by Alec Bruce – In focus


News that the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) may receive a $30-million shot in the arm come Jan. 27 when the federal Tories bring down their budget is either a welcome reprieve from the pervasive gloom or a vote-getting gambit engineered by a worried government. Then again, maybe it’s both.


Certainly, freshly minted Member of Parliament Keith Ashfield, the minister directly responsible for ACOA, thinks it’s just what the doctor ordered for an increasingly troubled region. It will “spur the economy and create employment,” he told news media late last week. “That’s what we’re looking for in the short term to try to get over the economic challenges we’re facing right now.”


Charles Cirtwill, on the other hand, isn’t so sure. He works for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, based in Halifax, and he’s concerned that this might be another example of government quackery masquerading as prudent economic development strategy.


“My advice for the ACOA minister would be the same advice I give for each and every minister,” he told the Fredericton Daily Gleaner. “Just because a project is ready to go doesn’t mean the government should fund it. There has to be a business case. He should have that printed in eight-inch block letters and put on his wall.”


In other words, parsing the form and function of economic development in Atlantic Canada is a bit like watching the weather: hazy with little chance of clearing.


In reality, there’s nothing particularly new or surprising about the $30-million promise. Prime Minister Harper declared his intention to restore this amount — which had been cut by the federal Liberal government in 2004 — in a speech in Yarmouth back in October. A little later, he rolled out a plan to infuse all regional development agencies with $300 million in new funding over the next four years.


Neither is there anything novel about the critique of governments who, when facing a precipitous decline in popular support (or, in the present circumstance, a coalition challenge from across the aisle), quickly move to curry favour by feeding and watering the very sacred cows they had, for years, ignored.


But what does deserve fresh, vigorous, and crystalline attention is ACOA’s historic role in the Atlantic region’s economy. Does it do the work it was designed to perform? Does it help businesses survive and thrive? Does it foster innovation and technology transfer between universities and the private sector? Does it help people obtain and retain jobs?


According to its most recent five-year Report to Parliament, “each dollar invested directly in businesses through ACOA programming resulted in more than $7 in gains in Atlantic Canada’s GDP; total Atlantic GDP was estimated to be $1.2 billion higher in 2007 than it would have been without ACOA’s direct support to business; from 2003 to 2007, ACOA’s direct support to business of $622 million generated tax revenues of over $865 million; and total gross employment was almost 25,000 higher in 2007 than it would have been without ACOA’s direct support to business.”


If this is true (and there’s no reason to suspect it isn’t, given that these numbers were compiled by independent, third-party organizations, such as Statistics Canada and the Conference Board of Canada), then it’s entirely possible that the Harper government hasn’t gone far enough in its belated support for the agency.


Thirty million dollars is not chump change; not by anyone’s yardstick. But, at this point, it’s hard to know how this precise sum will advance ACOA’s demonstrably complex, and laudable, suite of programs in the months and years ahead. Is it earmarked for specific priorities? For core programming?


Clarity and transparency from governments are what’s desperately needed at a time when the lack of both have helped propel the world to the brink of economic disaster.


Without these, critics like Mr. Cirtwill will almost always pick a bone with the watchmen of the public purse. And they will almost always be right to do so.


Alec Bruce is a Moncton-based journalist. His column appears every Tuesday and Thursday in the Times & Transcript. He can be reached via