Late last month, the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce hosted New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs for our 46th annual State of the Province Address.
We were pleased that more than half of the premier’s speech was focused on economic development – it sends the right message to the business community, potential investors and to the citizens of the province that New Brunswick is actively working to expand the economy and create opportunities for future growth.
It is important that all New Brunswickers understand that business success and related economic growth generates the revenue that governments need in order to provide the services that citizens rightly expect.
Health care is a good example as it is an area that concerns everyone. The premier stated during the speech that with an aging population, the province expects to pay more for health care every year. Given this reality, there are three obvious ways to pay for it:
- Shift money from other departments to Health
- Ask the federal government for larger health transfer payments
- Increase the overall revenue to the Government of New Brunswick
It may well be that all three will be required (at least in the short-term), but we should do everything we can to focus on #3 as it is the only sustainable option. Given our current tax burden and issues with attracting private sector investment, raising taxes and other costs isn’t the solution either. We shouldn’t be finding new ways to divide up our economic pie – we need to bake a bigger pie!
In our most recent member survey, we found that the top barriers to growth facing our members are the costs of operating their business, the economy, access to skilled labour, red tape and an aging population – relative to both workforce and customer base.
By their nature these are challenges that cannot be “fixed” in a single year, or even a single political mandate. Nor is any one government or party responsible for the position we find ourselves in today. These issues have been simmering for decades but are manifesting in more obvious and alarming ways now. What’s important is that we have a sober look at our current situation and act accordingly.
People, capital and many business operations are highly mobile today, companies need good reasons to come and stay here. Government’s role is to invest their resources strategically and create an environment in which business can prosper. Government policy is a key driver of private sector investment that will encourage New Brunswick to grow or decline.
It appears that the government and Opportunities New Brunswick recognize these barriers and we should also remember we aren’t starting completely from scratch. There are great things happening in both the private and public sectors. Recent business-friendly decisions by government will help not only current New Brunswick businesses, but send the right message to the world that we are open for business. Decisions like supporting the cyber security industry, like implementing changes to WorkSafeNB, like launching Opportunities New Brunswick’s Business Navigator program, like changing liquor laws to improve competitiveness, and the flexibility that balanced budgets allow, show that we are a province with the potential to compete in the 21st century economy.
It came as no surprise to our organization that immigration was the #1 ‘economic enabler’ listed by the premier, even ahead of private sector investment. The fact of the matter is that in order to achieve any of our economic and sustainability goals we are going to need to grow the population significantly. New Brunswick is expected to lose about 1/3 of our workforce in the next decade (roughly 120,000 people). Of course we’ll need a multi-pronged approach including repatriation, retention and innovation/automation, but when we’re talking about those kinds of numbers, the bulk of our growth will be through immigration – look at the past three years of population growth and where that growth is coming from – it’s mostly through increased immigration. Attracting and retaining the announced 10,000 newcomers per year won’t be easy, but it will be worth it – we’ll need an all-hands-on-deck approach to welcome newcomers into our businesses, our communities and our homes.
One of the things newcomer entrepreneurs often tell us is that they came to Canada looking for opportunity – a place to launch and grow great ideas. And really, whether you are a newcomer entrepreneur, startup entrepreneur, serial entrepreneur or a seasoned business executive – New Brunswick can be that place.
We think the next step is developing and committing to an innovation strategy in New Brunswick to propel our economy into the future and give people a reason to be excited about investing in the province. We have a long history of being innovative global leaders. Today we can better leverage our position as a hub for technology, cyber security, the bio-economy, startups, and more that could fit into a comprehensive innovation strategy. The success that New Brunswick has had in these areas in the past decade presents an obvious opportunity for future growth and it is well worth investing the time, money and effort required to continue down this road.
New Brunswick already has world-class post-secondary institutions and local and provincial partners are currently ensuring our status as a global cyber security leader to maintain the positive momentum that has been created in this community and throughout New Brunswick. This not only means attracting new businesses, but helping established businesses to incorporate new digital technology, robotics, automation and other innovative solutions into their businesses to help them be more productive, grow and compete globally.
Obviously not everyone is going to agree with every decision made by government at all levels, but we should try to remember that we are all in this together. It can be easy to let individual priorities or politics get in the way of progress. The more we can work together, help each other connect on opportunities, be inclusive, and raise the level of public discourse – the better off we’ll all be in the long run.
At the end of his speech, the premier called on all New Brunswickers to ask themselves what they are willing to do to help the province prosper – let’s start with collaboration.
Krista Ross is CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce, a nationally accredited organization with more than 1,000 members, is an active business organization engaged in policy development and advocacy that affects the competitiveness of our members and the Canadian business environment. The Chamber’s vision is ‘Stronger Community Through Business Prosperity’