By JOHN CHILIBECK Legislature Bureau
Cutting corporate taxes to zero and eliminating all business subsidies are just some of the extreme ideas being floated to address New Brunswick’s bleak job situation.
Statistics Canada’s latest labour market survey, released Friday, showed the province lost 5,700 jobs in February, most of them full-time.
The number of people working had also dropped to its lowest level in a decade: the 346,000 New Brunswickers with a job were 6,000 fewer than just a year ago.
To top off the dismal news, the unemployment rate crept up to 9.9 per cent, a rise from 9.3 per cent in January.
Across Canada, it was 7.3 per cent.
“Fixing the economy is the central question today,” says Marco Navarro-Génie, president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. “Obviously there are more important things than money. But in order to take care of more important things that we love or are fond of – family, education, health – it’s hard to imagine how that can be done without an economy. The case in point is family. How do we stop our children and grandchildren from fleeing the place seeking opportunity?”
The head of the nonprofit research institute suggested a number of ways to help spur job creation.
On top of the list was getting rid of all business subsidies offered by the provincial and federal governments and putting that money into a program that spreads benefits equally, what he believes would eliminate favouritism.
Such a move would mean disbanding the new provincial Crown corporation Opportunities New Brunswick and the old federal stalwart, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.
“The money is often handed out on an ad hoc basis, on who we know or don’t know. It’s not being run by economic decisions purely. You’d be better off aggregating all the money you’re handing out – which is lots – and figuring out a way to distribute it in an even way by granting a tax cut.”
Navarro-Génie said tax cuts in and of themselves are not going to solve all New Brunswick’s economic woes. There are states in New England and countries in Europe that have stronger economies than New Brunswick’s, even though they have high taxes.
More importantly, he said, foreign investors are looking to put industry in places that have predictable, stable policies.
“If one day you allow drilling for gas and the next day it’s not, and then it’s yes again, what message does that send to investors? You look at that and say, ‘high risk’.”
He also suggested universities and colleges should be supported in such a way that they become a draw for the best students around the world.
And he said, above all else, it isn’t good enough to be just above the worst at anything. As an example, he cited Premier Brian Gallant’s comments that by adjusting the highest rate for personal income taxes, New Brunswick would be below Quebec’s for highest in the country, a tweak meant to attract and retain high-income earners to the region.
“Imagine if we had an NHL team and our goal wasn’t to win the Stanley Cup, but to not to be at the very bottom of the league. Nobody would want to see that.”
A Université de Moncton professor who specializes in economic development stressed the need to support smaller and medium-sized businesses.
“The big projects are sexy and if they work, fantastic,” Pierre-Marcel Desjardins said. “But economic development isn’t always a grand slam, it’s a marathon. You’ve got to look at three, four, eight jobs being created here or there and it creates a more solid economy. If you only have a few very large employers, you’re more vulnerable to a slow down in a key sector.”
To spur growth in higher-tech industry, he said the province could match a company’s research and development investments, dollar for dollar.
A cap would have to be placed on the spending for each company and the entire program, as there would be limits to how much taxpayers could shell out.
“Our firms need to be more involved in knowledge-intensive, innovative ventures,” he said, something that would create higher-paid jobs and make New Brunswick more globally competitive.
The cap would also favour small and medium-sized enterprises, which he believes should form the backbone of the economy.
“Often the larger companies have more access and more funds to do research and development,” he said. “When you have half a dozen employees, it’s tougher to find funds to do R&D.”
Another of his pumps for small and medium-sized businesses: they should be offered a tax credit for up to $10,000 for each job they create that’s for an export-oriented business that wouldn’t compete with other New Brunswick companies.
Lastly, he said the provincial government should mandate a buy local campaign for all public institutions that serve food – schools, hospitals, nursing homes and the like.
“Much of our food comes from outside the region, so the target could be 30 to 35 per cent of local food being used in those cafeterias. It would have an impact on a lot of our small, local growers.”
Economist David Murrell had his own Top Three. For starters, the University of New Brunswick professor would reduce the corporate tax rate for the mining sector from 14 per cent to zero and lower the royalties upon extraction of resources, policies he believes would be a boon to the province’s rural economy.
He also favours a working group of provincial and federal officials to push for the Energy East pipeline project that would see a million barrels of oil delivered to Quebec and Saint John refineries every day.
Quebec politicians have been reluctant to support TransCanada’s $15-billion project based on environmental concerns, but Murrell says they could be convinced with the right incentive, such as supporting one of Montreal’s companies that’s struggled to compete with Airbus and Boeing, both heavily subsidized in their own countries.
“Negotiate a plan that would include some petroleum refining to be done in Quebec, and a large federal loan to save Bombardier, Inc., tied to their endorsing the Energy East pipeline,” Murrell wrote by email. “We need to give Quebec tangible benefits in order to bring this province on board.”
The federal and provincial governments have already promised new infrastructure projects to spur job creation, something Murrell favours. But he warns the money should be directed solely to projects that would support industry and create jobs over the long term and not just while construction lasts.
Projects that support tourism, forestry and fishing would take precedence over road construction, normally at the top of a politician’s list.
“We should lobby for new or expanded federal parks, such as federalizing the Hopewell Rocks park, and the building Fort Nashwaak and Partridge Island parks,” Murrell said. “The latter parks could be federally operated, to save provincial operating costs. We could also build a federal park in Moncton, to ensure that city participates in the expanded parks system. My point here is that the infrastructure money should be used to expand our industries.”