What is more important: our towns and counties, or the people who live in them? Sounds silly when you put it that way — of course, people come first. Yet for decades, government planners have paid more attention to trying to attract employers to set up businesses in our regions than they have to ensuring the best interests of individual Nova Scotians.
To be fair, those administrators have been given a lot of encouragement. Politicians speak unctuously of the need to “preserve our way of life” — so policies that promise to protect or increase employment prospects have a natural resonance. But most Nova Scotians, like people everywhere, don’t want to merely preserve their living standards — they want to improve them.
Nova Scotians are migrants. The majority of us can trace our ancestry to foreign parts. Even our indigenous population was traditionally semi-nomadic. Most recently, our population has been shifting dramatically away from rural areas — over the past 15 years, for example, Cape Breton has seen a slide of 12 per cent while Halifax has gained 14 per cent.
Our legislators would have us believe this is a bad thing, something to be resisted by spending more taxpayer dollars to convince footloose capital to locate in the affected areas. Perhaps it is a regrettable trend: Nobody wants to witness the erosion of family-strong communities, despite it being a perennial phenomenon in all countries.
Two points need to be emphasized. First, people move for economic advantage. That is to say, those who have relocated did so because they believed, on balance, that they would be better off for doing so.
The second point is even more fundamental: Time and again, it has been demonstrated that government-sponsored schemes to alter economic forces just don’t work. Despite billions of dollars “invested” in projects ranging from coal mining to steel production, from heavy water to paper mills, the common element is that after reeling from one bailout to the next, every scheme collapses.
Perhaps that might not seem so unfortunate if, at least for a while, jobs had been sustained and regions had been given some time to adjust to shifting markets. The reality is, however, corrections never occurred and the funds expended served only to ensure that overall, Nova Scotia remains uncompetitive, with the highest taxes and among the lowest average earnings in the country.
There are 13 Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) operating in Nova Scotia — each receiving complex funding from the provincial government and local municipalities. Each is engaged in lining up additional federal and provincial agency support to encourage businesses to establish or remain in their region and to attract immigrants. Each operates in direct competition with neighbouring RDAs — a flagrant attempt at beggar-thy-neighbour, funded ultimately by every Nova Scotian. The entire structure should be scrapped.
That is not to argue that the system should be replaced by a single provincial agency — although that at least would allow for a more rational apportionment of “investment” funds.
What is required is a complete rethinking of how to ensure that all Nova Scotians are able to obtain fulfilling and rewarding career experiences. That may mean relocation: If your son or daughter emerges as one of the brightest rocket scientists, the chances are they will settle elsewhere. And you will be justifiably proud!
What a sensible expansion policy should seek to achieve is comprehensive education and skills development for all Nova Scotians — including our frequently disadvantaged aboriginal and black communities. That is a legitimate and fruitful responsibility of government. Achieve that and we can all be justifiably proud!
Don McIver is director of research at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, an independent economic and social-policy think tank based in Halifax. His recently completed review of the RDA structure can be found online at www.aims.ca.