By Kate Wright
Political observers say the ejection of a long-time Nova Scotia MP from his own government shows that Atlantic MPs are feeling marginalized by the federal government. Cumberland MP Bill Casey was kicked out of the Conservative government Tuesday night after voting against his government’s budget.
Casey is now sitting as an Independent MP in the House of Commons. Casey said he couldn’t vote in favour of a federal budget that changed the Atlantic Accord, a deal Nova Scotia and Newfoundland have with the federal government to protect their offshore revenues.
Donald Savoie, the Clément Cormier chairman in economic development at the Université de Moncton and an expert on regional development, said Wednesday that Casey’s stand against his party shows a deep frustration many Maritime politicians have with the federal government.
There are 36 Atlantic MPs in the House of Commons, representing less than 10 per cent of the House. The contribution of federal money to the region has declined over the years while in other regions, such as Quebec, funds have increased. The latest federal budget gave New Brunswick just 1.8 per cent or $26 million more in equalization payments. Quebec got nearly 29 per cent more.
Savoie said the Atlantic provinces have lost much of their political weight over the years and that there is a growing dissatisfaction with how the provinces are perceived in Ottawa.
“When you look at the last federal budget, we had federal cabinet ministers saying Maritimers should be happy because we’re getting more money, but how is it that Quebec is getting $1.6 billion?” he said. “It’s about political clout; Quebec has 75 members (in the House).”
Savoie said the distrust of the federal government has spawned from past governments’ move to centralizing services and skipping over the region for major infrastructure and development announcements. The budget cuts to the Atlantic Canada Opportunity Agency and the creation of dozens of Crown corporations in Ontario and Quebec are just a few ways Atlantic Canadians have “been had” by federal governments, said Savoie.
“You can sense a growing anger that this is not a fair deal, a deal that has been totally unfair to this region,” he said. “Atlantic Canadians are giving up on federal government.”
The Opposition Liberals put forward a motion Thursday in the House saying the government had broken its promise to Atlantic Canada by changing its commitment to the Atlantic Accord. Several Atlantic MPs stood in the House and criticized Maritime Conservative MPs for not standing up and siding with Casey against the budget amendments. Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe MP Brian Murphy said Casey’s vote against the government reflects the frustration many Atlantic MPs have with changes to equalization payments and the Atlantic Accord.
But few on the government side were willing to talk openly yesterday. New Brunswick’s regional minister Greg Thompson chose not to comment and calls left for Tobique-Mactaquac MP Mike Allen and Fundy-Royal MP Rob Moore were not returned. Murphy said it can be a challenge to make sure Atlantic Canadian issues are given funding priority, regardless of the political party in power.
He said the federal government hasn’t discussed new programs and funding for the province and has given no indication if spending commitments will be renewed. Savoie believes the way to greater regional representation in Ottawa is a reformed Senate modeled after the American form of equal representation among states.
The U.S. Senate gives each state the same amount of Senators, putting the smallest states on equal footing with the largest ones. But Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, isn’t sure that more powerful provinces such as Alberta and Ontario will want to share their clout with smaller ones. He said it would likely take years of political squabbling to get larger provinces to even consider the deal.