In like a lion, out like a lamb

You know the old weather axiom “In like a lion, out like a lamb”, that was going through my mind as former Premier Bernard Lord retired – for now anyway – from public life yesterday.

It seemed a bit surreal to me quite frankly. The guy was Premier for seven years and the post mortems on him have been almost nonexistent in the media and even the blogosphere. The TJ ran quotes from an interview with Lord but even those sounded like old hash from previous interviews.

Unlike McKenna who left with a rather acrid assessment of things, Lord continued right up to the end to affirm that he did great things for New Brunswick and heaped prosperity on its citizens. There has been not even a hint that the Tories did anything wrong with the exception of making ‘hard decisions’ and not ‘communicating properly’ the economic success that had been wrought on New Brunswick.

The truth of the thing is much more nuanced. Yes, through some finagling, budgets were balanced during Lord’s tenure. Yes, considerable money was plowed into health care. Yes, the finishing of four lane highway through New Brunswick was put in motion under Lord.

But on the economic development file, the strategy was threefold: 1) cut small biz taxes and hope for the best; 2) cut economic development funding and hope for the best and 3) set up a few token initiatives to make it seem you were engaged but put very little money or resources towards them (consider the NB Innovation Foundation, eNB, the Population secretariat, etc.).

If the NB Innovation Foundation was to be the catalyst for bringing NB into the top three provinces in Canada for R&D (a Prosperity Plan goal), it failed. If eNB was to bring the benefits of the Internet to all New Brunswickers, it failed (we dropped from 7th to last in Canada for households connected to the Internet under Lord). If the population secretariat was to bring back thousands of New Brunswickers and attract new immigrants, it failed (the net out-migration rate in 2005 was the worst in almost a decade).

So, there are lessons here that should be extracted. For the rebuilding Tories (in my opinion), the focus should be on how they would genuinely address the structural economic challenges in New Brunswick. More of the same will not cut the mustard. For the ruling Liberals, the lesson is clear. If you are serious about self-sufficiency you have to be serious. Serious about critical investments. Serious about structural changes. Serious about changing attitudes. Serious about reforming the civil service. Serious about building a real partnership with the Feds oriented towards self-sufficiency.

Consider this idea that was put to me by a colleague with some knowledge of the issue. Regarding Northern New Brunswick the issue needs to be clear. We must revitalize that economy and put it on a stable footing. It doesn’t have to be growing wildly but we have to stop the bleeding and stabilize things. He suggested that we strike a deal with the North that EI payments will be cut in half within 10 years. This will be done through a formal process agreed to by the various stakeholders but could include things like grandfathering 50 year old+ seasonal workers and easing younger workers out. In return, an equal amount will be spent each year directly on economic development in the region.

Now this is not as strange an idea as you might think. The EI bill in New Brunswick is running around $700 million per year. I would guess at least half that goes to Northern NB. So using his logic, something like $175 million each year would be plowed into the north for economic development. That is serious change (not as much as some areas but still impressive). That would make the $5 million topup to the current funding a little funny, wouldn’t it.

Now, don’t freak out. That $175 million is still only $550 per Northern New Brunswicker – well below the funding for health care, education and debt service (and EI).

With that dough we could get serious about rural data centres, urban fringe manufacturing, key infrastructure support.

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0 Responses to In like a lion, out like a lamb

  1. Anonymous says:

    Like any plan the devil is in the details. The ‘cancelling EI’ is an interesting bone to throw to the feds, but politically its a non starter. Of course on the other hand since the province has no power over the feds and since those guys from the north are well known to torch MP’s offices when EI changes are made then it’s fine to make the offer:) The biggest complaints would not be from workers but from employers who have long used EI to pay few benefits.

    However, like health care without the ‘structural changes’ the plan goes nowhere. Is it like one of the ideas from the eighties the people used to laugh at. And of course there is the question of seasonal work, does that idea simply mean nobody works construction, landscaping, fisheries, forestry, and agriculture? That’s a heaping lot of jobs that better be provided, and people in those industries aren’t likely to be trained or desirous of sitting in an office looking at a computer screen.

    So I’d suggest first things first. People in those industries all across canada use the EI system in the same way, likewise they’ve been gouged and mostly can’t collect.

    So another idea is this:

    1. First, study who exactly is on EI and for how long. We know LOTS collect it at some point…who does and why?

    2. Study also the impact of EI and welfare. I’d like to see the budget for welfare, because although Lord claimed to get ‘people’ off welfare, I’ve a feeling he meant ‘permanent welfare collectors’ since the ‘working poor’ may well need handups. I also have a feeling that the demographics of EI have changed as more and more have left northern areas for the southern cities. Those who want or need to be near family will settle for someplace within NB first before looking at other provinces.

    3. Look at provincial housing and money for training, that’s what everybody else does (well, training anyway).

    So you have one of those data centres like in PEI, you fund a program whereby seasonal workers are trained to do the job in winter when they aren’t working (just make sure they’re getting paid decent), and staffed by students in the summer. That solves two problems, although of course the trickier part is with the students since it would be different staff each year, or at least each four years.

    4. Give local school boards and EI groups the authority to ‘tailor’ the packages to the needs of each employer and as you’ve said, have that ready made in advance.

    As usual there are problems, but those can easily be accomodated by number 4. If the Education department can tailor school service to accommodate McCain and let children have two weeks for picking spuds then obviously the department CAN be accommodating.

    However, then the investment has to come in. 175 million can be spent a lot of ways and just because you build ten companies doesn’t mean ten companies will find customers. It takes more than government spending for that.

    Of course to toot a familiar horn there IS a very easy way to combat that, which is to bring in Public Insurance and have the department located in Bathurst and the provincial investment arm located in Miramichi.

