By Cheryl Norrad
FREDERICTON - Premier David Alward delivered an optimistic, but tempered State of the Province address this evening at the Convention Center in Fredericton to a sold out crowd of 900 ticket holders. The event was sponsored by the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce in concert with the Telegraph Journal and smaller businesses.
The crowd mingled to the tune of "Fix You" by Coldplay until the lights went down at 8:30 pm for opening remarks by Andrew Steeves, President of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce and Robert Warner, head of Brunswick News and the Telegraph Journal, who introduced the Premier to the stage.
Warner, new to New Brunswick and his post at Brunswick News, echoed much of what has already been discussed regarding the province's dire financial situation since Alward came to power.
"The Alward government has the reigns of power at a terribly difficult time in this province's history," he began, blurring the lines between media and politics by going on to parrot rhetoric heard on both sides,while trumpeting the Telegraph repositioning itself behind an online paywall as, "...the first step on the long road to tomorrow."
Alward's speech was as much a report card on the work of his administration for the past 16 months as it was cheerleading to buck up the populace for the hard economic road ahead. It focused on the necessity of innovative business vision, balanced with fiscal responsibility, to pull the province out of it's economic quagmire.
"We have a lot of work to do, we can get there together...the government will assist and help, but we are not job creation experts or a bank...we will foster an environment to succeed...but the rest of the time we will get out of the way," he said.
The presentation began by pointing out the triumphs of prominent home grown business visionaries, including Wallace McCain and Ian Fowler, as take charge New Brunswickers who embodied the achievements the province's citizens are capable of.
But that confident opening was offset by painful ways the administration will have to address a ballooning debt such as highway tolls and HST increases (through a referendum or election), pension plan adjustments, consolidating local governments, changes to the Official Languages Act and integrating government departments.
"Our economy is tied to the rest of the world...the U.S. economy is shaky and that affects us. 2011 was tough for the New Brunswick economy," said Alward.
The Premier outlined ways the government has already taken steps to provide a scaffold for some businesses in the province such as a fuel tax exemption for farmers and lower energy rates so money can go back into business operations elsewhere.
"...natural gas distribution rates were changed to fix a flawed system in New Brunswick [creating benefits] to pass on to New Brunswickers, to the economy, jobs, businesses and consumers," said Alward.
Innovation weaved it's way throughout much of the presentation, used as a by-word for dynamic business solutions to the province's economic woes, while at the same time meant as a prescriptive for doing more with less.
"Innovation is the rocketfuel of our economy," he said, citing the information and communication sectors as areas the government wants to help foster growth.
Although no concrete framework was announced, Alward outlined other areas the government will help to prosper including, aerospace, bio-sciences, industrial fabrication and value-added food.
"We are investing 250 million over four years across the province," he said, while teasing the crowd with hints of a coming announcement by Invest NB on new jobs to the province through a pharmaceutical and medical supply company McKesson.
The Premier said the government will continue to provide services in core responsibilities such as health care by looking at best practices to prioritize where to put money.
"Services and programs are being reviewed for appropriate affordability and sustaining services for New Brunswickers," he stated.
Other plans were also mentioned for paring down the debt by decentralizing economic development to regions around the province, letting local communities decide how best to help local businesses.
"Aspects of change are coming to small communities...there will be negative results if we don't go forward," he said.
With shale gas exploration a major issue dominating the headlines in the past year, Alward addressed the province's natural resources, saying the potential for a shale gas industry in the province an economic driver behind the overall economy in the province to create jobs. However, he stressed, it will be regulated for safety.
"Responsible development of natural resources in New Brunswick will not sacrifice clean water, clean air or clean soil...[there are] strong regulations to protect the environment...a strong regulatory regime for oil and gas exploration. There will be no tradeoff in the protection and safety [of the environment] for economic gain." he said.
Alward went on to point out that in his State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama stated the shale gas industry is a massive job creator for the country.
After taking some scripted questions from a few business owners via video, Alward finished up his address saying the last major review of government services was done over 40 years ago and since the debt has grown to 9.4 billion, a strategy to do a new overhaul is required, for which a panel has been struck and will be announced next week.
The Premier left the stage to the dynamic sounds of "Clocks", another Coldplay tune, giving a hopeful impression of his administration's future management of New Brunswick.