Getting the ball rolling

This blog is in response to a fairly critical but well penned response to a recent blog about attitude in New Brunswick. If you want the context, read it here. I wanted to bring out the response to the front because it is fairly long.

I admit that this blog and in fact many related blogs have a fair amount of critical commentary. The reason for this is simple. For the few hundred that read this blog and the thousands that read Alec’s in the T&T and online, it is important to point out – either by wit, irony, cynicism or just plain fun the problems facing this province. Then others can chime in with their points of view. I won’t rehash all of that but the reality is that NB is in trouble. It’s a slow burn, admittedly but a burn none the less. We are falling behind the rest of Canada on over 90% of the economic and social statistics that I have tracked over the years ranging from the obvious – population decline – to the obscure – the percentage of the population with advanced degrees and we are slipping.

So, what I would like (and I think many of these guys like Alec who are bringing voice to many people out there in the system that can’t speak – economic developers – educators – municipal officials – etc.) is for our government to clearly recognize our challenges. Further, I would like them to clearly articulate them to the populace. Yes, I would like them to park politics for 10 minutes and speak clearly to New Brunswickers. We are in trouble. Every year that goes by our population drops and our need for Equalization increases. Every year. And it is likely this will get worse because of the structural shifts to our traditional industries. We need to replace our dying industries with new ones. In one sentence that is it. PEI has built an neat little aerospace cluster. NB nada. Nova Scotia has offshore oil & gas and a reasonably growing IT sector. NB nada (except for the last throes of a call centre sector). Be clear about this one point because I’ll go to my grave believing it: Equalization increases will not last forever and it is fundamentally flawed because it rewards economic failure. The single fiscal goal of the province should be economic self-sufficiency – even if that goal is 30-40 years out or more.

So, long winded answer – to get the ball rolling I would like to see four things:

1) A massive education campaign to inform the populace of the economic realities and the consequences of not acting. I would combine this, obviously, with a strong message of hope and resolve on the part of our government and community leaders.

2) I would double if not triple economic development spending right away. Further, I would attempt to negotiate a new deal with Ottawa and the Haves that would tie Equalization to economic development. The arguments that these two are not linked is just plain silly. Equalization rewards economic failure. I would ask that Equalization levels be locked in for 10 years regardless of the successes of economic development. I would petition the Feds to match dollar for dollar every dime NB puts into economic development.

3) I would go out into the highways and byways of the province and gather input on what types of jobs and industries would people like to see in the province. What would convince our kids to stay here and work and what would convince highly talented ‘come from awayers’ to move here? Then I would pick a few growth sectors and I would invest in them to beat the band. I would hire top notch sales guys/gals and send them to India, Ireland and to the uttermost parts of the earth seeking out companies and people that could be interested in investing in New Brunswick. I would align college and university training to the strategic sectors (cripes, New Brunswick has at least three firms doing leading edge stuff in Internet and wireless security and Dal-friggin’housie University attracts the world leader in Internet security to a run a research program? – That SOB should have been wooed to UNB – shame – but I digress).

4) Finally, I would try to create a new partnership with the media. In Ireland, the newspapers and media take a much more growth-oriented approach. I think in the 21st century media-saturated culture, that alternate reality becomes our reality. So rather than fight it I say join it. I would encourage and hope that the media would be highly critical where required and supportive where required but above all, it would put the future of this province on its agenda of at least the top five main issues. I would like to see localized shows such as Venture and others – maybe on Rogers community TV or something. I would have the Premier do ‘Fireside Chats’ on a monthly basis updating people on the progress and on the challenges.

This last point is critical. Because points 1-3 could lead to political ruin for any party adopting them. It might result in deficits. At least in the short term. It might result in some serious pushback from the civil service as you try and change stuff that hasn’t changed in decades. It might result in less funding for health care (heaven forbid) and it might even require more taxation (he wields the death blow).

Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight.
Got to kick at the darkness ‘til it bleeds daylight.

When you’re New Brunswickers in a dangerous time.

-slightly bastardized Bruce Cockburn.

What’s the alternative? The dopey, sleepy do-nothing reality of today? 14 straight years of net out-migration and I have never read about it in the media or in government publications. We bleed our best and brightest talent and make token efforts at immigration? Think Tank after Think Tank publishes reports saying the Feds should encourage even more out-migration from New Brunswick – reports funded by the Feds. Can we just stroll merrily along as these fundamental changes occur and hope that the Equalization cheques keep coming in?

And don’t be fooled by those experts that say we need a ‘structural’ change in the New Brunswick economy – which is code for urbanization – which is code for collapse of the rural population. We need urbanization to be sure – but not at the expense of our dozens of great towns and villages. I think its a shame to watch community’s built over generations go down the tubes because of bad government policy – the very government that by definition is the representative of the people.

We need economic growth. I once did a quick and dirty analysis of what it would take to make NB a ‘have province’. I held costs constant and just added the number of workers and taxes paid. At that time, we would have had to double the size of the workforce – and keep costs constant (an impossibility). Now, it’s worse.

So forget about eliminating Equalization – in the short term. But we should be able to stop its growth. We should be able to nurture new industries to replace the old.

Shouldn’t we?