I just finished reading the transcript of the former Prime Minister of Ireland’s speech that was given in Saint John recently where he talked about the reasons why Ireland had such phenomenal success at attracting foreign business investment that led to that country leading the world in economic growth for most of the past 15-20 years.
He talked about all the usual things. Low tax regimes. Free post-secondary education. The building of infrastructure. The massive marketing campaign to attract foreign businesses.
But I knew all of that.
There were two things that I didn’t know.
First, he said that “public opinion is strongly supportive of and welcomes foreign investment”.
Now, that sounds like a simple, straight forward issue. But I think it’s not. I think it’s profound.
Consider New Brunswick. I believe that public opinion in this province on the issue of foreign investment ranges from apathy to outright hostility – and hostility is winning the day.
Consider three recent examples: Belledune, Saint John and Moncton.
In Belledune, local business leaders had a vision for an environmental industries park that would attract numerous firms in the environmental industry business and create hundreds of jobs and economic growth for one of the most needy regions of our province. Well, we all know how that turned out. All of the environmental and community forces rallied hard and long to ensure that the first investment into that park, Bennett Environmental, would never happen. The atmosphere for business investment in that region has been poisoned – maybe permanently.
Then consider Saint John. A Spanish company entered into a partnership with Irving to build an LNG plant in the city. A worthy investment with almost no environmental impacts. Further, this project was right in line with the region’s strategy to build the Energy sector. Well, we all know how that is turning out. There are loud cries from all corners as to how we can give Irving a ‘tax break’. How dare we? Not one mention about the new jobs and economic benefits. Not one mention that tax breaks are used all over North America to encourage new business investment. Not one mention that this project may have never came to the city at all. With the attitude in Saint John, it’s a wonder that the Irvings would ever consider investing there at all.
Moncton is not immune. Consider Molson. The province put a modest incentive program on the table to attract this major company and a significant investment. Instead of being met with cheers and hurrahs, the government was criticized from all sides for this deal. Given the skiddishness of these guys to editorial comment, don’t expect any major new investments any time soon.
Consider the current fight against the big, bad forestry industry. Will we ever see the critical investments by the forestry industry into their plants in New Brunswick. Maybe. But I doubt it.
The people of New Brunswick should be welcoming with open arms new business investment. I am not talking about overlooking environmental concerns or wage levels or working conditions. I am talking about a fundamental recognition, like Ireland, that we desperately need this new investment – it is critical to our economic future.
All of the negativity spills over into other areas of our lives. Why are we closing hospitals? Because of population decline due to economic stagnation. Why is the education gap between New Brunswick and the rest of Canada growing? Because many of our best and brightest youth are leaving the province. New Brunswick has more university graduates each year, per capita, than British Columbia – yet B.C.’s university educated workforce is growing much faster than New Brunswick’s. Why? Because our kids are going out there after graduation, that’s why.
We need a massive attitude adjustment in New Brunswick.
In the Tim Horton’s in Miramichi, we should be talking about the exciting potential of the economy, not complaining about those Finnish ‘bastards’ at UPN-Kymmene. We should be working side-by-side with the government to attract new industries to that community – not complaining and whining and demanding more EI.
In Belledune, those same community activists that so passionately beat the Bennett project into the ground should turn that passion and energy into attracting new businesses and industries to that region. They should replace their “Down with Bennett’ placards with “Save Belledune, attract new industries” placards.
In Saint John, once among the most dominant cities in North America and now one of the most feeble, we should get behind the community leaders calling for economic growth.
The second point from the former Irish PM that I though was very interesting was his comment that although governments changed frequently during that time, there were no ‘marked’ ideological differences between parties when it came to economic development.
After reading this, I hearkened back to 1999 when Bernard Lord stood in front of an empty factory in New Brunswick and criticized Premier McKenna’s economic development approach. He called for a ‘made in New Brunswick’ solution to our economic development problems.
I shuddered then, and I shudder now. Why would Premier Lord disavow the only part of Premier McKenna’s leadership that was almost universally applauded? Namely, his desire to attract foreign business investment? Why? This was a massive strategic error which has led to plummeting levels of foreign investment over the past six years.