Re-inventing the N.B. economy

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No statistic serves ruling political priorities more faithfully than the monthly jobs number. When it’s up, governments rush to congratulate themselves for their acuity. When it’s down, they go out of their way to remind voters that deepening unemployment can’t possibly reflect a wayward policy agenda.

So it was, mere days ago, when Statistics Canada confirmed that in June New Brunswick posted the worst jobless rate in years – the worst, in fact, in Canada. According to a CBC report, “At 11.2 per cent, New Brunswick had the highest unemployment rate in the country for the first time while Newfoundland and Labrador saw its unemployment rate dip to just below 11 per cent to 10.9, a significant decrease of 1.9 percentage points from a year ago, the biggest year-on-year decline in the country. . .Manitoba and British Columbia saw the biggest employment increases in June, gaining 7,300 and 8,900 jobs, respectively.”

Meanwhile, “Ontario’s unemployment rate inched up slightly in June, rising 0.2 percentage points to 7.5 per cent. Employment was up 1.6 per cent in the province compared with a year ago. An increase in part-time work in the province was offset by a decline in full-time work, which was also true for the country as a whole.”

The news left New Brunswick Liberal Leader Brian Gallant salivating. Quoted in the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, he said, “We’ve lost 7,000 jobs since the government came to power and as we’re waiting for them to come up with a plan we see that New Brunswickers have to leave our province. We’re the only province in the country that saw its population decrease last year.”

To which Energy and Mines Minister Craig Leonard appeared to retort, in a statement, “We are building new jobs and new industries through our recently announced $20 million investment over five years to support research and innovation in New Brunswick as part of our $80-million innovation strategy.”

He then blathered on, in predictable fashion, about the job-killing predilections of his Grit rivals, whose support of a moratorium on shale gas development, he insinuated, threatens to upend longterm economic development in the province.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the wisdom of hitching New Brunswick’s fortunes to the deeply controversial prospect of onshore petroleum production, this government wastes its time defending its record in the face of the June unemployment metric. It might argue just as convincingly that the jobless rate in that month was good news, for it could have been much worse.

For some time, New Brunswick’s economy has been undergoing profound, even structural, changes, most of which have had little to do with the partisan identities of those who have ruled the roost in Fredericton. Governments of both Progressive Conservative and Liberal persuasions have been broadly feckless in their management of economic opportunities.

There have been the “prosperity plans” and the “growth agendas,” the “blueprints for change” and the “roadmaps for sustainability.” There have been the “big gets” and the “major announcements.” Sprinkled throughout the years have been new slogans, old slogans and, occasionally, no slogans to reflect New Brunswick’s salient dilemma:  A fundamental lack of direction.

People, here, are aging. Young people are leaving. Aging people are leaving. The problem is not, essentially, that they can’t find rewarding work; it is, increasingly, that such work is temporary, fleeting, rootless.

Economic development is not about plans, priorities and programs. It’s not even about tax breaks. It’s about building capacity from the ground up. It’s about nurturing a culture of innovation, enterprise, self-reliance and self-determination. It’s about incubating entrepreneurship.

“What makes Silicon Valley so successful?” asks the website Internationalboost.com. “It’s the story of a number of pioneers who were able to produce an environment that stimulated the emergence of entrepreneurial talent and, most importantly, attracted more of this same talent into the area. . .Silicon Valley is not only the place where companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Apple can literally be founded in a garage – it is the foundation for these companies to continue to re-invent and innovate, becoming world-dominant players in ever-evolving markets and technologies.”

If New Brunswick’s political establishment finally grasp what ought to be self-evident about the province’s prospects, then the monthly job numbers will look after themselves.

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