When Premier Shawn Graham sits down with his fellow premiers and Prime Minister Harper at 24 Sussex Drive next Friday, he’ll be attempting to set the table for a long-term fix to the problems facing the province’s forestry industries.
And while any First Ministers’ meeting bears the potential of degenerating into a tug of war between premiers’ grievances and Ottawa’s professed limitations, Graham’s director of communications, Nicole Picot, said yesterday that Graham will be making an effort to set his sights beyond a quick fix solution.
Picot says the meeting will be an opportunity for Graham to advance New Brunswick’s stake in key economic files that are critical to helping the province withstand the current crisis in the forestry sector, while building a stronger foundation for his government’s self-sufficiency agenda.
“These are important parts of self sufficiency and I certainly believe the premier would like to discuss those issues in those terms,” said Picot.
While the strong Loonie and the ever-increasing costs of oil and energy, and labour shortages are expected to dominate discussions, the collapse of the forestry industry in the northern regions of the province is an issue that could bring Harper and Graham closer together as they work out the details of a broader partnership.
“Here in New Brunswick we have seen some significant impacts of the economic situation on the forestry sector, and I think the prime minister has also recognized that as being important, particularly in the northern regions of this province,” said Picot.
“And obviously to have a self-sufficient province we have to address those issues and ways to help that industry.”
Although urgent help is needed in communities that have been devastated by mill closures, Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, says it is imperative that Graham propose sensible and practical options.
“The key thing is for Atlantic Premiers to not just to go there and beat the tin cup and say our guys are suffering you need to give us some help,” he said.
Cirtwill believes Graham can deliver a “far more powerful message at that table” if he draws on his government’s self-sufficiency agenda as he discusses the fine details of the economic forecast facing premiers across the country.
“I think it is totally appropriate for him to use that lens to communicate,” said Cirtwill.
“I think it gives a focus, and a meaning to the conversation that a generic worrying about the impact of the Canadian dollar on manufacturing doesn’t.”
In his first such meeting, Graham will join some other fresh faces around the table, such as Prince Edward Island’s Robert Ghiz, Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall, and Alberta’s Ed Stelmach.
Cirtwill says the establishment of a new group, which Graham has led as chairman of the Council of the Federation in Moncton last August, gives New Brunswick’s premier a chance to emerge as a leader.
“You have a reasonably young group not very many of them have been premier for longer than three or four years,” he said.
Cirtwill says the challenge will be to arrive at a substantive agreement rather than just setting up more meetings.
Dave Plante of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Association is hoping that the discussions lead to tax reforms that can help industries hardest hit by the strong Canadian dollar.
“What we need to see is a strong business climate, and a sense for investors that New Brunswick is a good place to do business so that when a project is started it can be developed in a timely fashion,” he said.
“That hasn’t changed, and whether the dollar is high or not that is essential.”
After the Graham government raised taxes across the board in New Brunswick last year, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty spent time near the end of the year encouraging provinces to lower their corporate tax rates.
Plante doesn’t expect to see any major announcements come out of the meeting, and says the end result will be seen in the next federal budget.
Quebec Premier Jean Charest and Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty have been most vocal in asking for a meeting to discuss embattled industries.
And while Plante says the size of New Brunswick’s economy amplify the effects of economic challenges that are plaguing provinces from Coast to Coast, the diversity of the province’s economy means Graham won’t have to look far for premiers faced with similar economic quandaries.
“New Brunswick is really a microcosm for the rest of Canada: a broad and diverse resources sector, a strong industrial sector including manufacturing, and a host of other industries that exist across the country.”