Bygone days

I just finished reading excerpts from Jeannot Volpe’s response to the Speech from the Thone yesterday and was reminded of why this blog exists in the first place. For those of you that have not read this thing for a long time, I will give you the thumbnail sketch of why I do what I do.

In 1999, I was toiling away at the Greater Moncton Economic Commission trying to attract industry to this region and having some, measured success. We were continuing to attract call centres and I had just landed OAO Technology Solutions which was a major coup. OAO is an IT firm that has 120 people in their Moncton office. At that time, they were projecting as many as 300-400. Anyway, Moncton was in a battle with Freddy Beach for this project and I got a call from the provincial government rep on the file who told me to ‘let it go’, that this was a done deal for Fredericton. Maybe not, we had a few tricks up our sleeve and they came here.

At that time, I was also working diligently with Bob Camastro, VP of Virtual Agent Services. VAS had a wacky idea of putting small call centre ‘pods’ in rural communities all over New Brunswick and linking them together as a ‘virtual call centre’. Little did we know they would end up with 17 of these pods throughout New Brunswick and are now the second largest call centre in the province.

But then came the election of 1999. Opposition leader Bernard Lord uttered for me the three most dreaded words in economic development. He called for a “made in New Brunswick” solution for economic development. He decried McKenna’s efforts to attract industry and said “we can do better”. That was the beginning of the end for me. About 18 months later I had left GMEC in frustration over the lack of interest in any real economic development at the province and started doing some consulting. In 2004, David Jonah convinced me to take the message to the general public through this blog which has evolved into the TJ column and numerous other mass media commentary.

Life is full of little ironies and one of the best for me is that more call centre jobs were created under Bernard Lord than Frank McKenna. Sure, the majority of them were from companies that had decided to come here before Lord arrived on the scene but that didn’t matter. Lord supplemented the 10k call centre jobs created during his time in office with another 17-18k public sector jobs and boasted of the success of his economic development policies.

In reality, economic development spending dropped by 50% (as a percentage of government spending) under Bernard Lord and more frustratingly, so did over effort and interest.

I often wonder what would have happened if Lord had come in to office claiming that he could “do better” than McKenna on economic development. That he would be doubling the focus on economic development. That he, unlike McKenna, would finally slay the population decline beast and make New Brunswick a place that attracts people as opposed to repelling them. But he didn’t and despite a record level of public sector jobs created and the call centre jobs, New Brunswick slipped further behind.

So, now we sit in 2007. Shawn Graham is almost mimicking the words of McKenna circa 20 years ago. We shall see what he does. Government spending under Bernard Lord went up by an incredible 45% despite a stagnant population growth (from the last budget delivered by the Liberals in 1999 to the current Liberal budget in 2007). The budget has increased by $1.9 billion in that timeframe while economic development spending dropped by $45 million.

So the issue for Graham is simple. If the budget goes up by another $1.9 billion under his tenure (the largest increase during Lord’s time came from Equalization), how much of that will go to economic development investments? Will he cut them further?

One thing is for sure. I’ll stick around and hold them somewhat accountable to their grand rhetoric.

And back to Volpe for a minute. I have to believe there is a lesson in here for the next leader of the Conservatives. It is clear from the Volpe era that governments can spend money willy nilly. It doesn’t matter if population drops. Government spending is almost always going up up up.

What you do with the money, that’s what matters.