Nova Scotia’s Now or Never: How did that work out?

One of the areas of exploration in this blog has been the deconstruction of the many economic development plans for New Brunswick since the McKenna era and the conclusion for the most part that none of them were successful.  Lord’s Prosperity Plan was to make New Brunswick a top province for innovation – we are still last for R&D spend per capita.  Graham’s Self-Sufficiency Agenda meant to grow the population by 100,000 and eliminate our need for federal Equalization payments.  Needless to say…..  Alward’s plan was kind of murky with esoteric targets and never really got out of the starting gate before his government got defeated and Gallant’s economic development plan – written by yours truly – was well intended (IMO) and clearly articulated (ahem) but did not get broad-based buy in from government leaders and also did not have enough time to take root.

In my defense, however, we did put a huge push on population growth and that has improved significantly and we did put a big focus on clearly identifying and developing specific economic opportunities that we have a clear value prop for rather than abstractions – and I would say we made some progress on that (e.g. cybersecurity).  But on the whole I accept that my broadest vision for economic development did not get much traction.  I’m moderately good at ideas.  Not so good at influence.

So, what has happened in Nova Scotia since the launch of the “Now or Never” plan in 2014?  I was asked to help write that plan but was busy on other files but I was able to consult with the team and wrote one of the chapters in Now or Never.

This one was kind of strange right out of the gate.  First it wasn’t actually a government plan.  It was published by a commission of Nova Scotia leaders from around the province led by Ray Ivany and government actually went through the dozens of recommendations and picked out a few for it to champion but the rest would have to be led by other actors.  Then they published a dashboard where all of the comparative data points on the economy are there for all to see – good, bad and ugly.

For me this was the greatest failing of the ‘plans’ in New Brunswick.  Governments started by providing good benchmark data but when the numbers turned sour they would massage the data and eventually just give up on reporting at all.

So instead of going through a line-by-line analysis of what has worked and hasn’t in Nova Scotia, here is the bottom line:

GDP growth has risen from an annual average of 0.2% per year between 2011 and 2015 to 1.6%  per year between 2016 and 2019. Not rocket ship to the moon growth but a very strong increase.

Between 1989 and 2015, Nova Scotia’s population increased by 33,000.  Over 26 years. Between 2015 and 2019 Nova Scotia’s population increased by 35,000. Let that sink in.  Over four years.  And the population moving in is predominately younger meaning the median age in the province is actually lower in 2019 than it was in 2016.

So it seems like some folks took the ‘now’ in Now or Never seriously.

I am sure there can be debate about what went right and what went wrong – some of the indicators in the dashboard are a bright red. I know some will argue that Halifax and environs is driving most of this growth and what about the rest of the province? But on the big indicators it looks like the province is moving in the right direction.

Now Nova Scotia is leaning into Quality of Life.  A report was published in March of this year that covers dozens of social indicators from social inclusion to food security and the data is published by region around the province and the report doesn’t pull any punches about what parts of the province are struggling the most.  The goal now is to develop strategy and plans to address deficiencies by regional and locality around the province.  If one town has a high food security problem – then tackle it locally with volunteers, philanthropy and a dollop of government support.

We shall see how this initiative turns out.

I raise it because there is a lesson in here for New Brunswick and elsewhere.  I have seen a very similar report for this province by community and it was never formally published because I assume government did not want to reveal that certain communities are really struggling on key social indicators.  But if you don’t publish the data – warts and all – how can there ever be progress?

I say publish the data then engage at the community and regional level to help develop solutions.  I don’t think we can ever completely eliminate social problems. It’s part of the human condition.  But I think we can make progress but we need to a) know what the scope of the problem is and b) define a targeted plan to address it (as local as possible).

BTW, New Brunswick has also made considerable progress in the past few years on population growth – less so on GDP growth. There are lots of other good things happening. But I do feel we still struggle with a proper approach to local engagement to address the challenges of the day.  It’s hard to impose from Ottawa or Fredericton a solution on Neguac or Saint John.  And for those waiting for a top down solution –  they never really seem to come.

Ideally you get the big policy direction stuff right at the provincial and federal government level but communities are actively engaged in forging their own destiny.  Population growth is a local issue.  Housing development to support population growth is a local issue.  90% of the decision where to locate a new manufacturing plant is based on local factors.  Entrepreneurship is mostly a local issue.  Social challenges are mostly local and influenced by local realities.

I know the problem is scale – we don’t have enough municipalities of a size to tackle important issues so we default to Fredericton for the solution.

In the end the time is ‘now’.  We need a blend of McKenna’s determination and strength of will, Lord’s focus on innovation, Graham’s unhinged optimism,  Alward’s sincerity, Gallant’s youthful pragmatism and Higg’s quiet determination.

After reading off this list, ideally we would have a female Premier at some point soon.

I don’t know about you but I am ready for a little less testosterone at the top of the pile.