There are a few old grizzled veterans around like the 80+ year old Hal Fredericks and the younger but knowledgeable Donald Savoie that truly understand the scope and scale of economic development efforts in this region going back 40 years or more and can also make salient points as to why we haven’t kept pace with the rest of Canada.
I read an article in Progress magazine quoting Frank McKenna as saying this region has made tremendous advancements in the past two decades. In many ways he is right and I am glad that he has morphed into the Cheerleader in Chief for the region. But he doesn’t say that compared to everyone else we are actually losing ground. Unemployment is down. This is true but it is fuelled as much by increased out-migration as job creation. If population decline leads to a lower unemployment rate – that is a bittersweet outcome.
Constantine Passaris up at UNB is another old grizzled veteran. He has an interesting commentary in the DG today. In it he quotes from 1982 former Premier Hatfield:
I recall a conversation I had with Premier Richard Hatfield in 1982 at which time he poignantly observed that the federal funds flowing to our province as a result of equalization were not a handout but a financial dividend that New Brunswick had earned for joining Confederation.
Let’s put aside the fact that a party that is supposed to be built around ‘conservative’ values seems to be the champion of federal welfare. My confusion with the PC party in New Brunswick is well known and gets exacerbated every time I debate my family members – mostly devout PCs. I argue that the PCs should be the party about self sufficiency, about government cost control and about economic development. But that is an argument I seem to be losing.
But apart from politics, Passaris also talks about his involvement way back when with the New Brunswick Development Institute which rightly concluded in 1985 that “our provincial government should wean the provincial economy away from federal transfer payments because they were proving to be insufficient and unreliable.”
At the end of the day, self-sufficiency is not the impossible dream, but an imperative for a prosperous New Brunswick. It is about empowering New Brunswickers to gradually remove their dependence from federal fiscal transfers and the political mood swings of Ottawa.
But I’m not satisfied with those trite motherhood statements anymore (although I am guilty of them in my columns as well – I don’t want to be the total Scrooge of economic development). I’d like to ask Passaris why we haven’t been able to wean ourselves off transfers over that 24 year period? I’d like to ask him what went wrong? Why have we gone from a relatively strong population growth in the early Hatfield days – when he was cutting his teeth on economic development issues – to a population decline today?
I’d like nothing better than to get that old brain trust – throw in guys like Stephen Wheatley who I believe was involved with the Bricklin file way back when -in a room and ask them to tell us why we failed. Why when Canada was booming – adding three million people to the population – New Brunswick actually slipped into population decline. Ask why government spending has to grow at three times the rate of inflation. I think we have to ask hard questions of the leaders in the past in order to make the tough decisions for the future.
But I guess I just slipped into the motherhood mode myself, didn’t I?