We need to talk about population

From a recent TJ column:

Among folks who have time to debate these things, the legacy of former Premier Bernard Lord is highly contested. His supporters point to balanced budgets as well as moderate GDP and employment growth. They characterize his time in office as a golden age for New Brunswick.

His detractors point to a series of what they call strategic policy blunders ranging from the scrapping of the Moncton-Fredericton toll highway, runaway automobile insurance premium growth, the Venezuelan Orimulsion scandal, his dithering over the Point Lepreau Generating Station refurbishment and an overall lack of any real movement on the big issues facing the province.

They also refer to his national battle with the federal government over equalization as a black mark on the province’s reputation. The subsequent “self-sufficiency” agenda of Shawn Graham (the concept of eliminating the province’s need for equalization) emerged as a response to Lord’s demand for more cash from Ottawa.

As usual there is some truth to be had in both camps but there is at least one aspect of Bernard Lord’s legacy that is unambiguous. He has the dubious distinction of being the only elected Premier in the province’s history to preside over a declining population.

According to the annual population estimates published by Statistics Canada, former Premier Richard Hatfield presided over a 85,000 person increase in the population during his 17 years in office. Under Frank McKenna, the population grew by a modest 25,000 people.

The total population during the Bernard Lord administration dropped by 5,000 (between 1999 and 2006). Meanwhile, across the country the population boomed.  It increased by a robust 2.2 million people.

Shawn Graham’s Liberals returned the population to slow growth as the province saw an increase of 7,400 people between 2006 and 2010. The jury is still out on David Alward but it looks like he will eke out a tiny increase in the population between 2010 and 2014.

The bottom line is simple. The total population of New Brunswick has barely budged since Bernard Lord took over in Fredericton in 1999.  At the same time, Canada as a whole has been in the midst of the biggest population boom in history.  Between 1999 and 2013, the national population swelled by 4.8 million people.  New Brunswick completely missed it.

Why does it matter? There are several reasons why at least moderate population growth should be a main objective of government.

First, we are about to hit a demographic wall. New Brunswick’s population aged 55+ has ballooned since 1999 – rising nearly 50 per cent. Without an infusion of younger workers in the near future, the province’s economic potential will be stymied.

Second, we need population growth to build up our tax base. The majority of economic activity in New Brunswick comes from consumer spending.  If we have no growth in consumers it is hard to see how we can expect even a moderate increase in the tax revenues we need to pay for public services.

Third, New Brunswick needs more population to make better use of its infrastructure. People that visit New Brunswick are amazed at the amount of four lane highways, airports, universities and hospitals.  For a population of 750,000 we have more than our share of infrastructure.  We can either plan to scale it back through a long period of decline or we can make better use of it by boosting the population around the province.

I’d like to see community level plans for population renewal from one corner of this province to another.

It is strange that population growth has hardly been mentioned during this election campaign.

Our population challenge is barely on the politicians’ radar because a) folks that might live here in the future don’t vote now and b) a lot of New Brunswickers are perfectly satisfied with the status quo and the politicians instinctively know this even if the pollsters do not. Rolling into town telling people that you are going to bring hundreds of immigrants into their community will cost you votes.

The 2011 movie We Need to Talk About Kevin was a story about how people struggle to talk about a uncomfortable issues.

In New Brunswick, uncomfortable or not, we need to talk about population growth.


David Campbell
An economic development consultant based in Moncton