The unsparing tone of economist Richard Saillant’s comment in a recent Globe and Mail article that “New Brunswick is in a death spiral" may seem like overkill, but the portents are there: negative population growth, growing public debt and years of crawling economic expansion.
Given this state of affairs, Monday’s general election in New Brunswick goes beyond whether this Liberal platform promise or that Progressive Conservative policy plank is the most effective answer to a specific question. The problems run deeper than the simplistic fixes that politicians too often rely on during campaigns.
The election ought to be an opportunity to restart New Brunswick and reverse its fortunes. The overarching priority for the next government must be to set economic conditions that allow New Brunswick to retain its people and take advantage of the strong global economy. With a little luck and some real fiscal discipline, the province could be one commodity boon away from slowing, or even reversing, its population decline.
But seizing the moment can’t involve injections of borrowed money. It requires the better allocation of existing revenues instead. That can be politically tricky, but the province’s leaders need to understand that a reckoning is coming either way: If they shy away from tough choices, debt-holders and rating agencies may eventually force their hand.
In the short term, that means reining in public spending, eliminating budget deficits and tackling the province’s public debt – the fastest-growing in Atlantic Canada.
At the same time, austerity alone is not the answer. Smart, more considered spending and carefully targeted stimulus policies are the order of the day.
The province especially needs to focus spending on efforts to increase commercial investment from outside the province, an indicator that hasn’t budged in more than a decade. The better matching of skills training to labour-market needs would also help matters.
Infrastructure development is another option, but it must be done judiciously. Here’s one possibility: A recent study estimates New Brunswick could add $300-million annually to its GDP by working with Quebec City to remove the long-standing highway bottleneck on the Quebec side of the provincial boundary.
The province should also invest wisely in education. New Brunswick spends more per capita on its schools than most other provinces, but only because of its falling population. Its education spending has remained flat even as the number of school-aged children and young adults has contracted.
But standardized test scores indicate the money isn’t producing results. Whether it’s the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program or the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Program for International Student Achievement, the numbers are not flattering. The province finds itself below the national average in reading comprehension, math and science – and in some cases at or near the very back of the Canadian pack. The province needs to make a concerted effort to improve these outcomes.
At the postsecondary level, the province should increase its spending on engineering and science studies in universities; a large body of evidence has established a positive relationship between those areas and economic growth.
Some of what needs to happen is beyond the province’s control. For instance, it must attract more immigration, which means enlisting Ottawa’s assistance.
But once the newcomers arrive, it is up to the province to retain them, which goes back to creating jobs and encouraging investment, to improving education and to reducing public debt.
Those who despair for New Brunswick should recognize the economic headwinds buffeting it have been blowing across Atlantic Canada for decades. The province is at the leading edge of a demographic crunch that is engulfing the region. In 2017, New Brunswick recorded its lowest number of births since 1946; more people die there each year than are born. The whole country is greying – Statistics Canada projects one in four Canadians will be 65 or older by 2031 – it’s just most apparent in New Brunswick.
Canada’s only officially bilingual province stands as a fitting proxy for its region. As with its neighbours, New Brunswick needs to face its problems head on. Whoever is elected on Monday has no time to waste.