by Quentin Casey

FREDERICTON – It may be the well-trumpeted goal of New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham, but two of the region’s leading thinkers say Nova Scotia has the edge when it comes to becoming self-sufficient and free of federal transfers.

Rarely does a Graham government press release, announcement or speech fail to remind New Brunswickers of the quest to steer the province from federal equalization dependency within 20 years.

Yet it could be Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald who celebrates self-sufficiency in as little as five or 10 years, if current trends and economic indicators hold true.

“(Nova Scotia) has a number of things that we don’t have,” Université de Moncton economist Donald Savoie said Monday.

Savoie, who holds the Canada Research Chair in public administration and governance, says the Nova Scotian advantage lies in Halifax – the booming urban area that serves as the Atlantic region’s main centre.

“Nova Scotia has deep challenges and they’re called Cape Breton and rural Nova Scotia. But one thing they do have is Halifax and you don’t pull against gravity when you’re in Halifax. It’s got everything,” he said.

Savoie points to the deep water port, regional offices for national banks and the federal government and top-notch hospitals as Halifax’s attributes.

Add to that list what he describes as the region’s top post-secondary institution – Dalhousie University.

“Dal can compete with any university in North America. I’m not sure we can say the same thing about the universities in New Brunswick,” he said. “It’s much easier to (produce) growth in Halifax than it is in the province of New Brunswick.”

He says the city is also boosted by an influx of investment banking jobs and 1,000 new positions secured when BlackBerry maker Research in Motion decided to set up offices.

“We’re not in that zone yet,” Savoie said. “Success breeds success and failure breeds failure. Halifax has been on a good run of success these days.

“Halifax is a gem, it’s a jewel. If you’re working with Halifax, you’re not pulling against gravity as much as we are in New Brunswick.”

Savoie, seen as the architect of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, says New Brunswick gets some benefits from having a few, smaller urban areas. But there is also the potential for crippling competition without a main city.

“I get very upset when I see Moncton and Saint John competing and tearing at each other,” he said of recent competition over such things as hospital units. “I think that’s unhealthy and nonsensical. We’ve got to get over this parochialism.

“It’s asinine. Unless we learn to recognize that what’s good for Saint John is good for Moncton and vice versa, we’re going to have a problem.”

The same applies for the region as a whole, he contends.

“If we could drop this parochialism we have in the Maritime provinces and all row in the same direction, we would be better off,” he said.

“I think we all have to accept as Maritimers that Halifax is going to be the growth centre of this region and come to terms with the fact that what’s good for Halifax is good for New Brunswick and vice versa.”

Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax-based think-tank, says Nova Scotia has the edge when it comes to improving its lot compared to other provinces.

“When you look at the relative economic activity that’s going on and the various potential growth opportunities, certainly Nova Scotia has the potential”‰”¦”‰to beat New Brunswick to the finish line in terms of being self-sufficient,” he said.

Cirtwill points to gross domestic product growth, demographics and overall debt levels as proof.

“Yes, if you’re talking raw numbers Nova Scotia probably has the better foundation to be self-sufficient,” he said. “But I don’t think New Brunswick has anything to worry about in terms of not being able to achieve the goal.”

According to Cirtwill, if things go well within Nova Scotia’s oil and gas sector, the province could end its dependency on federal transfers within the next decade.

Similarly, he confirms that 20 years is a reasonable target for New Brunswick, and is buoyed by developments such as the $1.7-billion postash mining investment unveiled last month in Sussex.

“It puts New Brunswick back in the game,” he said. “Nothing can beat attitude and right now New Brunswick is talking self-sufficiency and Nova Scotia is talking federal cash,” he said of Premier MacDonald’s clash with Ottawa over the offshore revenue accord.

For his part, Graham said he doesn’t believe Nova Scotia is better positioned to succeed.

“I don’t buy that argument,” he said Monday. “I’m not here to compete against Nova Scotia, I want to work in co-operation with their economic development plans.

“These are exciting times for (New Brunswick) and we’re not going to sit idly by and watch other jurisdictions pass us by,” he said, noting his pledge to make the province a centre of energy production for sales to the United States.

“Yes, there are benefits in other jurisdictions. That is why we have to work twice as hard to overcome the advantage that those regions have.”

Cirtwill says Graham’s approach is sound, with one glaring exception.

“New Brunswick has to stop raising taxes,” he said the Liberals’ across-the-board tax hike in the last provincial budget.

“I think we have to stop thinking that government can somehow open its wallet and make these things happen.

“We have to talk the language that it’s all about creating an environment for business to pull you up by the bootstraps, not for government to manufacture new ones.”