by Lorne Gunter

I spent three days in Halifax last week and two things struck me about the place. Well, three actually — the same three that strike me every time I visit: the quality of life, the city’s (and region’s) economic potential in a post-industrial economy and just how far out of town Halifax International is. It always seems to me that planes land in Truro and passengers have to cab it the rest of the way.

The Nova Scotia capital is beautiful. Perhaps it doesn’t match Canada’s West Coast pageant winner, Vancouver, for sheer physical appeal, but its rocky Atlantic shores are stunning nonetheless. And the rows of prim homes peaking out from the trees on the hills that rise all around the harbour are exquisite and tranquil.

And here’s something you can’t say about Vancouver: I arrived at 5 in the afternoon and sailed into downtown in the back of a taxi with no more than a one-light wait at any intersection.

There were no traffic jams, not even in rush hour on a business day.

Now I’ll bet Haligonians have a complaint or two about their city’s commuter snarls. And long-time residents probably shake their heads and tut-tut about how much better it was a decade ago when there weren’t always three or four cars ahead of them at the toll booths on the Angus MacDonald Bridge. But Torontonians, Calgarians, Vancouverites and Montrealers would give their right lug nuts for the kind of 20-minute, congestion-free commute Haligonians take for granted.

Imagine being able to own a large home with a big, leafy yard without having to drive to work 90 minutes, one way, from a suburb where you can afford one. Imagine having this ideal family home and time enough with your family to enjoy it because you aren’t stuck for hours each day on the Don Valley Parking Lot, Macleod Trail, Granville Street or the Champlain Bridge.

Imagine being home in time for dinner, much less just before your kids are in bed.

I once worked with a woman from Toronto who had moved to Edmonton but was desperate to return to T.O. Why, I asked her, checking her forehead for signs of fever? Because of the museums, orchestras, theatres and restaurants, she answered.

“Oh, you did a lot of those things when you lived there before?”

“Heavens, no,” she replied. Those things were too expensive, even for her two-income family. Just keeping the mortgage current took up all of her and her husband’s efforts. When they got home each evening there was neither time nor money for cultural events. They both simply missed knowing such things were in town (as if Edmonton were bereft of such amenities).

Anyway, Halifax is both big enough to have most of those features, too, and small enough that they are not merely theoretical concepts for ordinary middle-class types. In a world in which, increasingly, the physical plant of a business can be anywhere (if it exists at all), Halifax and Atlantic Canada have limitless potential to attract new investment, if they could just get over their pasts.

But I didn’t start off this column intending to write a brochure for the Halifax regional municipality’s economic development board. This was to be a treatise on the transfer trap — how transfers from the “have” provinces, via Ottawa, plus corporate bailouts, unemployment payments, groundfish strategies, non-repayable loans and the like have kept Atlantic Canada down.

The very well-intentioned programs created during the past four decades to lift the region up have instead been like a hand on its head holding it under water.

As author and economist Fred McMahon likes to point out, in the 1960s the Atlantic provinces were beginning to close the economic gap with the rest of the country. They were still behind, but closing fast.

Then came the grand Trudeau-era schemes of regional economic expansion, interregional transfers of wealth and huge social programs, of paying people to stay where the lived rather than letting them be drawn to where the opportunity was.

After 35 years of such “pump priming,” totalling as much as $90-billion in the Atlantic provinces, the region is nearly as far behind as it was in the 1950s.

Transfers remain 25% to 40% of most provinces’ revenues in the region, the same levels they were at when this wild experiment started. A wise man would look at that and say “enough.” But federal and provincial politicians look at the situation and cry “More!” Even the Conservatives cannot resist getting in on the bidding.

Halifax could be the centre of one of the most prosperous regions in the country, but Canada’s rent-seeker politics — the politics of bribing voters with gobs of public money — keeps it down.

Next Monday, I’ll look at how to change this.