By Jesse Robichaud
The final report of the province’s self-sufficiency taskforce was trumpeted yesterday as the Road to Self-Sufficiency, but critics say that instead of offering a map to steer New Brunswick toward a more robust economic future, the taskforce has laid out the blueprint for building bigger government in a less competitive province.
Offering “Back to the Future” as a more fitting title for the document, Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies, says one’s reaction to the recommendations can be boiled down to one question: “how do you like living in the 1980s?”
“The task force is talking about the future of the province being built on policies from New Brunswick’s past, and not only New Brunswick’s past but everybody’s past,” Cirtwill said, alluding to recommendations that revolve around government taking on a larger role in the province’s economy.
Cirtwill says he is left perplexed by a report that recommends that government target subsidies to select businesses while driving up the cost of running government through higher wages for public servants, hiking the minimum wage, and spreading government departments across the province as a supposed economic stimulant.
“As if somehow the road to self-sufficiency is paved with someone else’s dollars and government jobs,” he said.
He adds that the recommendations actually work against the rationale surrounding the report: sustaining government services by stimulating economic and population growth.
“What you’re going to end up with is driving companies to stay smaller, or go out of business completely.”
Instead of using public funds to pick winners and losers among New Brunswick businesses, John Williamson of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said the taskforce should have worked on ways of creating conditions that are pro-business, with lower taxes and strategic investment in infrastructure.
“This report doesn’t talk very much about lowering taxes, reforming the tax code, although given the recent political budget, if it had taken that route it would have been politically embarrassing for the government,” he said.
“Hence we have a bunch of recommendations that are a guide to bigger government in a less competitive province.”
Andreea Bourgeois, of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says she was pleased to see the final report address positive incentives for small and medium business after the first two reports snubbed both groups.
“There is a lot of focus on reducing red tape and regulation,” she said, noting that small- and medium-sized businesses in New Brunswick pay $650 million a year to comply with regulation.
Bourgeois says the taskforce’s focus on bolstering the province’s labour market and stemming the demographic tailspin is equally laudable.
However, she doesn’t see how the higher taxes required for bigger government, targeted investment incentives, or a recommendation to hike the minimum wage fit into a pro-business climate.
“I don’t think their focus is to attract small businesses here or to encourage entrepreneurship,” she said of the governing Liberals and the taskforce.
Bourgeois’ most immediate concerns, however, revolve around the call of taskforce chairmen Francis McGuire and Gilles Lepage to address 80 of the 91 recommendations by May 2008.
“You wonder how is the province going to implement the measures given that we have very little resources right now,” she said, saying that 80 priorities isn’t realistic.
David Plante, of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters said the taskforce’s focus on improving the regulatory regime is positive in the face of “a cumbersome and overly bureaucratic regulatory process.”
He says there are some good recommendations in the report, particularly regarding the forestry sector, but weighs that analysis by noting that it doesn’t deal with the issue that is a primary concern for manufacturers: high energy prices.