Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Having been through Albuquerque and Seattle now, I can say that the Americans have embraced microcredit in a more full way than we have. And the impact has been huge upon some personal stories. 

It has been said that if you owe the bank a thousand dollars, you have a problem. And if you owe the bank fifty million dollars, then the bank has a problem. It is true that for many working families, access to credit became a significant problem after the economic slowdown. For many people, that means that the small business that gave them an alternative to a dead-end job or a vulnerable industry was out of reach. 

In town after town, we've seen community groups who have stepped up to fill this void. They don't just rally the community to loan money -- microcredit agencies are building grassroots organizations that can offer mentorship and social capital to potential entrepreneurs. Often the loan is accompanied by initial workshops, reviews of business plans and a relationship that can last several months. Frequently the loan is delivered in instruments designed to accelerate one's credit score so that the business can grow. 

The results are impressive. In bad economic climates, there is still a 50% success rate for many lenders! and over half of the successful businesses have employees two years out. The community-based nature of the sector allows for organizations tailored to unique needs of some underrepresented groups -- we met organization leaders with expertise in serving immigrant families in Seattle, working out of what was once known as "the Coloured Y" in Charleston building businesses for African-American women, and a group in Albuquerque with a real success story among Hispanics. 

What they have in common is a determination to help clients succeed in a way that goes beyond traditional lending instruments. Cynics could reasonably note that the growth of microcredit and small entrepreneurial venture is a growth market because more secure traditional employment in industrial sectors is declining. They would be right, but it is still inspiring to see community leaders step up when the macroeconomic problem doesn't have easy solutions.

There would have to be an attitude shift in government to make it work here -- trusting local NGOs, accepting some risk, and a move away from bailing out failing businesses. One policy shift would seem eminently sensible. Most US states now allow unemployment or social assistance benefits to continue if the recipient is starting a businesses through an approved microlender. Even this change might move us even further in the right direction of making social assistance a hand up, instead of a trap with few ways out. 

In Fredericton South, Let's Get Creative Together

I'm running for the NDP nomination in the riding of Fredericton South.  And I'd like to answer the questions I've been asked the most often as I've met with people one on one to let them know I'm thinking of running, and to ask for their support.

Why would you come back? Why now? And why the NDP?

I don't have a glib, sound bite-like answer to those questions. But I have some answers, and I'm going to share them with you.

Why the NDP? That's the most common question, and the easiest. It starts with this -- I believe that Dominic Cardy is the leader most qualified to be Premier of New Brunswick.

It has become trendy since Frank McKenna left for parties to choose leaders who don't have a firm grasp of policy or a clear sense of issues. The common reassurances are that policy "doesn't matter to voters", that the new leader "can learn all that", or "they can hire people to do that". None of those things are true, and you may have noticed that we've been throwing premiers out pretty quickly since Frank was here. Leaders like David Alward aren't breaking promises and changing positions because they're bad people. They break promises because they had no idea what the jobs entailed before they won.

I've been around enough to know that at some points the doors close and the judgement of the guy at the top matters. And I can imagine Dominic behind the desk. He cares enough to talk to people like grownups, speak in specifics, and isn't scripted the way other Opposition leaders have been.  That's part of the reason he's been attracting strong people like Brian Duplessis to run, community leaders who have a track record of success, experience and principle.

No leader has all the answers, but Dominic is raising the right questions. He's challenging our old political culture with real reforms that are getting turned into law, rightly noting that provinces with good government attract more investment. He's asking why we spend more time bailing out failing companies than nurturing entrepreneurs. He's talking about municipal reform not from the perspective of merging rural communities, but giving cities like Fredericton the tools they need to develop affordable housing, attract business, and build infrastructure.

