Inside Ottawa

John Crosbie is no stranger to controversy. From his “Tequila Sheila” epithet for Heritage Minister Sheila Copps to his ill-advised comments on being unilingual in the 1983 federal Tory leadership race, Mr. Crosbie is known for being as controversial as he is colourful.

So being drawn into the middle of the latest battle between the Moncton-based Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and its biggest critic at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies doesn’t bother the former Tory cabinet minister.

“It’s better to be noticed every now and then rather than being called a political dinosaur,” Mr. Crosbie, 72, quipped Friday from his St. John’s office, where he is a counsel to the Atlantic Canadian law firm Patterson Palmer.

Federal Liberals may wish they had left Mr. Crosbie on the sidelines.

In a brutally frank interview, Mr. Crosbie, who was once the minister responsible for ACOA in the early 1990s, argued it’s time to look at phasing out Ottawa’s principal agency for economic development in Atlantic Canada.

“It’s time for new and different initiatives to be tried because what we have been doing hasn’t been that tremendously effective,” Mr. Crosbie said. “Despite all of the (federal) money transferred . . . Atlantic Canada is still seriously behind the rest of the country in per-capita fiscal capacity and employment and these other economic measures.”

That probably isn’t what current ACOA Minister Gerry Byrne was expecting to hear. Faced with fresh attacks from AIMS president Brian Lee Crowley this week, Mr. Byrne challenged reporters in Ottawa to ask if Mr. Crowley’s “rants” reflected the opinions of the likes of Mr. Crosbie, who is a vice-chairman on AIMS’ board of directors.

For the record, Mr. Crosbie’s answer is a qualified “Yes.”

While he said he doesn’t necessarily agree with everything Mr. Crowley writes in his newspaper opinion pieces or says in his speeches, Mr. Crosbie termed Mr. Crowley “a great and positive influence” in the region.

“We’re very lucky at AIMS to have him,” Mr. Crosbie said, and so is the federal government. “The efforts of independent intellectual institutes such as AIMS should be welcomed by government because they can do research and they can suggest things that civil servants and politicians may not be in the position to suggest.”

Among those suggestions, Mr. Crosbie added, is taking a page from Ireland and several

American states that have reduced corporate taxes as an incentive for attracting businesses and investments.

Given time to work, Mr. Crosbie said, measures such as lower taxes would eventually eliminate the need for a regional development tool such as ACOA.

“We can’t say there hasn’t been a lot done under the present system and I was always very supportive of the things ACOA was doing,” Mr. Crosbie said.

“But we’re not getting the results you would hope for and expect in lieu of the great amounts of money spent to overcome regional disparity in Atlantic Canada. We shouldn’t just continue on with the old way because we know the old way hasn’t been as effective as it could be.”

A case in point is the federal equalization program used in sharing some of the country’s wealth with the less affluent provinces, Mr. Crosbie said.

“There’s been $200 billion transferred to the recipient provinces since 1957 and there’s been no marvellous transformation,” Mr. Crosbie said.

That’s the same message Mr. Crowley took to Regina this week when he told the chamber of commerce in Saskatchewan’s provincial capital that the federal government has squandered more than $1 trillion (T-R-I-L-L-I-O-N!) dollars doing more harm than good in trying to develop Atlantic Canada.

Mr. Crowley argued that ACOA in particular has actually been holding the region back, an opinion echoed in AIMS’ new monthly newsletter ACOA Watch.

He told his Regina audience that the federal government insists on trying to pick industry winners and loser in Atlantic Canada when the private sector is eminently far better suited to such a task. The solution, Mr. Crowley continued, is for Ottawa to get out of the way and let the economy find its own lucrative way.

“You cannot tax your way to growth and prosperity,” Mr. Crowley said.

That’s anathema to Mr. Byrne, who argued in the introduction to his 2003-04 ACOA estimates released this week that his department is helping Atlantic Canada transform itself into a more “entrepreneurial, technologically sophisticated and export-oriented” region.

“The Government of Canada, through the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, is supporting this transition,” Mr. Byrne wrote, “by investing in tools and resources that cultivate greater innovation, expanded trade, better business opportunities in smaller communities, and more skilled and knowledgeable entrepreneurial enterprises.”

Mr. Crosbie said such claims from an ACOA minister are to be expected.

“Politicians and so on have to work within certain parameters,” he said.

“You have to convince the rest of the government that new approaches are needed and necessary, which is not easy to do.

“But I think the evidence and impartial studies of people like Brian Crowley show that we can’t just carry on the way we have been. It’s time we start looking to see if there are more effective ways to do things.”

Richard Roik is the Telegraph-Journal’s Ottawa reporter. His column appears on Saturday. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]