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.