Memories Of Premiers Past And The Gap Between Vision And Action

Image: Alex Silberman/Huddle.

David Campbell writes a blog about economic development in Atlantic Canada called It’s The Economy, Stupid.

I was delighted to hear the Premier roll out some ambitious targets at the State of the Province address last week. While I have never talked with him one-on-one a number who have had suggested to me that his view was that the government couldn’t do much to impact the trajectory of the economy.

There are quite a few inside government of this view – that is why for many the long-term consensus is that New Brunswick can expect 0.5 percent real GDP growth as the new norm moving forward.

I don’t believe government can change the economic destiny of a province just by snapping its fingers nor do I think government should be in the wild subsidy and industry protection game to try and boost an economy.

But, as I have said many times, there is a lot government can and should do to influence a stronger growth trajectory for New Brunswick.

The biggest challenge historically has been the gap between vision and action.

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Bernard Lord’s Prosperity Plan featured a wildly ambitious target of bringing New Brunswick up among the top performers for R&D per capita – but then made almost no investment in R&D. I commented at the time that it would have taken at least $100-million more in R&D per year to get to the Premier’s goal but the government at the time set up the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation (NBIF) with $25-million to be spent over a number of years.

Shawn Graham’s Self-Sufficiency agenda was among the most impressive strategy documents I have seen. It was talking robust population growth – adding 100,000 net by 2026 – eliminating the need for Equalization and a host of other highly ambitious initiatives from post-secondary reform to municipal government reform.

Then, almost bizarrely, there was virtually nothing done on these initiatives. I realize they got railroaded by the proposed NB Power sale but it was a lost opportunity.

David Alward’s plan was a mishmash of fairly esoteric targets related to productivity, income, et cetera. I confess I haven’t gone back and reviewed results – the truth is they took so long to release the plan that there was virtually no time to make progress before they lost government.

Brian Gallant’s government, ahem, was reluctant to put any hard economic/population targets in the window – because of the view that people were getting cynical of big talk no action.

I liked the Growth Plan, but I suspect that has something to do with the fact I wrote it (with wide-ranging input from others). I’m not sure the philosophy of the Growth Plan ever took root in government.

I had this grand vision of communities across New Brunswick pursuing economic opportunities from tiny to large – based on specific assets and attributes in their areas. Economic development would evolve to be a process of clarifying opportunity, developing the value proposition for investment and then relentlessly pursuing that investment by exposing entrepreneurs, local, national and international firms to the opportunities in New Brunswick. They would be wide-ranging initiatives such as accommodation investment along the Bay of Fundy to a provincial-scale cybersecurity opportunity.

Ideally there would have been hundreds of cool initiatives from Edmundston to Saint John to Sackville and Caraquet. But, as I have said, I never was really able to convince my colleagues or anyone else of this vision. Maybe I’ll write a book someday soon.

Of course, the aging population and the shrinking labour market became a huge issue and it seems clear the Premier is determined to address this – the increase in the immigrant target is bang on.

But we can’t be 100 percent focused on population growth. We still need the nitty-gritty work of economic development.

Huddle publishes commentaries from groups and individuals on important business issues facing the Maritimes. These commentaries do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Huddle. To submit a commentary for consideration, contact editor Mark Leger: [email protected]