He's shown he can take clear stands, like his ability to say clearly from day one that changing pension plans for retirees without negotiation is wrong, and he considers a deal to be a deal.  More cynical opposition leaders were going three months dodging the question by calling for a legal opinion which they never got, taking polls to see if they should claw back more retirement benefits, and then failing to learn the Legislature rules in order to oppose the government's bill.  The reason Dominic was ready sooner, I suspect, is he was willing to start with doing what he thought was right instead of what would be good politics. And maybe, if we reward Dominic for talking about issues and specifics, politicians will start to see that good policy makes good politics. 

So that's why I've decided that the NDP is the home for me, and why I believe this leader deserves full support from me. 

Which leaves the question of why go through the trials of running, and why now?  It's no secret that I've enjoyed my practice and found other fun ways to contribute to my community, like starting up our community theatre company, coaching basketball, and doing work with some great community groups and boards. Why not enjoy the perks of having had the job without the long hours and (sometimes deserved) criticism. 

There are some things I'd like to work on. I love Fredericton, I chose this town as the place to raise a family.  I believe in it, and we can make it even better together.

Fredericton has unique economic needs, with more emerging industries, startups, and research-based companies than elsewhere. Yet these sometimes get ignored provincially -- we are behind other jurisdictions in terms of support for early investors, commercializations of R&D and support for founders. I'd like to set up a team of Fredericton Founders, entrepreneurs who can help get the best legislation and ideas for startups and small business to me so I can work across party lines to make it policy. 

I'd like to continue the work we started, a whole bunch of us, on fighting poverty. I'm proud of the reforms to social assistance, minimum wage and First Nations education that happened in my time in cabinet. We could do so much more. We have a mayor who's desperate to work on homelessness but no real provincial partners. We have councillours ready with solutions on public transit to connect jobs to affordable housing, but no champions to move it forward. So many jurisdictions are creating community-based microcredit to help families escape poverty, and we have a team at Social innovation who can create and innovate. I'd like to give families in poverty a voice in the Legislature.

We could actually do post-secondary education right as well.  The last set of reforms put the focus on administrative issues like shared services. That was fine, but we need to talk about issues like faculty recruitment, affordable tuition and manageable student debt, and supporting research.  We should be pushing Ottawa for the ability to have our own immigration policy to keep skilled graduates here so they can create and attract jobs. For Fredericton, this isn't just a social issue, it's an economic one, and the campus needs a representative who knows the campus. 

So, yes, there are issues. But there's something bigger creating, as others have said, a fierce urgency to now. 

I don't want my generation to be the first one to fail to leave our kids more opportunity than we had ourselves. But I fear we are on the way there, and when I watch the Legislature today I see a politics smaller than our challenges.  The opposition reads a grim headline and blames government without offering solutions. Government reads a list of the other party's failings. They prosecute the opposing colour but never discuss ideas. I don't want an election where one party offers the status quo plus fracking and the other offers the status quo. I hope we can have a debate about how we do better together.

No one MLA changes the culture alone. (I'm pretty sure that when I was there the Legislature didn't turn into Masterpiece Theatre). But I've always believed an MLA's job doesn't just mean attending church suppers and reading party talking points. It means trying to raise the level of debate, using the seat to give forgotten people a voice, and earning your salary by trying to propose ideas. And when I see MLAs proudly saying they don't even read the bills they vote on, it doesn't seem we're getting the government we deserve. 

Right now, the two old parties are full of guys who want to be Gordon Ramsey but don't want to learn to cook --they seek the rush of the fight without the discomfort of developing good policies. They seem so sure that all they have to do is tear the other guy down and they'll win, so they don't have to be any good. Maybe, just maybe, showing that we are willing to embrace a third party will also make the Liberal and Conservative parties the forces for ideas they once were! too.

I'm under no illusions that my own record was perfect. On some things, the numbers show I had some good ideas. I made mistakes, too, sometimes getting so caught up in developing ideas that I didn't collaborate with others enough. I have, as they say, baggage good and bad. Yet those bruises all represent chances to learn, improve and get better every day.  I grew up here, and people here know me best. I wasn't perfect at 33, and I won't be at 43, but i learn a little from every experience and every person.  

