Juggling N.B’s balancing act

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For public leaders, the great challenge in stewarding an economy like New Brunswick’s is not, essentially, crafting jobs-vows and packaging promises for economic growth.

The great challenge is learning how to walk, chew gum, sing, dance, buy the groceries, and cook the dinner – all at the same time.

Of course, to prove to the common weal that they are, indeed, multi-tasking geniuses – gifted beyond reasonable doubt in the calculus of actually getting things done – young governments are inevitably tempted to issue a bevy of so-called “prosperity plans” and “opportunity programs”, which they insist clearly present the key that unlocks the door to durable progress.

It never does, of course. 

In fact, in every case, these “plans” and “programs” are anything but – more wish lists than articulate frameworks. But, they make great copy for newspaper editorialists; lamentably for everyone else, that’s about the sum total of their value.

Still, a government such as freshly minted Brian Gallant’s in this province owes itself and voters a valiant, mold-breaking exercise in economic specificity, in which plans really are plans, programs really are programs and vision is more than a talking point for a chamber-of-commerce audience of jaded luncheon rats. 

Happily, the early signs here are promising.

The new appointees to the province’s Jobs Board (notably David Campbell and Susan Holt) have, in recent days, made useful points about the ways and means of building and sustaining industrial capacity.

In effect, these boil down not to one ingredient, but many, operating in concert to slowly, incrementally, convincingly improve the conditions for commercial growth, innovation, expansion and, naturally, job creation.

These necessarily require Government to hone its juggling skills just as they require public shepherds of long-term prosperity to focus more on the steak of their proposals than the sizzle of their pronouncements.

The traditional temptation is, however, to stray from this noble, difficult purpose. Often, it’s the sweet, low-hanging fruit that distracts.

In this context,  alone, the ostensibly good economic news about New Brunswick from the Conference Board of Canada this week is actually troubling.

For the first time since 2007, the organization insists, the province is set to surge ahead, posting better year-over-year GDP growth than the nation as a whole. This, the argument goes, will surely boost employment, reduce labour shortages and go a long way towards narrowing the wage-and-skills gap, especially in natural resources and goods-producing industries.

The problem with this rosy forecast is that it relies entirely on factors beyond New Brunswick’s control: an uptick in export business with the re-emergent American northeast and the consequent effect of depressed oil prices, i.e., a low Canadian dollar.

When things are fertile, who thinks about the inevitable drought?

Who thinks to leverage the good times (with, for example, ground-breaking, world-beating product and service innovations, strategic infrastructure, advanced training and education) to ameliorate the bad?

Similarly, the promise of better days ahead might lure policymakers into believing that the timing for a general tax grab has rarely been more efficacious. Several economists and, at least, one poverty group, have issued strong injunctions against such a move.

They are correct. Rash increases in income or consumptions taxes are not the way to go at the moment.

But neither is hand-wringing.

Everything must be in play in this province, and everything is of a piece – a piece of every other.

The Gallant government’s approach to date has indicated that it knows this. Temporary upticks in the economy are no more promising, in the long-term, than are sudden, socially irresponsible hikes in levies on citizens.

The future is in the long game – in the simultaneous chewing of gum, walking, singing, dancing, grocery buying and dinner cooking.

Let’s see that the big-picture plan contains enough meat to nourish future generations of this province.DSC_0005

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