FREDERICTON – Premier Blaine Higgs said the province is on track to “close the gap” with a new economic growth plan while announcing new initiatives in his second State of the Province Address.
His speech included a call for increased immigration to boost the population and the unveiling of new international offices aimed to attract skilled labour and boost exports.
“We’re not here for the next election, we’re here for the next generation,” Higgs told his largely business audience at the Fredericton Convention Centre.
Higgs outlined pressing challenges New Brunswick faces, including an aging population and a shrinking workforce in many sectors.
“The urgency I spoke of last year continues,” he said. “The difference is we’ve established our foundation and we have a plan to bring new oxygen into our province.”
He said New Brunswick needs 1,300 more nurses over the next decade to maintain the same services, and a skills gap will see 120,000 jobs become available in the next decade.
The premier said the province is back on track with fiscal responsibility by balancing the budget for the second consecutive year. He said net debt is projected to decrease by $233 million resulting in savings of $8-10 million per year, which will be invested in health care.
A “provincial scorecard” projected during the speech highlighted a slight increase in labour force participation over the last year to 82.2 per cent for ages 20-29, and growth in exports for both non-resource and resource-based sectors.
The premier also noted that private sector investment has far surpassed government investment into the provincial economy.
“It is time for New Brunswick to let the world know we have a plan, and we are back on track,” Higgs said.
The premier detailed a path for long-term population growth, asking the audience to imagine the benefits of having a population of 1 million in 2040.
He explained a three-part strategy, including increasing immigration to 10,000 per year – from the current target of 7,500 – by 2027. A marketing campaign to repatriate New Brunswickers will also be rolled out, along with initiatives aimed to help newcomers get credentials quicker and have less red tape when starting a business.
The economic growth plan includes new priorities for Opportunities NB (ONB), which Higgs said will focus on attracting business in cybersecurity, digital health and energy innovation.
He announced the creation of new offices in India and Europe, which will work to increase exports and attract international talent and investments to the province. Representatives from ONB, the province’s population growth secretariat and the University of New Brunswick left for a mission to India on Thursday.
“We need to leverage this and create linkages for more economic investment,” Higgs said. “More businesses that want to settle here in New Brunswick.”
The address concluded with a call to New Brunswickers to “close the gap” in one generation by embracing new technology and integrating into the global economy.
“Our goal is to create a culture of change, a culture of freedom and a culture of innovation,” the premier said.
Another announcement on Thursday was the departure of ONB CEO Stephen Lund, who concludes a five-year mandate in mid-February.
“Stephen has been a leader in the field,” Higgs told Huddle after the speech. “He’s represented us well, not only throughout Canada but in other countries as well.”
Speaking to reporters following the address, opposition party leaders voiced support for the new international offices but criticized Higgs for not discussing plans to help “vulnerable members” of society.
Green Party leader David Coon said Higgs missed two important issues by not addressing poverty or climate change.
“It’s so important that we make a frontal attack on poverty in this province to lift people up,” Coon said. “It’s dragging everyone down.”
Liberal leader Kevin Vickers said he plans to hold the premier accountable for executing and funding the initiatives outlined. He said New Brunswick has “low hanging fruit” with the development of tourism, and he was disappointed to hear no mention of the industry.
“This is something that I think could benefit the province economically greatly,” he said. “We have tremendous potential here.”