When three Maritime senators recently endorsed the idea of Maritime political union, the ensuing discussions showed that their vision crashed on two immutable rocks. The Canadian constitution makes the plan almost unworkable, and Maritimers, as shown in a recent poll, remain as opposed to losing their provincial identities as they ever were.
What seems more workable is enhancement of economic cooperation among the Maritime provinces.
In recent conversations with the Telegraph Journal, three well-placed observers spoke with one voice in saying: Bring on all the economic cooperation you can.
They point out that we already have a significant degree of economic cooperation but we can easily achieve more.
And they insist that the full plate of those economic benefits will only come through concerted political effort from the Maritime premiers.
Elizabeth Beale, president and CEO of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council in Halifax, believes that the region will prosper as economic cooperation is enhanced.
“We have to remember that we are small in area and population and have to constantly look for ways of increasing economic harmonies in the region,” she says. “This is especially true if we hope to continue offering sophisticated levels of services.”
The Maritimes provinces already cooperate with each other in many ways, she says. The Izaak Walton Killam Hospitalin Halifax provides tertiary-level care to children across Atlantic Canada. The Maritime provinces have agreements for shared bulk purchases of drugs, saving regional governments money. There are shared emergency services across the region.
New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador were early adopters of the HST, a step that helped regional businesses by allowing them to deal with only one tax regime. On April 1st of next year, Prince Edward Island will join them.
Post-secondary institutions in the region have reached agreements on recognizing student credentials so that students can move freely from institution to institution. Community colleges have harmonized much of the training they offer to achieve some standardization across the region.
“We’re far from perfect, but our small size and our proximity have driven us to realize how much sense it makes to look for these types of harmonies,” Beale says. “That said, in some areas we really need to move much further ahead.”
Beale particularly wants to see more harmonization of regulatory regimes from province to province – nowhere more than in the automobile insurance industry.
“We have different regulatory frameworks from province to province and any company who sells insurance has to make provision for three different environments – a very inefficient way of doing business.”
Beale sees no reason why each province must have its own liquor commission. With the bulk purchases that amalgamation would permit, liquor could be purchased more cheaply.
She also sees the Maritime provinces competing too much with each other in terms of industrial incentives. “We are all looking jealously at what our closest neighbours are doing – but an overall strategy might bring more benefit to the region.”
Concerted work by Maritime premiers is the only way of really accelerating economic cooperation, Beale says. “Western premiers have really pushed for strong economic cooperation, but I don’t see that kind of interest shown by Maritime premiers. And they have to take the lead.”
Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax, believes levels of economic cooperation are increasing but there is lots of room for improvement.
He applauds arrangements that allow companies in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to bid on procurement contracts in both provinces.
“That sort of thing is good but we could do a lot more,” he says.
Each Maritime province has its own pharmaceutical formulary, a list of medicines covered under benefit plans. If one formulary applied across the Maritimes, that would save money on drug purchases.
A true regional electricity market would reduce costs and total reserve capacity requirements.
A big thinker, Cirtwill thinks that some Maritime premier should apply to join the New West Partnership between British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan which allows each province’s businesses, investors and workers more secure access to markets in the other two provinces.
“If we’re going to cooperate economically, why not do it with provinces that have really strong economies? The Partnership was drafted with an open invitation to all other provinces to join – and I’ve been telling every premier in this region to sign it. If one Maritime premier signs, they all will sign.”
Susan Holt, president and CEO of the New Brunswick Business Council, a non-profit group of business leaders seeking to enhance the province’s prosperity, wants to see substantial economic alignment in the Maritimes so businesses are free to boost economic activity in the province.
“If we had a unified tax policy across the region, unified wage regulations, one system of certifying that workers are qualified, no duties and tariffs between the Maritime provinces – we would see a far more robust economy. With less administrative burden, every business could focus on driving GDP and their own company revenues.”
These are all low-hanging fruit if politicians move to achieve them, Holt says.
“These things need to be priorities, but they’re not. The best one can say is that cooperation initiatives have been ‘slow and steady.’
“We’ve made progress – but to leap ahead, we need real commitment from politicians.”
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