Blaming demographics

I have blogged about this before but it is well worth repeating. After the Census of 2001 showed that New Brunswick’s population was in decline, then Premier Lord famously (at least in my mind) blamed it on ‘demographics’. It was a demographic trend that was unavoidable – my aging memory tells me. Our population was aging and New Brunswick was facing this new reality.

Funny thing about demographics. People in Alberta age at exactly the same rate as people in New Brunswick. I know, I know. You want me to prove that it is such as ridiculous hypothesis. But you are going to have to trust me, they age out there at exactly the same rate as here.

And yet their population is booming and they can’t build elementary schools fast enough.

Hmmmm.

You see, Premier Lord’s blaming ‘demographics’ was a savvy political move because everyone since David Foot knows the population is aging. It is a very astute deflection of the real issue that the New Brunswick economy wasn’t generating enough economic activity to keep the people that live here let alone attract new people from away.

I had a great talk with a couple of rural Nova Scotia ED guys this week. I come away from that meeting more convinced than ever that in a lot of government departments in all of Atl. Canada there is an embedded culture of managing decline. Of establishing an orderly pattern of decline in this region.

I know I know there are some urban areas that are growing and facing the same growth challenges of larger North American urban centres but on the whole the population is stagnant or in outright decline in all of Atl. Canada.

In New Brunswick, our population growth rate peaked somewhere in the 1950s. From a population perspective those where the heady days when we were adding 5-7% to the population every Census period. While I realize that government funding levels were entirely different as were taxation levels, etc. scaled to the different period a 5-7% provincial population growth rate requires expanding infrastructure. In the 1960s/1970s growth moderated and in the 1980s and 1990s it slowed down to 1-2% every five years and from 1996-2001 it actually declined and from 2001-2006 it showed a 0.2% growth rate or stagnation.

What does this mean in practical terms? If you think about the Lord government, it meant coming to grips with ‘demographics’. Jeannot Volpe went around telling universities to expect considerably fewer students over the next 20 years because of the demographic trends. Rail lines are abandoned and torn up because there will never be a need for them again. Why extend natural gas to Northern New Brunswick? It’s in decline anyway.

But there is a broader, systemic reality that sets in and I have seen it in government (and so have my NS colleagues) that bureaucrats over generations becoming pragmatic rather than optimistic. They become inherently conservative rather than taking bold new approaches.

I remember doing a tour of fast growing U.S. states in the 1990s and meeting with local and state level bureaucrats and I remember thinking that these guys are planning for growth – in some cases massive growth.

I came back to New Brunswick to hear “why would company x ever want to set up in New Brunswick” and “there is no real reason why company y would want to set up in the Miramichi” and “we can’t compete with jurisdiction x” etc. etc. etc. It just seemed to me that we had embedded in our civil service a bit of a defeatist attitude. And not McKenna and certainly not Lord could change it.

I am not saying that the civil service should be cavilier with public funds. I am not saying they should boldly run up huge deficits spending on infrastructure on the wild hope that growth is acomin’.

But at the same time, we can’t have the opposite. We need to have a pioneering mentality in our government. We need to see New Brunswick as the new frontier for economic development. New Brunswick hasn’t even matched the national growth rate for population increase since Confederation. Now we are in stagnation while the nation adds millions every 10 years. We need to figure out a way to reorient business investment and skilled workers and education talent and R&D flows into this province for a change.

In my lifetime, just once I would like to see New Brunswick match the national growth rate in population. Not beat it. Not be “#1”. Not “Alberta style” economic growth. Just average growth.

In my lifetime, I would like to see New Brunswick go a 10 year period where more people moved into the province than out. Just once.

In my lifetime, I would like to see New Brunswick bureaucrats fighting over where they will build the new infrastructure to try and keep up with growth. Just once. Go talk with Brampton officials and you will know what I am talking about.

Why does it matter? Because I am tired of the Mayors in Northern New Brunswick organizing a coalition to “keep their health care infrastructure”. Fighting tooth and nail against the decline in public sector investment while saying not that much about the delcine in private sector investment which is causing the resultant decline in public sector investment. I am tired of Moncton/Freddy/SJ fighting over the scraps. I’d like to see clearly defined cluster development activities in all three urban centres and each Mayor congratulating the other for success in their respective industrial dev. efforts.

I am tired of having people say “it is what it is”. “This is just going to happen”. “There is no demand to justify natural gas to the north”. “There is no demand for the Melford terminal”. “There is not enough traffic to justify Maine’s proposed “east-west highway”. “The decline in the forest industry means we will need less electricity infrastructure”.

All of those statements may be true (I don’t think so) but even if they are where are the opposites? Where are the “we need to build….” sentences?