In Brief: AIMS acting President Charles Cirtwill suggests that government’s role is to create a business-friendly environment for private sector investment. He says that’s a better approach to development than spending tax-payers money on ill-conceived projects. Cirtwill’s comments followed criticism that suggested a Halifax-bias in some recent comments.  

May I have equal space to clarify statements attributed to me and suggestions made in an editorial and a letter published in this newspaper that I hold a Halifax bias?


Let me be very clear – this is not an “us and them” argument. To begin, the quote referenced in Allan Murphy’s letter of October 24th actually began with “If I was the Port of Halifax –“ it appears that part has somehow been left out. I also made several statements beginning with “If I was the folks in Sydney” and “From the point of view of Melford” – regrettably none of those seem to have garnered much attention.


Suggestions that comments I made in the wake of the Atlantic Gateway announcement are Halifax centric or anti-Strait are false. As I have said repeatedly over the last ten years when discussing port infrastructure, Atlantica and the Atlantic Gateway, if a private company wants to make a private investment based on a sensible business case – they should do it.


But, to be very clear, they should do it with their own money (and, by the way, there is no shortage of capital out there looking to invest in ports and port facilities – just ask the folks at Melford Terminals). We as taxpayers should not be picking winners and losers and we certainly should not be backing all horses and competing against ourselves, whether you live in Sydney, Port Hawkesbury or Halifax.


We (as in taxpayers) should not be investing money to support a specific private company in Halifax, anymore than we should be supporting a specific project in the Strait area. In fact, it may interest readers to know that in June 2001 I co-authored a study that concluded only massive private investment could save the Port of Halifax – making the exact same arguments against public investment in Halifax then, as I make against public investment in Melford today.


Government’s role here is to provide the environment in which as many of these private investments as possible will take place. That means reducing business taxes, eliminating the ridiculous inter-provincial barriers that still exist in this country and changing other regulatory barriers that raise our costs and make us uncompetitive. And yes, it also includes making investments in infrastructure where an infrastructure deficit exists.


But before we run out with a laundry list of needed improvements we have to look at the much bigger picture. From an Atlantic Gateway perspective, if we MUST spend what are scarce infrastructure dollars, we should be spending infrastructure dollars in Quebec and the North-eastern US (and indeed, in India) to improve our connections to the real opportunities and to make the business case for every port in this region that much better.


In this specific case, we simply do not have the infrastructure deficit in terms of the Atlantic Gateway that the west coast did and does in terms of the Pacific Gateway. In fact, our key asset, the CN rail line, is running at barely 30% capacity. Certainly, twinning the 104 would represent a significant boon to the Strait and surrounding regions (which is why it is already a priority project for the province) but it represents marginal benefit to the Strait and Sydney terminal proposals. In fact, all three of our current container port efforts are and always will be rail dependent so any proposed spending on road improvements in Halifax (and you can be sure some proposals will come) should be viewed with a similar skeptics eye. They offer benefits, yes, but do those benefits justify the level of priority being given to the projects?


Right now, our federal and provincial governments could do far more to help the folks in Melford and the folks in Sydney and Halifax by changing the tax and regulatory environment (perhaps hiring another 2 or 3 dozen people to work on the border delay question for instance) rather than creating a political slush fund that has created (and frankly inevitably was going to create) a chorus of “me toos” and “my fair shares”.


Charles Cirtwill

President (acting)

Atlantic Institute for Market Studies