The Telegraph Journal ran a story yesterday detailing the spending from a northern New Brunswick development fund. It chronicled how funds were used to build statues, renovate historic train cabooses and renovate golf course clubhouses. It was one of those stories tailor-made to convince us that government recklessly wastes taxpayer monies. The story quoted the Finance Minister as saying that job maintenance and investments in strategic infrastructure were necessary.
At the risk of biting the hand that feeds me, I respectfully disagree with both sides. I assume the newspaper doesn’t disagree with the restoration of historic train cabooses, the renovation of golf clubhouses or the building of statues. Take a drive around Saint John, Moncton or Fredericton and you will see such things and more that never make the news in such fashion – most with public money in them. No, it seems to me that the newspaper is annoyed with the source of the funds for these projects rather than the projects themselves.
As for the government, again with all due respect, the notion that many of these projects are “strategic infrastructure” does seem to be stretching the limits of both the term ‘strategic’ and ‘infrastructure’.
For me there are a few learnings that come out of this story:
1. I am increasingly hearing the term ‘job maintenance’ or ‘retention’ – think auto sector in Ontario as the biggest example of that but it also is used to justify giving all kinds of projects government money on a small scale as well. Once again, I never say never on this stuff but I think Northern NB needs economic development right now not maintenance or retention. So if our actions don’t turn the tide of out-migration and decline, we have failed no matter how many statues are erected.
2. I guess there should be funds set aside for statues and cabooses – but maybe not from a fund that was supposed to be a catalyst for economic development. It seems to me that more and more of the spending from government (and I include ACOA here) that is said to be ‘economic development’ spending has a very weak link to direct economic development. You can build a bridge to nowhere in the name of economic development but at the end of the day governments need to invest wisely and strategically on projects that have the best chance of success. I propose that we need to rethink what we really want in Northern NB and then put the tools in place to make it happen. The last 20 years are ample proof (from the Transitional Jobs Fund to these current funds) that just setting up a fund, putting in $10 million and spending it over five years does not work.
3. Really who should be deciding whether to build a statue should be the local municipality but many of them are so small and have access to very little discretionary funding. We need to dig out the Finn report and look at implementing it. We need to find a way to get scale in municipal government in New Brunswick without sacrificing the character of our smaller communities. The Finn report made a lot of sense.