    There can also be a law tacked onto Rogers which means to serve each community they must EMPLOY x number of employees. It’s well known that Rogers is trying to turn itself into a volunteer run organization. Either revoke their community license or get them to spend serious money on their franchises. There is no reason a community television station needs to run TV shows four times a day.

    However, like the other problems, thats a LEGISLATIVE problem. Meaning you need an active government to actually DO something. To get them to do that you need people engaged and involved in politics, which isn’t happening, which means NB floats along at the whim of the feds. It survives with whatever they have available to handout and acts according to what Irvings needs are.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Want an example of why that won’t work? Innovatia just got $3 million more in funding from ACOA. This is a company that spends most of its money on administration and management, it produces almost nothing.

    That’s permanent welfare for company managers, but the hope from ACOA is that someday they may ‘get their act together’ or that nobody will notice.

    If that company stopped getting ACOA money it would be bankrupt within a year. All those workers would be able to collect unemployment, so why should northerners be treated any different? Where are the Innovatia’s for the north? Managers up north can be equally as inept as ones down south.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Interesting. Take a look at other ACOA projects. Only one of them is in Northern New brunswick and that’s Fraser, which is getting $2 million of a $3 million project paid for. That’s in a dying industry and a company that is looking to get out of New Brunswick altogether and already got huge handouts in the forestry deal from the previous government.

    Virtually all projects have to do with forestry, none in informatics except Innovatia.

    One company is doing research in “bio pesticides” which I suspect is why nobody heard of this funding announcement. New Brunswick is one of the few areas in the developed world that still allows ‘aerial spraying’, this is all tax deductible so its no surprise they still do it. In Maine they dont use aerial spraying and IRving stated that they didn’t have to worry, ‘the only reason we do it in new brunswick is that its cost effective’-again, because its paid for by the taxpayers. It contributes to the health problems of most of the citizens though, which again has to be paid for down the line.

    Marwood at least is a viable company, but again, there are lots of companies like that up north that barely get by. The wood pellet idea would be applicable here because with a government program to build and distribute high efficiency wood stoves (through rebates) some companies could make a go of it.

    Once again the ‘cancer markers’ are on there, and at least that provides decent jobs, but once again there is a reason why most funding in science goes through, damn, I forgot their name. That’s because its based on research, not politics. However, anything is anything. ACOA should be providing far more than that, enough to spread around the research around the province.

    Any investment is good investment, and anybody who thinks that only atlantic companies get funding without a payout at the end is kidding themselves. RIM wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for funding, neither would any of the largest companies in Canada.

    Part of the problem though is the way things are funded. Most new companies develop in software as small man operations. By saying ‘we’ll only pay part of your costs’ and ‘we’ll only pay for labour costs’ it essentially rules out the most effective businesspeople-the small ones. I could download flash right now and do an animation like ‘Chilly Beach’ adn get a deal with CBC. I could even do it by myself in my basement, however, I need to make a living and have bills to pay.

    If those kinds of criteria were looked at, perhaps some new small businesses could develop. They certainly aren’t getting any help from ACOA, it may be that they haven’t asked though, so who knows.

  4. Jeff says:

    Right on the money, David.

  5. Scott says:

    I don’t think you can continue to lay the blame on the Lord administration as they were handed a pretty bad hand wherein outmigration had just quadrupled near the end of McKenna’s watch. (which doesn’t say much for the results of his policies)

    So I guess in retrospect, his plan was even less successful considering the fact he created an economic atmosphere based on ppl getting off of EI [call centres].

    Moreover, if his plan was to build New Brunswick into a modern, robust [industrial] centre, it is safe to say that he failed miserably. Not to mention, after viewing the results of his labour, there is no question that he had no idea of the global economy [back then] and what it entailed, especially since placing all your eggs in one industry basket, an industry that would eventually be lowballed by India, is suicidal to say the very least.

    Though he [Lord] wasn’t successful in relocating ex-pats to New Brunswick, nor was he successful in building the economy back up to, at least, the level of the mid-80s, you have to admit, he was the first to approach and address the issue of outmigration seriously. It wasn’t even on Mckenna’s radar for some reason or other.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Sounds like we are back at the old blame-game again. I was born and raised here in NB and it seems to me that there is this terrible tendancy to fight with one another and play petty politics. I really do not care what Frank McKenna or Bernard Lord did or did not do.
    We have a new government, and regardless of your politcal colour, JUST GET OVER IT, work together and learn from past mistakes.

    That is our biggest challenge in New Brunswick, overcoming a destructive mindset. Solve that, and we will have taken the first step towards social and economic prosperity.

  7. Anonymous says:

    The problem with that is that WE have nothing to do with setting policy. I suspect the ‘blame game’ is a natural reaction to not having any actual power. It takes a LOT of work to set policy, particularly in Canada because there are no democratic tools to implement them. It’s interesting that if you go back and read old papers from the mid nineties on, it is actually NDP policies that are being looked at now, and have been proven elsewhere to create jobs.

    But even with the internet all that can be accomplished is talking and hoping that somewhere somebody may be listening. Likewise, even in the case of making presentations to committee’s we know where they end up-in the scrap heap. So know wonder people simply ignore politics and so few people are engaged-its quite possible that we are the idiots who are just wasting our time.

  8. David Campbell says:

    Have some perspective, Anon. There are worse things to be doing like watching the decline of the American empire (American Idol, Grease, etc.).

  9. Anonymous says:

    Good point

  10. Scott says:

    Grease? lol

    It’s great to have when you’re out of hair gel or the wheels are getting rusty, but when in the form of a chick flick, I have to say I suddenly become weak wherein it interferes with my semi-photosynthetic process, driving the energy out of my cells in a painful fashion. In other words, it acts like a kryptonite.