Election 2010: Tory leader also promises financial help for teachers, families on social assistance

FREDERICTON – Tory Leader David Alward is pledging an overhaul of Business New Brunswick and financial help to cover classroom costs for teachers and families struggling on social assistance in two major campaign promises delivered in Fredericton over the weekend.

The Progressive Conservatives promised on Saturday to create a new Crown agency called InvestNB in an effort to attract businesses and jobs to the province. It would be led by a private-sector board of business leaders,

Alward said that a private-sector-led economic development agency works better than the traditional model of a government department led by bureaucrats.

The agency would be an arms-length board that makes non-partisan decisions on investments much more quickly than the provincial government, according to Alward.

The model is similar to Nova Scotia Business Inc., an agency that has lured high-profile companies such as Research in Motion, the maker of the BlackBerry, Citco Fund Services, the number one hedge fund administrator, and Lockheed Martin, the biggest defence company in the world, to the Bluenose province.

Alward said the Progressive Conservatives would take the pillars of the Nova Scotia plan and turn them into a “made in New Brunswick” solution with an increased commitment to work with existing local job creators, such as community economic development agencies and community business development corporations.

“New Brunswick was outperforming Nova Scotia in job creation previously, but in the last four years Nova Scotia has by far outperformed New Brunswick,” Alward said.

“There is still a role for Business New Brunswick, but that role needs to change and there needs to be a new mandate because we need to ensure there is accountability, that there is transparency in the system and to really depoliticize much of the process.

“We know that it is not necessary for every decision to be made in Fredericton,” Alward said.

Some of New Brunswick’s top business and academic leaders have said Business New Brunswick should be set up like a business development bank – run by a board of directors from the private sector, rather than a traditional government department run by bureaucrats.

There is no question that just setting up the structure so that it is arms-length from government is head and shoulders an improvement, said Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, when reached on the weekend.

“Politicians are not business people, they are not investors, they don’t understand balance sheets, they don’t understand risk calculations and they are very, very bad at picking winners and losers.

“The simple fact is that the more of this money that is directly or almost directly under the control of politicians, the easier it is for organized interests, be that of any stripe, to get access to it,” he said.

Cirtwill said the Nova Scotia Business Inc. model that the Tories are in large part adopting has been successful, although the province still provides a political fund for businesses that are rejected.

“The Tory suggestion is going to make things better in New Brunswick, but it is not going to eliminate the political game,” Cirtwill said.

The Progressive Conservatives have accused the governing Liberals of using Business New Brunswick as a personal political piggy-bank, spending the taxpayers money on failing businesses like Atcon, and to prop up luxury golf courses and financial institution bailouts.

The provincial New Democratic Party announced last week that it will shut down Business New Brunswick if its candidates are elected to the legislature this fall.

The party maintains that private companies that have been given millions of dollars of public are too often going bankrupt or refuse to repay loans.

Business New Brunswick Minister and Liberal candidate Victor Boudreau chastised the Progressive Conservatives for contradicting themselves.

“You’ve got Mr. Alward one day saying we need to reduce the size of government, we need to cut government services, then he talks about putting in place more bureaucracy, a new Crown corporation,” he said.

“We simply don’t think that’s needed.

“It may work in Nova Scotia but in New Brunswick we need to have a New Brunswick approach to this, and we feel quite confident,” Boudreau said.

Boudreau said Business New Brunswick is working very well, pointing to recent announcements involving Research in Motion and CGI.

Business New Brunswick reports that it gave $194 million in financial assistance to companies in 2008-09.

It maintains that the money helped create 1,834 new jobs, maintain 4,774 jobs and leverage an additional $142 million.

The Progressive Conservatives then pledged on Sunday to create a new fund that would put $250 directly in the hands of every classroom teacher to buy educational supplies for their classrooms each year.

In addition, Alward pledged to raise the amount of annual back to school supplies funding to families on social assistance to $100 per student, up from a current $50.

“Our most vulnerable families in New Brunswick, the ones living on social assistance, currently receive $50 a year to provide the necessary supplies to their children going back to school,” Alward said.

“That figure hasn’t changed for years and we know how costs continue to go up.”

The New Democrats quickly labeled the plan as fiscally irresponsible and reckless in the face of the province’s burgeoning deficit and debt.

“We are in favour of supporting health and education but we are not in favour of spending money that we don’t have,” said Tony Myatt, NDP candidate for Fredericton-Silverwood and an economist at the University of New Brunswick.

Alward estimated the overall cost of the announcement to be roughly $1.5 million, figuring in that it will cost $1.2 million to roll out the teacher supplement and between $200,000 and $400,000 to increase the supplies fund for children whose families are on social assistance.

Alward said the money will come from cost savings that the Progressive Conservatives believe can be found within government.

A Tory debt reduction plan released last week includes the formation of a temporary office to find savings within the public service.

“When I talked the other day about finding waste in the system and reallocating it to programs that will make a difference, this is an example,” he said. “But if we have to add some additional money into it, we will add additional money because we believe this makes good sense.

“By increasing the amount for annual back to school supplies we will alleviate just some of the burden that people face when sending their kids to school.”