New Brunswick

Political parties need to focus on need for immigrants, nurses, economist says

Whoever wins next month’s election needs to look behyond the COVID-19 pandemic and at what New Brunswick will look like 10 years from now, a Moncton economist says.

New Brunswick economy is recovering from 'an induced coma,' Richard Saillant says

Economist Richard Saillant says political parties need to put their focus back on issues New Brunswickers faced prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. (CBC)

Whoever wins next month's election needs to look ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic and what New Brunswick will look like ten years from now, an economist in Moncton says.

While Richard Saillant said it's important to focus on New Brunswick's COVID-19 recovery plan now, whichever party wins the September election will need to turn its attention to issues that came up before the outbreak began this spring

"We need to make sure that we don't keep our head in the sand on issues that are difficult to talk about because the future can be scary at times," Saillant, a former research director with the Donald J. Savoie Institute, a public policy organization, said Thursday in an interview with Information Morning Fredericton.

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Some of New Brunswick's more pressing problems began before the pandemic, he said. These include the challenge of boosting immigration to increase the labour force, and the province's aging population, which needs support. 

During his state of the province speech earlier this year, Premier Blaine Higgs said he wanted to attract 10,000 immigrants a year to the province by 2027.

But advocates have argued that to do that, the province needs to create more affordable housing for newcomers and people already living in the province. Otherwise, newcomers will want to move to big cities such as Toronto and Vancouver.

"How do we deal with housing knowing that the vacancy rates across the province are extremely low, and that homes are selling extremely fast?" he said.

"One of the things that happens when your population is growing relatively fast is that high housing prices can go up."

Dealing with a nursing shortage

Saillant also emphasized the impact of the nursing shortage on New Brunswick's health-care system.

"This is an issue that is not going away and probably of central importance because if we don't have a good health-care system in this province, the economic recovery is going to be impaired."

Last year, New Brunswick hospitals were running 400 nurses short, and 40 per cent of those who are working are eligible to retire in the next five years.

The shortage has already forced some hospital services to shut down in 2019, and health authorities estimate they will need to hire as many as 520 new nurses each year just to maintain services.

"We are increasingly becoming dependent on the federal government for our survival and it's going to be growing over time," Saillant said. 

"So it's the idea of the partnership with the federal government, for ensuring that it is recognized that older societies should be getting more help so they can continue to provide services that make us the keeper of the preserves."

A faster recovery

Although certain industries are still recovering from the setback of COVID-19, including restaurants, airlines and the hotel industry, Saillant said New Brunswick wasn't as affected by the COVID-19 outbreak compared with other provinces.

For instance, the COVID crisis caused a dramatic drop in oil prices, so he said it wasn't surprising when provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan were hit financially. Meanwhile, fewer people across New Brunswick lost their jobs because nearly one-third of New Brunswickers work in the public sector, which kept people employed.

"Our economic weakness has buffered us a bit," he said.

New Brunswick's aging population also helped, because older people living on pensions weren't impacted by the crisis.

"We were to be sheltered a bit more in any event and we are forecast to recover somewhat faster," he said. 

"We should be recovering near to levels that we were prior to the crisis by the end of next year," he said. 

Living with the consequences 

In June, Finance Minister Ernie Steeves confirmed that this year's budget deficit was projected to be $44 million higher than the estimate a month earlier.

In May, Steeves forecast a deficit of $299.2 million because of higher spending and tumbling revenue attributed to the pandemic.

"[It's] an economy that is recovering from an induced coma, as we all know, and we should not underestimate the depth of the magnitude of the setback that we went through," Saillant said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Fraser

Reporter/Editor

Elizabeth Fraser is a reporter/editor with CBC New Brunswick based in Fredericton. She's originally from Manitoba. Story tip? elizabeth.fraser@cbc.ca

With files from Information Fredericton

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