Earlier this week, Finance Minister Ernie Steeves announced a projected surplus for the fiscal year of $862.6 million – a staggering number, especially for a province that posted 11 consecutive deficits in recent years. Hopefully this is just the beginning of sustainable growth, debt reduction, a strong economy and a bright future for the province. Servicing the Province’s net debt costs hundreds of millions every year and reducing this burden provides more fiscal stability and flexibility. However, to achieve sustainability, we must address several foundational issues that will inhibit and ultimately stop our prosperity.
As Minister Steeves prepares the government’s 2023-2024 operating budget to be announced next month, we want to see investments where they are needed – health, housing and human resources.
First – a clear-eyed approach to our current situation. There’s no question that New Brunswick is in a better fiscal position now than any time since before the 2008 crash, but there are strong headwinds. We can’t expect to see the same level of federal funding moving forward and the PBO identified New Brunswick as one of the “unsustainable” provinces in its 2022 report despite the recent budgetary success. That suggests that there has to be a balance between continuing good fiscal stewardship and using the newfound flexibility to make the right investments and at the right time – but that’s easier said than done.
Big issues like healthcare, housing and workforce (not to mention education, inflation, immigration and more) are incredibly complex and require an “all-hands-on deck” approach from all levels of government, private sector, non-profits, charities and engaged citizens. There are too many interrelated, cross-jurisdictional issues for silos – not all of our issues are monetary – housing is a good example. The provincial government and the New Brunswick Real Estate Association recently hosted their first housing workshop with the view to producing a housing strategy by June. The sheer diversity of stakeholders in that meeting give an indication of how many parts of society are affected by the housing shortage, but also the number of government departments at all levels that were identified by participants with a role to play – departments that will have to work together to solve this problem.
The current labour shortage that is being faced by all types and sizes of businesses is the top issue holding back growth in New Brunswick (and elsewhere, meaning competition will only intensify). Workforce had become perhaps the key issue prior to the pandemic, but since 2020 it has been severely exacerbated for many reasons. There has been more movement than usual amongst sectors during the pandemic, which has created gaps, but the larger issue seems to be individuals disappearing from the workforce – despite strong population growth.
In 2021, New Brunswick had the second lowest labour force participation rate in the country, with only 60.9% of its population aged 15 years and over participating in the labour force. The workforce is particularly complicated, particularly when considering the role that access to health care and availability of housing play. Health and housing are often the first questions that potential recruits to New Brunswick ask – we need good answers and right now we don’t have them.
It’s no secret that with strained resources and too many available positions, New Brunswick is not meeting our health care goals currently. Improving the health system must be a top priority for our government in 2023 and beyond.
Access to Primary Health Care has been an issue in the province for decades and perhaps one of the positive legacies of our reaction to the pandemic has been to highlight the need to continue and expand the use of virtual health care. The recently released Stabilizing Health Care: An Urgent Call to Action is a step in the right direction and provides foundational steps to increase access to primary care. The provincial government deserves kudos for introducing the Fair Registration Practices in Regulated Professions Act. Just about every sector is looking at immigration as a means to fill human resource gaps and credential recognition in healthcare has been a particularly difficult issue for decades. We are hopeful that this legislation will smooth the process for recruiting needed health professionals, in turn allowing businesses to recruit the talent that they need to grow and fuel the province’s economy.
From an economic perspective, the government’s role is to create the conditions for private-sector growth, and we encourage the government to view decisions through a business lens (amongst others). Ultimately, it is the private sector that generates the revenue that government needs to fulfil its duties and therefore a healthy economy is a pre-condition for government to being able to do anything else. So while there are many positives and opportunities in New Brunswick, we still have to take steps to fully realize that potential and recognize the barriers that could prevent us from achieving our collective goals.
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’.