I hope people know that I've never made the arrogant mistake of playing it safe, putting my political survival ahead of getting the job done. I intend to run a campaign based upon discussing ideas, debating differences but not attacking personalities, and maybe I can earn your trust door by door by door. 

I've never stopped believing that Fredericton can be the best place to live. Sometimes, when money runs out and easy solutions are unavailable, we unleash our greatest capacity to create. In the riding that contains our downtown and campus, I'm running offering a chance to show, together, that we are one creative, diverse community with one hell of a future.


Saturday, December 14, 2013


One of the most indelible images of my time in Senegal was found on Ile GorĂ©e, the UNESCO heritage site which captures the origins of the slave trade. 

In the midst of the beautiful, Oceanside island lies a rectangular cinder block building whose nondescript appearance as architectural proof of the banality of evil. For it was in this building where slave traders and their damnable local enablers held the men and women who had been kidnapped to be sold into slavery. As you walk past the shackles on the wall you will walk down a narrow corridor which opens right into the ocean. It was at this door where slave ships docked and their human cargo was loaded. The terrifying part of that passage, even to those visiting today in complete safety, would be the last thing the captives would have seen --the ocean carrying on infinitely, yielding no destination, no landmark, no certainty but a voyage into the unimaginable. 

To the credit of the people of Charleston, South Carolina, the end of that voyage can also be seen today. There are good people who preserve the darkest parts of history so that we can be reminded today of how fragile democracy and human rights can be, and so perpetrators must live with the mark of history's judgement upon them.  

Yet the most powerful part of this chapter was not the cobblestone streets or preserved slave markets which reflect the sad stories. It was the hopeful story that is told inside a plain office in a former bank on Charleston's King Street. It is a story that is still unfolding today. It is the story of the Gullah Geechee Nation, shared with us by one of its most determined authors.  

The Gullah Geechee Nation runs up and down the coast of four southern states, from South Carolina to the northern part of Florida. It links the communities where the diaspora of African-Americans taken from West Africa took root after emancipation, recognizing the unique culture and traditions that grew among these families.

Over time, this story went from a quiet existence, felt but unrecognized, to full recognition in an Act of Congress which recognized the Gullah Geechee nation and established a corporation with a board dedicated to curating the history and culture of its people.

Now, there are some economic benefits to this idea of creating a symbolic territory of shared history. The businesses up and down the corridor benefit from the context, as businesses offering traditional Gullah food and crafts can find tines who want to consciously immerse themselves in the culture. The linked signage allows for promotion of a unique drive and small communities which benefit from providing a reason for the cars to stop. (Let me tell you now that Miss Charlotte's Gullah Rice and Fried Chicken is worth a trip).

There are bureaucratic advantages as well.  The creation of a standing corporation provides a space where academics, businesses, artists and citizens can meet to share, tell and promote stories. Creating the space within the administrative world matters as well. When state highway departments began adding lanes they were able to work with the GGN to avoid ending the many traditional sweet grass basket sellers along the highway. And the GGN provides a portal for state governments to co-ordinate approaches. 

Beyond policy ramifications though, there was a simple eloquence to the determined people who had begun tracing their stories and wound up inspiring an Act of Congress. Testimony from Gullah descendants who began to understand their history beyond the tale of slavery but as the story of a culture able to survive, the words of people who understood their grandparents speech pattern as historical rather than deficient, these matter as well.

It would not be hard for a New Brunswick government to adopt enabling legislation to give groups a path to non-profit corporations who could promote areas of cultural and historical importance. Given our academic and cultural sectors, there is potential here (this could have been a direction for the Capital Commission has government cuts not ended the experiment). It would not be much harder to place the issue on the agenda of Atlantic premiers' meetings to co-ordinate approaches. Is there potential here for New Brunswick?  I'd love to hear others' thoughts.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


Folks who read this blog over the next three weeks may notice a certain enthusiasm for things I'm observing in the United States that may seem uncharacteristic for me. The nerdy enthusiasm for policy in general, yes, that is undeniably me. But some have occasionally told me I can seem stubborn and naturally skeptical of ideas, and here I will be advancing new ideas to consider with the bubbly enthusiasm of an actor in one of those Cialis commercials. 

