With Premier Higgs’ election call earlier this week, New Brunswickers will head to the polls in less than a month to elect the members of the province’s 60th legislature. It would be an understatement to say this election will be unlike any other in our lifetimes and while this election may be remembered as the “COVID Election”, it is also undeniably about the related economic recovery and we cannot lose sight of the fact that our economy was in a fragile state before the pandemic began and is now even more precarious. New Brunswick has done undeniably well in keeping the virus at bay and that creates opportunity for the province to take advantage of our positive health situation, strategic location, cost of living and quality of life. With the world’s economy increasingly moving online, New Brunswick can be a location of choice for employees and employers – but that is only relevant if we can take advantage of the positive health situation vis-a-vis COVID-19 and leverage the information technology expertise that we have built out since the days of the information superhighway.
What matters most to the business community as we get set for the provincial election is that whatever party controls the legislature after September 14 maintains an emphasis on keeping New Brunswickers healthy so that we can focus on continuing the province’s economic recovery. And of course, these concepts have never been mutually exclusive – there has always been a direct link between health and economy, but the pandemic has made that point glaringly obvious. Access to primary care has been a high priority of our chamber for more than a decade for this reason.
Last week, Statistics Canada reported that employment in the province was at 96.6% of its pre-COVID February level. To be sure, this is positive economic momentum that we want to maintain and in order to do that we have to make pragmatic, timely, and proactive health-focused decisions that are mindful of the economic consequences and how public health and the economy are interconnected. We have to keep in mind that these early employment numbers are still being buoyed by federal government support programs. In the coming months, most or all of these programs will likely wind down and we need our economy to be in a strong enough position to withstand this return to normal.
We can work towards effectively managing the virus in the short term but the potential damage that can be done to our economy by decisions that are narrowly focused is long-term. We also have to remember that New Brunswick had serious, deeply-rooted economic issues before the pandemic which still exist and in many cases have been exacerbated. And let’s not forget that other provinces are being hit even harder, which will decrease the equalization payments we can expect to get moving forward – payments that were partially responsible for balancing the budget this past year.
We need to be prepared to stand on our own two feet more so than we have in the recent past and there is no other way to do that than by growing the economy, becoming more self-sufficient and making New Brunswick an immigration location of choice for the long term.
It is important that all candidates understand that a business lens must be considered and applied to all decisions throughout government departments. We cannot afford unintended negative consequences to the economy of decisions that did not adequately consider the impact on business or the economy generally. This doesn’t mean that the government should choose the path that is best for business at the expense of all else – but it does mean that economic impact should be considered for all major decisions (or anything that directly affects business). This could at the very least help tweak policy decisions or programs so that we don’t create more red tape, adding unnecessary costs, or otherwise needlessly make things more difficult for businesses.
I think we also need to take an important lesson away from the past five months in relation to government – any government. When they are pressed they can make quick decisions, they can react to dynamic conditions, they can be responsive to the changing needs of citizens and businesses and they can work collaboratively across party lines. If we are really serious about a “new normal”, this absolutely has to be part of it.
None of us have all the answers – we are navigating a once-in-a-century (hopefully) pandemic together. This means that it will be important moving forward to continue to work closely with knowledgeable stakeholders to best understand issues, decisions and policies and how they affect New Brunswickers and New Brunswick businesses. Government services – including health, education and social supports – are funded exclusively from business success and economic growth. That’s one of the reasons our organizational vision is Stronger Community Through Business Prosperity. That vision has never been more relevant.
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’