Vroom, Vroom – A sad day indeed

A long time ago – it seems – yours truly was a Page in the New Brunswick Legislature. I got to serve coffee and personal notes to your MLAs and attempt to rise in sync with the Speaker (watch CPAC sometime – it’s hard for those Pages to known when that guy/gal is going to rise from their chair). I was there when the CoR party arrived on the scene – and I could tell you some stories, indeed…..

But I digress.

There were a few memorable persons from that year. Persons that stood out from the crowd either for their speaking abilities, friendlines, rudeness, imposing personality, etc. Lizzy Weir was there. So was Danny Cameron. I always liked Edmond Blanchard. But a colourful and well liked member was old Vroom Vroom Jean Gauvin. I guess he was called Vroom Vroom because of his like of fast and flashy cars. Gauvin was a throwback to the Hatfield era. After all the PCs were swept out of power in 1987, Vroom Vroom came back as one of a couple of PCs (I don’t remember but I think it was 2-3 only) in 1991 along with the horde of CoR promising to right all the wrongs.

There were lots of stories in the ante rooms and corridors of the Leg about Jean Gauvin. Some good, others bad. But my impression was the Jean Gauvin was a genuine and sincere elected official with a good heart and a strong defender of his constituents. I see that he recently passed away. I feel a bit sad about this. Time marches on, I guess.

I often wonder what would have happened if New Brunswick politicians had started an economic development revolution 20 or 30 years ago. Frank tried, I guess, in some fashion but he never really put any financial or resource horsepower behind it. Deficits, recessions, etc. make it quite hard to simply divert a substantial effort to economic development.

I still remember in my early days. Brian Freeman out pitching New Brunswick as a place to do business. Talking about the closure of hospital beds and the efforts to attract industry and grow the economy while at the same time battling large budget deficits and recession.

Those days are long gone. We now run surpluses and add tens of millions to the health care budget each year. One wonders if, in 1987, Frank McKenna had the fiscal situation of New Brunswick in 2007 what he might have done. Or have been able to do. Because while the manifestations of the underlying economic problems in 1987 were different, the structural challenges are almost exactly the same now as they were in 1987.

Then the face of the economic challenge was high unemployment, large government budget deficits, out-migration, increasing part time and seasonal jobs and the decline of some traditional economic sectors.

Now the face of the economic challenge is different. The massive success of the Candian economy over the past 15 years has led to an unprecedented level of federal transfers of all kinds to New Brunswick. That has cleaned up the deficit problem (not restraint by government – spending by the Lord government increased at a similar rate to most other provinces in Canada during his tenure – despite population stagnation). Increasing out-migration and declining birth rates combined with the growth of a few economic sectors like call centres and public sector jobs has led to low unemployment. Seasonal employment is still considerable and part time work is increasing. More sobering, much of our traditional economic base is teetering – led by the forestry sector.

But systemically, the economic problems in 1987 are essentially the same in 2007. An ongoing lack of private sector investment in the economy. A systemic inability to attract our share of multinational investment (except the call centre sector). Our inability to become an export-intensive province (don’t give me that crap – take out oil and commodities and New Brunswick is the least export intensive province in Canada – our SMEs don’t export – period). Our inability to nurture entrepreneurship (you know the firms that go from 5 to 10 to 100 to 500 employees and export products/services all over the world). Quick, name me 10 firms that have started in New Brunswick with local capital (not as divisions of larger firms) that now have at least 100 employees and that do most of their business outside the province.

And of course that spills over into every other area of endeavour. Many of our best and brightest leave the province every year for work. Our companies are not advanced enough to do any serious R&D and so we have the worst R&D rate in Canada among the 10 provinces. Some would argue that our very low post-secondary education rate among the workforce (second lowest in North America for university grads in the workforce) is a consequence of our economic malaise. The logic is that the more educated you are the more likely you are to leave the province (or be mobile). I agree with this to some extent – but certainly the Oil Sands have changed that by encouraging mobility among the trades and blue collar segments of New Brunswick’s workforce putting pressure now on all levels – skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labour.

But now we spend less than ever on economic development.

In fact, I argue in this blog that without much pain the provincial government could seriously invest in economic development. My goal would be 3-5% of the total provincial budget on economic development initiatives (investment attraction, R&D, infrastructure development, etc.) matched by the Feds – but these days, I am just whistling dixie as my mother used to say.

What’s all this got to do with Vroom Vroom?

Not much. Except that an old Geezer once told me that he had drinks with former Premier Hatfield and the Premier at that time expressed real concern about the future of New Brunswick. He saw serious problems and was worried, my friend told me.

I wonder if Vroom Vroom and his colleagues had started an Irish Miracle back in the early 1970s what would have been the result today? What if Hatfield’s efforts to generate more electric power in New Brunswick had been used for economic development in New Brunswick rather than exported to the U.S. to be used in economic development there?

In the moment, it is always easier to deal with here and now issues. The NB Biz Council is knocking at the door with hat in hand. So is the CFIB. So is the health care system. Don’t forget the schools. The potholes. Here and now issues. Just get by. Pass the latest polling numbers. Get me Mr. Irving on the phone. Yes sir, I understand sir.

But good government is about leadership. It’s about doing the right things – the things that slowly begin to put a dent in the structural problems of society. These things won’t change over night. Sometimes it takes a generation or two to see results.

But if a politician really wants a real legacy, he/she will look to the long term issues. The issues that last. What will Bernard Lord’s legacy be? Who knows. But it certainly would be transformational. They will not be saying that Lord did the things necessary to move New Brunswick’s economy to a position of ‘have’. To a leader in new economic sectors. To a position of strong in-migration. To a position of growing and vibrant communities.

Vroom Vroom’s legacy will be as a guy who passionately fought for his constituents and the issues he believed it.

I hope that today’s MLAs believe passionately in the potential of New Brunswick and will make the sometimes tough decisions to get us moving in the right direction.

Jean Gauvin, R.I.P.