You gotta be ‘dead’, sir

The minister at the church I attend is a particularly effective communicator. He uses a variety of anecdotes, stories and jokes to make his points as to how we can better ourselves and have a better appreciation of the spiritual side of life.

One of his ‘jokes’ today made me think of the economic challenges facing us here in New Brunswick. The joke goes like this:

One Sunday, a preacher’s sermon dealt with the issue of how you get to heaven. He asked the congregation to respond to his questions on how you get to heaven. “Can you get to heaven by just doing good deeds?” “No”, the congregation replied in unison. “Can you get to heaven by giving money to the church?” “No”, came the response. “Can you get to heaven by loving your neighbour as yourself?” Once again, the congregation responded “no”. Then, he asked “How do you get to heaven?”. A five year old boy near the front of the church put up his hand. The preacher asks him, “How do you get to heaven?”. The boy responds “To get to heaven, sir, you gotta be dead.”

Now, notwithstanding that the joke comes across much better with the delivery, it turned my mind to the issue that dominates my thinking.

Maybe things need to get worse in New Brunswick before they will get better. Guys like me that study issues of economy, population, migration, capital formation, investment, etc. have been preaching for years that the ‘end is nigh’. For New Brunswickers to ‘repent’ and ‘turn towards a better way’ (forgive me the religious metaphors – it is Sunday). However, successive governments have invested less and less and the public’s opinion is lukewarm at best. As long as things are sputtering along, we don’t have to worry – let’s keep are distraction where it belongs – fighting over ‘cath labs’ at the Moncton Hospital or over potholes in Bouctouche.

In my opinion, the time to tackle the looming economic crisis facing New Brunswick was twenty years or so when enlightened demographers and economic developers began to see the proverbial writing on the wall (oops, another biblical reference). At that time, our population growth rate was already beginning to decline steeply, our unemployment rate was permanently fixed above 10% and the out-migration of our youth was increasing. Further, at that time, forecasters predicted that the forestry, mines and fish of New Brunswick would not be able to sustain the economy in the future to the extent it had been. So Richard Hatfield made a few token attempts at economic development in the 70s and early 80s. But it was Frank McKenna who rightly realized that New Brunswick was on a crash course and made economic development his number one priority from 1987 onward.

The problem with Frank, however; was that he believed that his own hustle would be enough to turn around New Brunswick. And make no mistake, Premier McKenna was the most energetic and engaged politician – probably in New Brunswick’s history. But hustle alone is not enough – it is critical – but not enough. Most people don’t realize this but all during McKenna’s reign, New Brunswick was at the bottom (or close to it) for government spending on economic development.

And that dubious tradition has been continued (if not exacerbated) by the current administration.

Until governments get serious and start funding and supporting economic development – not as much as richer provinces and states but more – I am not sure we will ever see any fundamental, systemic changes.

But, as with most things in politics, it is a vicious cycle. Politicians put their effort where they think they will get and keep the most votes. The public is preoccupied with the here and now and not the future. Those two forces are a toxic mix and explain in large part the under investment in economic development for decades.

I can still remember the public outcry when Premier McKenna spent $10 million of taxpayer money for 900 UPS jobs back in the early 1990s. The media cried foul. Lizzy Weir kicked and screamed. $10 million? How dare they? Well, if anyone had bothered to look around they would have seen $100 million deals to bring Toyota to Kentucky and $200 million to bring BMW to Alabama. And if anyone bothered to look across Canada, they would have seen our government putting hundreds of millions in to the aerospace sector in Montreal and the auto sector in Ontario. Not to mention the billions being spent on seasonal EI that pays people not to work.

So the great old sage of regional development, Professor Donald Savoie, writes a book on McKenna which rightly and fairly shows that all of McKenna’s hustle brought no revolutionary turnaround, no massive new investments and no major redressing of the fundamental economic problems facing New Brunswick.

Recently a colleague of mine here in Moncton said to me that he was tired of all the infighting among local economic development groups, counterproductive sniping, communities trying to ‘one up’ each other, etc. He said it was making economic development almost impossible and he yearned for the late 1980s when all of Greater Moncton came together in a unified way to address the communities problems. Now, he said, its all about ‘what’s in it for me’. He sarcastically remarked that we may have to fabricate a crisis to get people back together again.

Well, in my opinion, a fabricated crisis may be a better solution compared to the alternative of waiting for a real one.