Each year the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce surveys our members to get feedback on our activities, learn how we can better serve our members, and to understand how we can best advocate to governments on their behalf. The results of the survey shape our activities for the coming year, help focus our advocacy efforts and develop a set of annual policy priorities. It’s also a good look into the concerns, anxieties and pain points for the local business community.
In 2019, the top concerns of our members are consistent with what we have been hearing from other chambers across New Brunswick and Canada and from our members in previous years: costs of operating their business, slow economic growth, access to skilled labour, red tape and an aging population (relative to both workforce and customer base).
Because of this consistency in concerns, we have aligned our current policy priorities to address these issues: competitive business environment, workforce development & population growth, and natural resource development. These are areas that are well understood, and the steps required for the business community to advocate for changes to government policy are relatively clear.
Perhaps there was a more fundamental theme that came from the survey, particularly when asked open-endedly ‘What problem regularly frustrates you the most when dealing with any government department or entity?’. The answers that were received can mostly fall into the following buckets: government decision-making is slow, difficulty contacting the right person, getting conflicting answers, indifference/ignorance of business realities on the ground, red tape, and a lack of accountability. The disconnect our members are feeling with governments is something that has to be addressed.
Governments derive their revenue from economic growth and business success. It must be understood that the relationship between the Province’s finances, its ability to deliver services and economic development are symbiotic and inextricably linked. It’s one of the reasons our organization’s vision is Stronger Community Through Business Prosperity. This is a message that must continue to be delivered to governments of all levels, but there have been signs in New Brunswick that the tide is turning.
We were pleased to see that Opportunities NB launched a new initiative this month that takes direct aim at those frustrations expressed by our members. ONB’s Business Navigators are meant to be a one-stop shop to get answers from government at a single point of contact. Business people can contact a “navigator” at Opportunities NB. The navigator team will then take ownership of the inquiry in a case management model and work with navigators identified in each government department to provide the most accurate and helpful response. We have advocated the New Brunswick import this model from Nova Scotia and look forward to working with government and our members to ensure its uptake and success. This is the type of forward-thinking, proactive program with the potential to create a better business climate to sustain business success by giving them the kind of direct and practical assistance that they have been asking for.
Another very publicly noted (and immediately impactful) example of government considering and acting on business concerns was the quick action taken to implement the recommendations of the WorkSafeNB Task Force late last year – notably supported across party lines in the legislature. Make no mistake, the situation remains serious, but WorkSafeNB management and the provincial government deserve praise for acting immediately to begin implementing the recommendations of the employer-employee led WorkSafeNB Task Force. Payroll taxes such as WorkSafeNB premiums are particularly difficult for small businesses to absorb because there is no correlation to revenue as with many taxes – such as the small business tax – which applies once a business has turned some profit; payroll taxes, however, are a tax on your costs, not on your revenue or profit.
We have also had success bringing issues to government with suggestions of sensible fixes lately. A good example is with a current proposed change to restaurant licensing fees. Currently, the act states that licenses expire on 31 March each year. This means that a restaurant opening its doors on (for example) 15 March, would have to pay the full fee, only then to have to renew two weeks later and again be charge the full annual fee. In one instance that we used as an example when bringing this issue to the attention of the government – a member restaurant paid this annual fee four times in 14 months. The government accepted our recommendation on this issue and are moving to quarterly pro-rated fees. A minor change, but a breath of fresh air that sensible policy proposals can have an impact.
These types of actions by government also send a message – that New Brunswick is open for business. New Brunswick’s high taxes, difficulty developing natural resources and labour challenges have led to a decline in private-sector capital investment, as stated in the province’s current economic growth plan. We need all the signs that we can get that New Brunswick is a good place to invest – responsiveness to business concerns is the best first step – and hopefully the beginning of a better rapport and understanding between our members and the governments that create the regulatory and tax conditions they operate within.
Krista Ross is CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce, a nationally accredited organization with nearly 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’.