So, let me explain.

An exchange trip is a different type of experience. When I travelled as a minister, I had a number of goals to advance that required me to focus only on New Brunswick's immediate interests. If that meant making a speech which stuck to our perspectives at a roundtable, or if it meant quietly pouring shots of bai-Jo into a potted plant so a smart senior official in China couldn't toast me into submission, well, that was the job. 

Here, I have the gift of seeing something new for three weeks and considering it with no interest. I love to share the strengths of Canada, but I also love to hear what others are proud of, how they see the good in their country.  This is how we learn from each other. 

When the creators of Bugs Bunny were developing cartoons, they insisted on a Big Yes Session. That was just a time when no idea could be dismissed.  No one was allowed to say "no" or "for heaven's sake, Jim!"  You had to first think about how to make it work. 

Like Canada, the U.S. has challenges. As with us, their public service is full of decent but human people who struggle with the scope of some challenges. Yet, also like us, they have solved some problems with good will, hard work and creativity. So, on this trip, I want to see the good through their eyes and think first about how to make it work at home.

I'm trying to apply the Big Yes Session to the trip as well, so new experiences are getting embraced. My first afternoon here, a beer at a local sports bar led to chatting with folks next to me and soon, five of us from three different cities were enjoying Indian food on a rooftop patio (I also have an invite to Louisville, Kentucky). A Canadian pilgrimage to Adams-Morgan led to some brave Canucks entering a reggae club because the bouncer called out to us -- and we found a $5 all-you-can-drink bounty inside. (Yes, restraint was shown). Crystal City microbrews are great. 

Anyway, this leftie Canadian is looking for everything to say yes to in America. I haven't lost my talent for healthy skepticism. But maybe, somewhere amidst the monuments of the National Mall and the obvious, unspoiled emotion they evoke in our American neighbours, I've also been reminded that both our nations were founded upon a hearty dose of optimism as well.

Immigration -- The Math and Moral Courage

The Center For Immigration Law is a few blocks from the action on Capitol Hill, although it is calm even as their signature issue heats up.  The Center works for common sense immigration reform, and right now the legislative calendar is offering them their close-up. So folks there are busy trying to inject facts and reason into an intensely political issue. 

Where facts and logic take them is to the inescapable conclusion that more immigration is a good thing. And the facts are on their side. For companies seeking a place to locate, workplace skills are a site selector and immigrants are representing as much as 80% of the growth in some hard-to-find skills in the STEM sector. (Note that STEM refers to a grouping of science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills and is a preoccupation American policymakers hold with considerable passion)

As well, immigrants are considerably more likely than average to start a business and to succeed to the point that they are job creators. Far from taking jobs from established citizens, immigrants tend to both create and attract more jobs for their new neighbours and countrymen. 

If you're thinking that more people and more jobs would sound pretty good at home in New Brunswick, you're right. Our population has declined for all but a handful of the last twenty years (Shawn Graham, so frequently maligned, was the most successful premier by the numbers).  Yet lacking large urban centers, existing support communities and autonomy over immigration policy doesn't always allow New Brunswick to work with the urgency our declining population demands. 

Trying to take some opportunity for learning away from each of our sessions, one set of numbers keeps nagging at me. If you listed the Top 100 American cities in population, and then listed the 100 cities with the fastest immigration growth, you would notice 29 cities that may contain the answer for New Brunswick. Twenty-nine cities are not among the biggest, but are punching above their weight when it comes to immigration. The folks at the Center, understandably busy with government relations, have noted this group but haven't yet done work to identify what these 29 overachievers have in common. Sure, some may have a unique industry that rains jobs down like manna from heaven, but others may just be enacting policies and attitudes that work. This would be a great job for a keen researcher at our policy centers in New Brunswick.

