Seeking a more intelligent Fredericton-Ottawa partnership

From a recent TJ column:

Last week, Statistics Canada published is latest data on federal government spending on science and technology. The numbers are pretty grim for New Brunswick.

Across the province in 2012-2013, the federal government employed 409 people in science and technology-related jobs. Adjusted for the size of the population, the federal government employs 55 per cent fewer people in science and technology in New Brunswick compared to Nova Scotia, 43 percent less compared to Prince Edward Island, 40 percent less compared to Newfoundland and Labrador and 53 percent less compared to Manitoba.

Between 2009/2010 and 2012/2013, the federal government chopped its science and technology workforce in New Brunswick by 21 per cent which was the sharpest reduction among all 10 provinces.

In 2012-2013, the federal government spent $118 million on science and technology in New Brunswick. Again adjusted for population size, this was less than every other province in Canada except Alberta. Total federal government spending on science and technology across Canada has dropped by only four per cent between 2009/2010 and 2012/2013. In New Brunswick, it has dropped by 22 per cent.

Finally, the amount of money the federal government gave out in 2012-2013 across New Brunswick directly as contracts and grants for science and technology-related purposes was the lowest in Canada on a per capita basis. The total amount of federal contracts and grants has declined 29 per cent since the peak in 2009/2010.

I realize in any race someone has to finish last. At a time when New Brunswick could really use a partner in Ottawa to help kick start its economy, this isn’t very comforting.

In addition to cutting its science and technology workforce, the federal government has also chopped its economic development workforce and related spending in the province.

New Brunswick’s share of equalization payments has declined significantly over the past decade. In a strange response to New Brunswick’s growing demographic crisis, the federal government has clamped down on temporary foreign workers and on new immigration to the province.

I realize the federal government is preoccupied with the economic situation in southern Ontario, the oil pipelines debate and other big issues.
But I still believe Fredericton and Ottawa should be able to carve out a more intelligent partnership to bolster our economic and population fortunes.

What would an intelligent partnership look like?

It would start with a more strategic approach to federal government spending in New Brunswick – particularly in the area of science and technology. We should develop a longer term strategy to raise federal funding to the average among the rest of the Atlantic provinces.
We should tie this research funding to R&D activities where New Brunswick has the potential to build world class expertise. We should expect a good return on the federal government spending on R&D in terms of leveraged private sector investment, new entrepreneurship, more patents and, ultimately, a big boost to tax revenues.

On the population front, a new intelligent partnership would involve a firm commitment and focus on bringing substantially more immigrants to New Brunswick over the next decade.

On the economic development front, an intelligent partnership would be less focused on grants and loans to industry and more focused on how we can work together to build a stronger case for private sector investment in key industries across the province. The science and technology investments are a key part of this.

When you boil it down, New Brunswick’s challenges are pretty simple. The provincial economy is not generating enough investment and employment to sustain good quality public services and infrastructure and the stagnant and rapidly aging population is a serious risk to the future labour market and to the prospects for economic growth.

With relatively little effort, the federal government could become an important partner in addressing these challenges.

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