The provincial government pre-budget consultation process is in full swing – a process that the chamber and other stakeholder groups engage in annually. It some ways it’s the most “normal” bit of work I’ve done since last March, but of course, the context is unlike any of us have experienced in our lifetimes.
The process is loosely centred around the government’s six priority areas announced last year as well as pandemic response. Of the priorities, our organization views energize the private sector as the foundational pillar that will allow government to deliver on their other priorities and provide the citizens of New Brunswick with the services and security that they need. Governments at all levels derive their revenue from economic growth and business success.
The pandemic has been a transformational change and right now the immediate crisis and recovery is the top priority, but once you dig a little deeper, it is increasingly clear that the challenges ahead are the same that we were talking about this time last year – but have now been exacerbated.
For the past decade, our organization loudly beat the drum of fiscal restraint and the importance of balancing the provincial books. And while we still think this should be the modus operandi for government most of the time – one of the reasons to ensure financial health is to be able to deal with unexpectant crises or opportunities as they arise.
Finance Minister Steeves has quite the task on his hands and is undoubtedly being faced with competing pressures and perspectives. Striking the right balance will be incredibly difficult but as Richard Saillant – no stranger to fiscal prudence – wrote last week: “The key to a a better tomorrow is not to achieve fiscal balance at all times, but to maintain sustainable public finances while making the investments that will underpin the future prosperity and well-being of all New Brunswickers.”
The good news is that the provincial government has a great starting point. The three focus areas first mentioned by Premier Higgs in the 2020 State of the Province Address and reinforced in the PCNB 2020 platform are cyber security, digital health and energy innovation. We support these areas of focus and given the new environment created by the pandemic, they are more relevant now than ever.
Cyber security is one of the fastest growing sectors in the world. The Cyber Centre in Fredericton can be a path to being a worldwide leader focused on critical infrastructure and from there we can expand New Brunswick’s cyber security footprint more generally. The government will gain revenue and critical infrastructure to further the significant economic growth through cyber security by private industry investment from Knowledge Park.
Access to Primary Health Care has been an issue in the province for decades and perhaps one of the positive legacies on the past year has been to highlight the need for health reform including continuing and expanding the use of virtual health care, Family Health Teams, community clinics, physician assistants and nurse practitioners while maintaining efforts to recruit the family physicians and specialists needed.
Similarly, opportunities for energy innovation abound. Small modular reactors, renewables and biofuels have potential for growth and development. Forestry and oil and gas have been central to NB’s economy beyond memory and continue to be anchor industries in the province. But here too, processes and products are being continuously improved with new innovations and research.
The first order of business, however, must be supporting the businesses that are here now, that have been hanging on by an increasingly fraying thread for the past year. Many of them need support right now and for many it is not appealing to take on more debt through loans. The pending grant program that will provide up to $5,000 to businesses will help some, but for most it it will barely scratch the surface of their issues.
While we expect the province coffers to look a lot more grim than they did a year ago, we must not go into an austerity shell and cut our way out of the economic fallout of the pandemic and at this point there’s no indication the government plans to go that route. There should be a legitimate plan to get back to fiscal balance but trying to get there too quickly will hamper economic growth and be counterproductive. The fact is, the government will have to support business, make investments and focus on priorities – as James Frick said “Don’t tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I’ll tell you what they are.”
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’