out the Leader of the Opposition, Thomas Mulcair, in social mentions.  Liberal leader Bob Rae came in fourth.

Politics Amplified

Among Canada’s political leaders, May has brought a unique approach to social media communications. By necessity, she’s had to find a way to force herself into the national media spotlight and social media has been one of her approaches. In doing so, May has created a community of followers and is always open to engaging with Canadians, regardless of the party they support.

Are you thinking to yourself, “Well, this is all well and good, but social mentions do not translate into votes at the ballot box?” Check out this blog for some ideas on how to go about doing just that: