Giving credit where credit is due is one of the more enjoyable parts of running an independent public policy think tank. Regrettably, the opportunity arises all too infrequently for those of us who know how hard our politicians and public servants work, how well intentioned they are, how capable they are, and how firmly their hands are tied most days.
Take when the federal government started running around the countryside looking for “Gateway” investments. It was unfortunate that such a well intentioned and appropriately targeted effort had to be called on the carpet. You see, government does indeed have a role in investing in critical infrastructure that we all share to maximize the economic and social return on our own individual effort. The problem with all the MPs and Senators asking if we had any roads we needed twinned, any ports expanded, any airports improved, was that the answer was no. All of that infrastructure was in large part in place, in hand, and operating well below capacity. Yet they were hell bent on spending some money (well actually, lots of money, and lots more once the economic action plan got rolling). It seemed we were once again at the mercy of federal policy with little or no purpose other than to create opportunities for more pictures with big blue cheques.
But, there were glimmers of hope. Very early on my Institute, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), laid out a much broader vision of the potential synergies between the various component parts of our common region. That vision was far beyond a mere gateway for other people’s goods. Indeed, it included, among a great many other things, the idea of a common regional energy market and improved transmission interconnections to build on the synergies of our various energy strengths, and to respond collectively to our individual weaknesses. Indeed, when our experts were asked about infrastructure gaps, the only ones we consistently identified as being worthy of immediate attention were the electricity grid on this side of the Canada/US border and the rail and road connections on the other side.
Someone was listening. The federal government set up the Atlantic Energy Gateway effort, expanding the vision of gateway beyond boxes, boats and buses. The energy firms and governments in Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Maine and Quebec, all started seriously exploring regional opportunities and needs. With the announcement of a term sheet for the production, transmission and indeed sale of the power from Muskrat Falls on the Lower Churchill we see the tangible results of serious, evidence based analysis of real economic and social needs and not simply political wants or desires.
Better still, the terms outlined indicate that AIMS work on the question of the appropriate use of revenues from non-renewable natural resources is finally gaining traction among our decision makers. For too long, Premiers and Finance Ministers have acted like kids in the candy store when new oil and gas reserves have been discovered and the royalties started rolling in. Just look at the shape of Nova Scotia’s books today to see how shortsighted it is to create new programs and build up the expectations of taxpayers and those in genuine need of help by funding programs with money that you know will not be there in five or ten years.
Mr. Williams has clearly decided he does not want to face the same kind of hard choices Mr. Dexter is facing. By using revenues from the sale of one asset (oil and gas) to finance the purchase of a more sustainable one (a hydro dam and transmission capacity) Mr. Williams has demonstrated that he, at least in part, understands that oil royalties are a temporary thing and that they need to be invested for the long term.
Better still, the project announced yesterday does not seem to hinge on federal participation. Mr. Dexter has been quoted in the media as telling the Premier of Quebec that while federal funding would be totally appropriate given all of the other “investments” Ottawa has made in infrastructure across this country, Nova Scotia would be prepared to proceed even if Ottawa did not come to the table.
That too is a game changing statement straight out of the AIMS playbook. For too long, Atlantic Canada has expected its “fair share” from Ottawa and refused to take any action unless it was forthcoming. So long as that is how the game is played, and Ottawa is shoveling out buckets of our cash to other provinces, you can’t criticize provincial Premiers for aggressively pursuing as much of that largesse as possible. You can criticize them for not doing anything without it, and we have. Now, we can applaud them vigorously for finally being willing to proceed on their own, even if the gift horse doesn’t arrive from Ottawa.
Charles Cirtwill is the President & CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (www.AIMS.ca), a public policy think tank based in Halifax, NS.