If we can figure that our, we should be demanding that Ottawa give us the power needed to try something different. Our shrinking numbers, down in the skills companies demand, the incomes our social safety net requires, the middle-class that makes communities click-- these numbers are an emergency that demands action. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has called for a policy of stapling a green card on to every university and college degree earned by foreign students. Frankly, we could do a lot worse. 

That brings me to the moral challenge for our political and business leaders. Too many people still cling to a simple, easy-to-understand, wrong belief that if we have unemployed people here, more immigration means more people "taking" scarce jobs. This is built upon a wrong assumption, the assumption that jobs are a static good unaffected by the arrival of people with skills and drive and entrepreneurial spirit. But it is a powerful belief. 

Something dangerous has entered our political bloodstream; the belief that it is a leader's lob to poll and discover popular misconceptions and repeat them back to us rather than challenge us. In this political theory, those who attempt to challenge conventional wisdom are "arrogant", those who accept existing beliefs are humble purveyors of a new approach. But the moment calls for leaders with a different humility -- the humility to take risks in the service of the greater good of ideas and evidence-driven policy. 

In the end, we learned that places which attract immigrants are places who want immigrants and make that a civic goal. And each one of us who love New Brunswick need to be willing apostles for the benefits of immigration, convincing our neighbours that greater opportunity awaits all our kids if we have the courage to think differently, globally and openly about opening our doors to those who want to join our communities. 

It was nice to meet people who are passionate about following the evidence and opening their shores up to others. I hope to bring the evidence and the passion home with me. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


 The debate on government's role in economic development is a hot one back home. We have a nagging feeling that all these grants to business aren't doing much, and when something clearly goes south like ATCON, Atlantic Yarns et al, we can even get pretty mad.  Yet the counter argument, asking if we are ready to accept that government does nothing but trust the market, always seems a bit too optimistic for a have-not province.

Well, today I met leaders at two economic development agencies that might help us find a third way on the topic. Directors at the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) took the time to give us in-depth briefings on what they do.

The MBNA focuses on marginalized groups who may struggle to be fully included in a market economy -- immigrants, African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics and others are statutorily presumed to be marginalized and others can be added based upon objective criteria.  Newcomers used to thinking of the U.S. policy landscape as dominated by laissez-faire economists will be surprised to learn that there is bipartisan support for the notion that lack of connections to investors, mentors and capital holds some groups back. As long as the solution is to lower barriers to free market businesses and not redistributive social programs, there has been support for programs whichever party holds sway in D.C.

The MBNA does not give grants or loan guarantees to businesses that have minority ownership.  Rather, they work with potential and actual entrepreneurs to reduce the impact of lower social capital and mentorship by creating opportunities to access the competitive bidding process for government contracts, and leveraging those successes to increase the business's ties to larger private sector companies. 

The federal government here is very big on "set-asides" -- legal mandates to reserve a certain percentage of government work for small and medium enterprises, or SME's. These set-asides don't weight the scales in favour of some businesses over others the way anti-free traders suggest, but they limit some competitions to small or minority players. They then use these competitions to allow companies to register for ongoing assistance learning how to compete in this arena. 

One advantage of this over weighted criteria is that companies excluded by the criteria don't bid and lose to government-chosen competitors, but instead have an economic incentive to include eligible companies in their supply chain. A small minority-owned business may not be big enough to have a contract to build tanks, but it might make specialized parts that will then encourage a big company to make them part of their team. This also creates an incubator effect where companies begin to grow less dependent upon their government advisors and starts to benefit from connections with major industry players, which is pretty much the point.

These set-asides are combined with local Centers Of Excellence. These are local community institutions that commit to mentor and aid entrepreneurs in regions with specialized economic opportunities and growth industries. Post-secondary institutions and community agencies bid to get funding and must agree to deliver content and be measured on outcomes to keep their funding year-to-year. The more bottom-up process allows for local priorities to drive the establishment of these Centers in a way that gives more sway to local trends than a centralized plan of establishment might do. These Centres are the program delivery mechanism that identifies companies that will benefit most from help, evaluates proposals and trains entrepreneurs in contracting processes.

