by: Charles Cirtwill

It seems we are in for another Dickensian melodrama. The local media are full of two story-lines about the new Conservative majority in Ottawa and its potential impact for Nova Scotia. To abuse that famous line one more time, it could indeed be the best of times and the worst of times.

I am led to this conclusion by my hourly exposure to two high-profile public-relations campaigns afoot in our region.

The first is the government-led effort to start laying the foundation for the upcoming renegotiation of federal transfers to the provinces: health, education, social services and the dreaded e-word, equalization.

The second is the privately led, but also publicly fed, push to bring home our “fair share” of the federal shipbuilding contract for our local yards.

The similarities between these two campaigns are predictable. Each is using major events as message platforms to make its case. Each has a polished and focused “message” and is using mainstream media to get the word out — editorial board meetings, op-eds, letters to the editor. Each is dipping its toe, ever so slightly, into social media — bloggers, tweeters and Facebookers, beware! Each is attempting to engage “arm’s-length” entities as local champions and research resources to explore and expand on potential positive and negative impacts: universities, chambers of commerce, community activists and opinion leaders.

Each campaign is about getting billions from Ottawa and spending it here in Atlantic Canada — each, for the most part, forgetting that Atlantic Canadians are federal taxpayers too and at least some of the desired cash was ours to begin with.

And, of course, each is portraying Ottawa as the potential villain of the piece, aided and abetted by the usual suspects: Central Canadians so long at the trough that they no longer realize they are eating out of it; Central and Western Canadians who predictably make every effort to stuff every last morsel into their own mouths, while starving us and our children of even the crumbs.

It is where the two campaigns diverge, however, that I would like to focus this missive. On the one hand, we have the traditional “have-not” model of Canadian tin-cup federalism: “Please sir, may we have some more?” On the other, we have the brash give and take of a for-profit mercantile exchange: “You need ships, we know how to build them, of the highest quality at the lowest cost, case closed.”

The transfers campaign has started as, and will continue to be, one focused on fear and entitlement. We are all Canadians and the Constitution says you must give us our due (it doesn’t, but that’s a debate for another day). We are older and sicker than the rest of Canada and require special allowances as a result. The rest of Canada has stolen away our young people and so contributed to our inability to care for ourselves. Ontario and Alberta did the crime, they should pay this time. If they don’t, our sick will wither in unheated hallways with no nurse to care for them, no bed for them to lie in.

As a proud Atlantic Canadian, it should come as no shock to you that I prefer the message of the shipbuilding campaign much better. It is a message of hope, of confidence, of self-sufficiency and of having something of value to offer the rest of the world. It is about taking charge of our own future and building something new and exciting. It is a message that portrays Canada as a partnership and Atlantic Canada as a meaningful contributor to that partnership. It is an exchange among equals, not a transfer between “haves” and “have-nots.”

The contrasts between these two approaches to confederation could not come at a more opportune time. The media, social and otherwise, have been alive with commentary about the “new Canada” since our latest federal election. A Canada in which we are faced with two stark and competing policy choices: the hand up or the hand out, as it were. If this analysis is correct, and so far little evidence has been adduced to show that it is not, then Atlantic Canada’s options are clear: hold our collective breath for four years and hope the hand-out crowd wins next time, or change our tactics and start focusing on how to maximize our forward progress with a hand-up.

It is for this reason that I hope the shipbuilding campaign succeeds. Not because of the economic impact of such a win, but for the moral value of winning in this way. If we win on the merits, then we must rethink our “have-not” approach on other files. If we lose to regional interests, then our “hand-out” tactics are clearly the correct ones. So, Mr. Harper, which approach do you prefer?