With the province’s return to Level 1 of the COVID-19 winter plan and Premier Higgs suggesting the government is looking at winding up the emergency order next month, more of the business community’s attention is returning to issues that existed before the pandemic – although this has been an exacerbating factor in many cases. At our organization, we set an annual list of priorities that reflects the biggest challenges of our members and helps to guide our advocacy work.
For 2022, our top five business priorities are:
- Competitive Business Environment
- Workforce Development
- Immigration and Population Growth
- Innovation, Digitization and the Knowledge Economy
- Innovative Solutions to Accessing Primary Health Care
Competitive Business Environment
Traditionally, cost competitiveness has been an advantage that we have had in New Brunswick, but this has eroded over the past five years (pre-pandemic). NB businesses have seen increases in minimum wage, property tax, corporate tax, HST, EI rates, carbon tax and CPP amongst others. Despite recent surpluses, including the unexpected $480M announced this week, New Brunswick is still $13 billion in debt – which will be the primary driver of future increased costs through taxes.
But the business environment is about more than just costs – it also includes the regulatory environment (red tape, roadblocks to development, overlapping jurisdictions, etc.), a strong workforce, availability of housing and health care and for the previous two years, the COVID-19 environment – the other four priorities on our list contribute in some way to building this environment for success. The only way to sustainably improve the economy is through consistent business growth and we will continue to work with all three levels of government to advocate for the best possible conditions for that growth.
Immigration, Population Growth / Workforce Development
For decades, New Brunswick has been staring down a demographic shift that has seen significant outmigration to other provinces. This trend, combined with a low birth rate has made us one of the oldest and slower growing provinces over that time. The new census data released this month shows an uptick in the right direction and it is a foundational requirement for recovery that we continue this momentum. It’s this growth that funds the programs, services and infrastructure that New Brunswickers deserve. Immigration is nearly universally recognized as a key to future growth and we need all levels of government to make it a priority to now get back on track.
New Brunswick’s post-secondary students provide opportunities to address both population growth and workforce development – but we all have a role to play in retention. At the local level, individuals, businesses, economic development organizations, post-secondary institutions and students themselves must focus on making those critical connections to businesses, opportunities and the community itself while students are in school – this will give them tangible reasons to stay.
Innovation, Digitization and the Knowledge Economy
In 2022 and moving forward, a healthy knowledge sector is critical to any economy and represents opportunities to grow. The world continues to digitize and jurisdictions that are best able to take advantage of a dynamic knowledge economy stand to be winners. New Brunswick had a solid base from the days of NB Tel to creating a fertile startup environment to being global leaders in cybersecurity. Our post-secondary institutions are some of our most valuable economic development assets – they drive research and innovation, draw international students to the province, propel the technology sector and the startup community – in addition to providing highly-skilled training for our future employees.
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.
Innovative Solutions to Accessing Primary Health Care
Easy and efficient access to primary health care continues to be an issue for business – both in relation to attracting employees in the first place as well as maintaining healthy workforce. Access to Primary Health Care has been an issue in the province for decades and perhaps one of the positive legacies of the past year has been to highlight the need for health reform including continuing and expanding the use of virtual health care and family health teams. Recent announcements on tactics to address these issues are positive but we still have more 40000 New Brunswickers registered on the patient connect list which is undoubtedly not reflective of all those without primary care in our province.
For the past two years, government has been reacting to changing circumstances and employing tactics on a day-to-day basis in order to get through the pandemic. Now is the time to take a step back, look at the bigger picture and formulate long-term integrated strategies and associated plans to execute. When it comes to the business environment, the issues above (and others) are interrelated and require thoughtful policy making on behalf of government – hopefully in the weeks and months ahead, government has the time and energy to take a broad and deep look at where we are as a province and more importantly, where we want to be.
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’.