Believe it or not my colleagues and I have great debates about old Danny Williams and his tactics on Newfoundland and Labrador. There is no doubt that he has tapped into a long standing but latent view among residents on the Rock that their province has been constantly receiving the short end of the stick. His posture towards the mining, oil and now forestry interests on the Rock has renewed a sense of pride and worthiness among residents and his approval rating is an unbelievable 90%+.
But these kind of heavy handed efforts – for example writing legislation to take back property rights without any negotiation with the company – are problematic.
I wish we could have strong leaders like Williams but channel that strength into building new industrial sectors to replace the old. Alberta is buying its way into nanotechnology, film & media and other 21st century industries by throwing hundrds of millions of dollars at them. Shouldn’t Newfoundland use the proceeds of its oil wealth for the same objective? There must be some interesting, nascent sectors that could be exploited with the help of oil money, Memorial University and some of the talented smaller firms over there.
I know that some of you cringe at the notion of government trying to engineer economic development with taxpayer dollars (or royalties), favourable legislation and policies. But that is how the auto sector was started in southern Ontario. That is how the film and media sector was grown from nothing to a billion dollar industry in British Columbia and that is how the pharma and aerospace sectors were grown in Quebec.
You can pour money into dying sectors. You can do nothing and rely on more Equalization from Ottawa or you can be proactive about economic development. I prefer the latter approach and again just to make the point I don’t think you have to subsidize uncompetitive firms or industries to build clusters. Endowing a $50 million chair in a specific research area can be just as effective an ecoomic development lever as enticing Google to set up here. But the overall objective of economic development must be the catalzying of new business investment in sectors that have a long term perspective and that offer above average wages. That way you have sectors with a 20-30 year time horizon, good sources of new tax revenue and the quality of jobs that keep people here and that will attract people from afar.