I see the Tories have adopted the slogan of putting New Brunswickers first. The Peoples’ Alliance Party is also using populism as its core thrust.
I realize this is a great tool for rallying votes but I struggle to find broader value from pitting people against industry, small business against big business, demonizing foreign companies and the other ways that populist rhetoric is used to stir up fear or frustration or anger between groups in our society.
The government has a fundamental role of protection. Protection of the rule of law, protection of property rights, protection of the people against those (people or companies or governments) that would seek to do harm against others in society. And you will find examples of criminal behaviour by individuals and by companies.
But I think we need to eschew the temptation to stir up populism for political gain.
Take the issue of economic development. There are those who would pretend (and are doing a good job of convincing many people in New Brunswick) that the economic development efforts in New Brunswick are all focused on either big foreign national companies or a few large NB companies.
Never let facts get in the way of good populist rhetoric.
As I have said before there are around 600 economic developers in New Brunswick – in organizations such as BNB, ACOA, Industry Canada, Enterprise Agencies, NRC, etc. and a rough estimate would set the number directly involved in attractin companies to New Brunswick at around 15 – out of 600.
BNB has a small team – I don’t know the numbers now but it used to be around 10 – that were dedicated to attracting companies and investment. ACOA has none. There is a team at the head office that have some joint trade/investment functions but on an FTE basis – it might be one person (I don’t know).
The Enterprise Agencies all have someone that workers with companies looking to set up in the province but I dont’ know of any have a dedicated Investment Attraction person (maybe one or two?)
So, conservatively, on an FTE basis, there may be 15 or 2.5% of the people involved in economic development are working on attracting investment. But you will hear (at least I do) that we are too focused on attracting – as the the People’s Alliance calls them – white knights from outside New Brunswick.
The populist theme is that “we don’t need these companies coming here and exploiting our people” and the like. Again, for some reason, this type of rhetoric will find an audience in New Brunswick.
I don’t have time to go through them all but one more population thread is pitting people against big business. This one is widely used in New Brunswick. I have heard Chamber of Commerce leaders railing against the evils of big business.
Again, fact checking isn’t the point of populism. The overwhelming percentage of effort undertaken by those 600 economic developers is focused on the SME sector of the economy. Sure, there are efforts to support the larger companies – but if you look closely at the efforts of all of these agencies you will see that the majority of projects are with mostly small firms.
ACOA, for example, has a maximum loan level of $500k. That, by definition, is focus on small business.
Go through the workplan of any Enterprise Agency and see how much of the work is directly with the large businesses in their community. It is usually almost none.
By the way, I am not complaining about this – I am just stating a fact. The prevailing economic development wisdom in New Brunswick for the past 30 years has been that we need to forget about attracting industry and focus on fostering entrepreneurship. It’s as engrained in our collective thinking as just about anything.
In the end, populism isn’t helpful. It’s not about building anything. It’s about exploiting fear, anger and frustration. It pits people against people, communities against communities, businesses against people and the end result is that this feeds our weak economic growth over the decades and our stagnant population growth.
If I could meet every single New Brunswicker, I would try my best to convince people that business is not the enemy and that national and international firms are not necessarily out to exploit people. I would assure them that government will protect the public interest but that there is no value in demonizing the economic activity we need to sustain our quality of life.