Wednesday, July 5, 2000
The Halifax Herald Limited

Old ways suit Ottawa’s needs, not region’s

By Brian Lee Crowley

EVERYONE is up in arms about Prime Minister Jean Chretien announcing over $700 million in new federal spending here in Atlantic Canada as the next federal election approaches. But as one of my old political science professors used to say, you’ll never get the politics out of politics. The timing of the prime minister’s announcement may be cynical and manipulative, but as long as this region consents to live and die by politics, why should we expect any different?

The most interesting questions about the federal government’s new Atlantic Canadian initiative are the ones that no one is asking. Here are my two favourites.

What exactly is the problem that Ottawa is trying to fix? By making this announcement, Ottawa drives home yet again, both inside and outside the region, the message that we’re a “have-not” region. Unless we get a handout from taxpayers in other parts of the country, we’re going nowhere and, worst of all, that we’re failures at the high-tech game.

But none of these things is true. In fact, the region is now full of economically dynamic cities, such as Halifax, Moncton and St. John’s. Unemployment, while still too high regionally, is very low in the cities and prosperous rural communities like the Annapolis Valley, and is falling in most places. Serious labour shortages – yes, labour shortages – are plaguing many businesses trying to expand.

And among those businesses trying to expand are things like offshore oil and gas, that are generating 15,000 jobs around the region. Due in part to that, we can expect Halifax’s population to go up by as much as 50 per cent in the next 15 years. And the availability of natural gas is going to fuel tremendous economic expansion. That’s on top of things like the $750-million expansion of the Stora forest products plant in Cape Breton and the booming fisheries and tourism industries.

How about the information technology and telecoms sectors? Jean Chretien might like you to think that these industries were languishing, starved as they were of federal largesse. Nonsense. IT and telecoms are growing by 20 per cent a year. Venture capitalists and other financiers of high tech are starting to take an interest in what’s happening here, bringing business experience that no government program can hope to supply. But they will disappear again if government starts doling out cash to promising start-ups, as “free” money crowds out smart money yet again.

The cross that this region has had to bear for 30 years has been that virtually every business decision has been politicized. We have subsidized fashionable or politically popular industries, while holding back communities and businesses with huge growth potential but that didn’t fit government priorities. Ironically, much of the region has done quite well over the past five years or so – precisely the time when the feds were cutting back on regional development and UI spending.

Here’s my second question: Why can’t the feds design national programs that actually fit the needs of the country as a whole? Last week’s announcement was nothing less than an admission by Ottawa that its Technology Partnerships Canada program, that has spent over $1 billion in Quebec and Ontario but virtually nothing east of there, has been an abject failure for the region.

It is no victory for Atlantic Canadians to have the federal government’s technology development spending come late, and in the form of yet another “catch-up” program to overcome “regional disparities.” This is just another aspect of the way this region has been marginalized in Ottawa. We are “represented” within the Byzantine corridors of bureaucratic power by a highly politicized Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, which carries no weight with other departments, yet whose existence allows all the rest of the government machine to ignore us with a clear conscience.

We need a normal policy regime here, in which we’re seen as a normal part of the country, whose particular needs must be met through the normal channels. The chief result of 30 years of a poisonous brew of “special” policies for Atlantic Canada is that the prime minister seems to believe that he can buy parliamentary seats here. Even the “father” of ACOA, Moncton’s Professor Donald Savoie, no longer believes in Ottawa’s regional development policies. Their persistence should be the final proof that the old ways suit Ottawa’s needs, not our own.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think-tank in Halifax.
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