6 Questions: One-on-One with the Honourable Michael Bryant, Ontario Minister of Economic Development

Ontario's government gets in on the job creation front.

The provincial $1.15 billion Next Generation of Jobs Fund is off to a good start, according to the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development. The five-year program for knowledge-based industries was announced in the March 2008 provincial budget and has so far spent about $68 million to leverage $464 million in industry investment. The government says this has created 602 new jobs and retained another 1,635. The Honourable Michael Bryant, 42, was appointed to the Ministry in September 2008. He’s the youngest (at 37) attorney general ever to serve in Ontario and has already amassed a strong political resume, including MPP for the riding of St. Paul’s in Toronto, Aboriginal Affairs Minister and Government House Leader from 2007-’09. Facing a province in economic crisis, the former amateur boxer has traded in his gloves for pugilism in what will certainly be a much tougher ring. We asked him six questions.

What is the greatest challenge currently facing the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and what are you doing about it?

The biggest challenge is the biggest opportunity — that in the midst of the economic contraction many of Ontario business’ competitors are in worse shape. So we have a huge opportunity to jump-start Ontario companies. We do that by acting as uber entrepreneur as a government and investing in next generation jobs and advanced manufacturing. In a number of cases companies find themselves potentially emerging from the great recovery not just surviving, but thriving.

Who else — person or company — do you feel is doing innovative work and in what way?

Mitchell Plastics, [which used to be in] the textile industry, transformed itself into a plastic automotive interior parts company. It saw its competitors in the United States in deep trouble. We made an investment of $1.53 million, leveraging a project of investment of $10.2 million. That allowed them to go purchase technology right out of their competitors in receivership and now they’ve become a global leader. That’s taking advantage of the economic crisis and one company from Ontario thumping its competitors by leveraging the [Next Generation of Jobs Fund].

How would you describe your leadership approach/style?

Straight talk, hyper strategic. And then you’ve got to go test the strategy as you execute it on the shop floor. So get out there and meet with as many workers and managers as possible to continue to refine the strategy and the execution. For example, we need to have the best system that we can for distribution of these industry funds and so we’re constantly looking at how to get the accountability and protection of taxpayer dollars while at the same time getting the money out the door in a timely fashion.

What does the Next Generation of Jobs Fund require in terms of partnership/input from the public, from other levels of government and from private business?

I call it an economic mashup. It’s an econo-fix that sees businesses participating in partnership with government and vice-versa like never before. It requires businesses to self-educate about how government works and requires governments to be able to better partner with businesses themselves. It also requires businesses to — as President Obama said — take advantage of any opportunity to educate your skills or education to be individually more competitive. So by government jumping in and acting as entrepreneur and jump-starting companies, companies in turn need to find the opportunities to take on their global competitors and then the workers find themselves updating their skills and playing more of a role in management of a company and not just in terms of the labour involved.

The current economic crisis is highlighting the ideological divide between liberal and conservative, but also causing one side or the other to abandon previously sacred policy cows. Should the level of government involvement in economic development — creation, regulation and management — be greater or lesser than it has been up to this point?

I call it reverse Reaganism. Reagan said government is not part of the solution, that it’s the problem. Today government is a critical part of the solution and that’s partly because it has capital and partly because the state of many businesses is such that they need assistance and government is the only game in town that can provide that assistance. So whereas Reaganism and Thatcherism was supply-side economics, this is demand-side economics. We’re all Keynesians now — even George W. Bush Jr. and, it would seem, Stephen Harper. Governments are stepping in and making investments directly in businesses and it is the right thing for this time. Maybe supply-side Reaganism was right for his time, but today the solution is demand-side policies, aggressive intervention by governments and economic mashup of business, individuals and governments all collaborating.

At the same time government has to transform the way in which it works with business. The [new] “Open for Business” program completely changes the way in which we will be doing regulation in the future to try and relieve the regulatory pressure that is on businesses. Instead of making regulations completely focused on process, [the program] makes regulation] solutions oriented and [the government will] engage in the kind of risk management that it has never done before.

If you could have trained with any boxer in history, who would you have chosen and why?

I’ve always wanted to meet Muhammad Ali. He’s a hero of mine on a number of levels, but there’s no way I would have wanted to get in the ring with him then or now. I’d love to meet Ali, but in terms of training I would try and find the biggest chump I could so as to survive the experience.