2019-12-20 - Turning the Page on 2019

 Earlier this week, the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce met with Finance Minister Ernie Steeves to discuss our pre-budget submission to his department. Preparing our document gave us a chance to reflect on the past year, the current state of New Brunswick’s business environment and look ahead to 2020. Premier Higgs has laid out six priority areas for the province, as a chamber of commerce we focused this commentary, and our brief in general on the pillar that most affects our members: Energizing the Private Sector. I encourage everyone to read our full submission on our website which touches on all six priorities. 

We congratulate the government on their fiscal stewardship over the past year. A balanced budget and paying down on the debt were welcomed. Recent moves to increase transparency with reporting quarterly actual results along with annual projections, the development and launch of an economic indicator dashboard, and releasing the cost to government for all tax revenue concessions are commendable. Additionally, ONB has recently engaged the business community in a collaborative effort to contribute to a plan to shape their future direction. We have consistently called for a long-term economic development model that transcends politics and changes in government – this plan could be the vehicle that institutes global best practices and makes sense across the province. These moves increase confidence in doing business in New Brunswick. Government can’t run exactly like a business, there are different priorities, responsibilities and pressures – but there are similarities and related opportunities for the public sector to view decisions through a business lens, and these are steps in that direction. 

The private sector pays close attention to its expenses, but it also looks for opportunities to invest and grow. For government, holding the line on the deficit is important to keep costs to businesses and individuals from further escalating, while allowing government to invest limited public dollars in areas that provide ROI. Just as a business cannot cut its way to success, government cannot only be looking at one side of the ledger. The news this week that New Brunswick will now have the highest per capita transfer payments in the country underscores the need to not only be responsible fiscal stewards, but strategic financial investors as well. In order to provide the services that New Brunswickers need and deserve – we must all be focused on economic growth and business success. It is a prerequisite to achieving the broader goal of vibrant and sustainable communities. 

We encourage increased government focus on leveraging our position as a hub for technology, cyber security, innovation and startups. The success that New Brunswick and specifically Fredericton have had in these areas in the past decade presents an obvious opportunity for future growth. Moving forward, the chamber is hoping to see a government statement regarding an innovation strategy that leverages our world-class post-secondary institutions and ensures Fredericton’s status as a global cyber security leader to maintain the positive momentum that has been created in this community and throughout New Brunswick. Fredericton, more than any other community in this part of Canada, is leading in the development of a knowledge-based economy. As noted in the recent UNB Innovation map, our strong PSE infrastructure is the basis of a sustainable competitive advantage, so public policy and targeted investment can make a real difference in improving GDP and population growth figures. 

The Cyber Centre currently in development by Knowledge Park is by far the top infrastructure priority of Fredericton’s business community and sets up New Brunswick to be a key player in one of the faster growing industries on the globe. In addition to the strategic and economic impact this project will have, the Government of New Brunswick is anticipated to realize $18M in revenue by virtue of interest payments on the $30M loan provided to Knowledge Park by the provincial government to bring this project to life- a very significant ROI on taxpayer dollars. In effect, the province will gain revenue and critical infrastructure to further the significant economic growth through cyber security by private industry investment from Knowledge Park. Growing high-potential sectors such as cyber security, tourism and natural resource development or increasing exporting capacity for small business will bring in ‘new’ money to the province and grow our wealth – but it might take strategic support from government to make it happen. 

It is well understood that given New Brunswick’s population and demographic challenges, the lack of labour in the short-term is a challenge that is growing escalating daily. The government, along with the business community must ensure we are capitalizing on all areas of available talent such as newcomers, post-secondary grads, international students and under-represented labour pools such as indigenous persons and persons with physical and mental disabilities. 

Our chamber was pleased to hear a key sentence in the 2019 Speech from the Throne delivered last month: ‘The role of government is to help create an environment where companies can thrive.’ We couldn’t agree more. Government cannot create jobs – businesses create jobs – but government can continue to engage with the private sector, remove barriers and help create conditions for growth. 

In terms of removing barriers, red tape and over-regulation are hindering New Brunswick businesses’ ability to compete. We were pleased to see the introduction of a government-wide initiative to reduce the regulatory burden on New Brunswick businesses by $14 million by March 2021. Also, ONB has recently adopted a client-service model called Business Navigators aimed at addressing red tape and helping to guide businesses to the correct resources they need within government much like a concierge service. Red tape can be a frustrating issue to tackle but setting clear annual targets and assigning accountability will help keep up the effort within government. 

Budgeting for any business, organization or government is an act in balancing, not only costs and expenses but various other interests. We believe the government must articulate its vision for growth and show results in order to maintain the support from the public for their fiscal decisions. Premier Higgs stated after the throne speech that “When we all work together to find solutions to the challenges we face, we all share in the success we achieve…” The business community is keen to take up this call and share our knowledge and economic expertise and help shape that vision for the benefit of all New Brunswickers. 

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’