Bottom up/top down

I think this will be my last post for awhile on the NB Tories until I see some policies or positions that warrant a comment. I think it is safe to say that the kind of nasty opposition we have had in the last couple of years should subside as the new leader will want to project an image of leadership and positivism.

I think it will be interesting to see what Alward does. From the CP article on Alward’s win:

During his speech, he promised ongoing consultation with party members, starting with town hall-style meetings to hear what people want for the province. “The community and regional process will be followed by a provincial policy convention that we will hold no later than May 2009,” he said. “This process will be bottom up, not top down, I give you my word.”

One can only assume that this is some kind of visceral reaction to the current government lobbing these huge policy bombs at the public in what could be construed as a ‘top down’ approach – French Immersion, post-secondary reorganization, tax policy, forestry. Now, the Libs would say they are putting forward bold new directions for the province and then consulting with the public. Cynics would say they end up with watered down new directions that aren’t very new. Nevertheless, Alward is going to ‘consult’ the party with town-hall style meetings.

At the risk of sounding a bit elitist, what new policy directions will he get from consulting with the party faithful? I am starting to get a little old here and after almost 20 years of watching this stuff closely, I am not sure that this is much more than a political posturing exercise. Or at least I hope it is.

Take the issue of economic development. It is likely (I say likely because it is a recurring theme in New Brunswick) that the party faithful will tell Alward to support small business (read big Tory contributors) and the Tories will come out with another round of support for small business. You got this in the McKenna years (yes you did, check the record – I distinctly remember a Francis McGuire powerpoint presentation where he showed that 75% of all grants/loans given out went to small, local NB businesses and the bulk of his department’s focus was local business growth), you certainly got it with Lord and Shawn Graham also talks at long length about small business (although he actually dared talking about a McKenna style effort to bring business investment here from the outside to the chagrin of many).

Very few people, in fact almost no one, will actually show the real data that despite all the BNB, BDC, ACOA, and a host of other programs, the rate of small business start ups in New Brunswick that actually grow up to be medium and large business with export markets is well below that of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia – all provinces with far less focus on supporting ‘small biz’. In my opinion, that is what is keeping the NB economy from flourishing. We have a fundamental, systemic misunderstanding of how economies growth. Of the symbiotic relationship between large firms and small firms. Of the relationship between the large anchor employers and the host of small businesses that feed of the anchor activity. Of the fact that R&D is mostly a function of medium and large sized firms and so to fix the R&D problem in New Brunswick, we need to have more right-sized firms that actually do R&D.

In fact, New Brunswick’s economy is becoming even more polarized than ever these days and if I ever get a few weeks free time, I am going to analyze this further. It is my belief that a far greater share of exports now come from literally a dozen firms (oil, pulp, fish, potash, etc.) while the number and amount of exports coming from the ‘small biz’ that everyone is focused on is dropping. When we have a better understanding of the economic ecosystem and the role that government should play in that system, we will have better public policy.

Now, getting back to the Tories and an argument that is fresh in my mind because I had it with my father (I am in deeper doo doo here because Alward is actually the son of a Baptist Minister that chummed around with my dad – also a rural NB Baptist Minister – when I said my support or lack thereof for Alward will be based on what policies he put forward, ooops). But I digress.

The NB Tories today, as I see it, are a party with a very little ideological spine. You have Volpe angrily defending public health care – even the concept of the building in which health care takes place being owned by the private sector. You have Volpe angrily complaining about ‘big business’. You have Volpe criticizing tax reform efforts. You had Bernard Lord as the national spokesperson for more Equalization (and Lisa Merrithew saying on election night that Bernie was the best hope of NB getting a better equalization deal). Tax reform, sanity in health care, the need for more large business investment, the concept of financial self-sufficiency should be conservative ideals. They should be owned by the Tories. I don’t care if the Libs co-opted them. The Tories should get them back.

As I told my father, the Tories run the risk of becoming a big government, resistent to change, rurally focused party instead of a 21st century fiscally conservative, ideas party that brings real solutions to systemic economic and social challenges.

And you really can’t talk about these things as an outsider (like me – I attempt to be neutral). The Tories themselves need to have a serious discussion about this stuff – what Jacques Poitras calls an existential discussion – and figure out where they fit as conservatives in the politicial spectrum.

That’s it for now. I don’t attempt to be political analyst but I will continue to watch out for that point of intersection between politics and economic development and I will continue to advocate for less government funding of bad business ideas because there is a party contributor involved, bailing out companies with bad business models because there is nothing else, pouring money into programs like EI to act as an income support mechanism in communities instead of actually figuring out the policies that would lead to higher private sector income, etc.

I will continue to advocate for more government funding in economic development capacity building (the value proposition), more government funding to strategically seed important growth industries, more government funding for R&D and more money spent more strategically on promoting the province as a location for business investment (and increasingly the attraction of people to feed that increased business activity).