The SBA oversees set-asides across a variety of targeted areas -- minority-run businesses, economically-depressed zones, and under-capitalized entrepreneurs. In addition to ensuring compliance from all government departments in meeting the 23% set-aside target for contract competitions, they also oversee loan guarantees and small business advocacy within the political structure.

The neat thing here is that these agencies are targeting businesses in a different way than we do in New Brunswick.  Our Strategic Assistance Fund often aids existing businesses that are failing or mobile companies that demand incentives to choose New Brunswick.  Recognizing that small business creates a disproportionate number of new jobs and is the least likely business to leave its home region, the US programs actually target businesses at the point where accelerator funds have the greatest impact on new jobs -- companies still growing and at around $1million annual sales. These are called "Gazelles", and it may be telling that I never heard that word used in economic aid decisions in all four years I spent in government.

Even the loan guarantees that exist through the SBA have a more bottom-up process. There is no political involvement in the decisions. (The agencies, in all things,  may make decisions and simply report to political masters on overall results but no executive authority is involved in particular decisions to aid particular companies).   Lending institutions must bid to partner with government and put some money up themselves to help the growing business, so that the government guarantee never fully replaces the judgement of the lender as it did in some of New Brunswick's debacles.

In short, government aid to companies in these federal programmes is marked by these differences:

It is completely depoliticized at the granting level.
It targets only growing, never failing, companies.
There is an embedded advisory role for government in helping companies.
The use of set-asides in tendering preserves unweighted competitions but limits eligibility.
There is a finite time period in a company's life for help.
There is an advocacy, or ombudsman-like, role for agencies defending small business interests within the political process.

Could some of these ideas offer New Brunswick a third way between the failed process of political bailouts and a complete reliance on the vagaries of markets and Upper Canadian bankers?  I will confess that some of these lessons seem worthy of debate among our policymakers, business leaders and academics.


For the next three weeks, the blog is going to be more active and quite a bit different.  In case you missed my news, I've had the honour of being selected to join the International Visiting Leaders programme through the U.S.State Department. The IVLP is designed to let emerging foreign leaders visit a variety of regions in the U.S. and exchange ideas and perspectives with American policy leaders. Among the alumni of the programme you'll find Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Hamid Karzai, as well as many less famous folks who still went home with some new ideas and made their communities a bit better. I'll settle for making it into that second group.

My group is unusual in the IVLP -- instead of a mix of nations, we are five Canadians from a variety of backgrounds and regions in our own home and native land. We have a central theme as well, with our trip looking specifically at economic development and creation of entrepreneurial cultures in struggling economic zones. We start in Washington to learn about the policy instruments, but then head to cities around the U.S. to see how people actually make those policies real through community agencies and local programmes.  We will soon be heading to, in order, Charleston, Albuquerque, Seattle and Detroit. 

You'll meet my four travelling companions as we get to know each other, but I can already give you one spoiler alert.   They are all impressive people, with a creative entrepreneurial bent. They are also clearly fun to travel with, and we've already decided that we are going to enjoy our three weeks together.

After a tour of Washington's landmarks and a briefing on comparative federalism, the policy part of our tour began today with visits to some key government departments. (the federalism part can be summed up quickly once one accepts that Canadians' greatest policy fear is that government will fail to act when needed, and Americans' greatest fear is that government will act when it isn't needed at all.)

Through the next three weeks, I'm going to share some thoughts on how some lessons, axioms, and anecdotes might apply to tackling our challenges in New Brunswick. And if three weeks of travel inevitably lends to some funny or amazing moments, I will share that, too.  After all, I already stopped a few times and wished more New Brunswickers could be here for this. Maybe in some ways you can.