by Daniel McHardie

FREDERICTON – The rebirth of Maritime cabinet meetings could sweep major policy reforms into the region even though New Brunswick’s premier is ruling out a formalized political union between New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

The concept of Canada got in the way of Maritime Union back in 1864 at the historic Charlottetown conference and ever since politicians, academics and citizens have weighed the advantages of reopening the merger debate.

Donald Savoie, the Canada research chair in public administration and governance at the Université de Moncton, is an unabashed supporter of Maritime Union. While he admits a full political merger is not likely soon, he has high hopes for these meetings.

“We should abolish all inhibitions to trade between the three Maritime provinces. Let’s set a target for 12 months and let’s do that,” Savoie said. “There is no economic reason why we can’t do that with a sense of urgency.”

The British Columbia and Alberta governments used a joint cabinet meeting to announce the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement, which has served as a standard for inter-provincial trade agreements. And Savoie said his Maritime free-trade idea could be born in a similar process.

Savoie said Maritime Union is increasingly a viable option with escalating global economic competition facing the three provinces. But he admits that such a shift would take a massive public debate and referendums.

“Maritime Union as a political union would be a difficult boat to row because there are still far too many vested interests in going with the status quo,” he said. “It would require a hell of a sales job to explain a Maritime Union. So in the absence of that we do this co-operation.”

When the three Maritime cabinets sit down for a joint meeting in October, Premier Shawn Graham said he will not be sidetracked by the broader debate of Maritime Union. Instead Graham said his government will keep its “laser focus” on the self-sufficiency agenda.

The New Brunswick premier said relegating the political union debate will give the three governments enough breathing room to start finding new ways of co-operating, which could lead to a different kind of merger.

“These meetings with respective cabinets at the table could be the genesis of concepts where we see agencies and commissions combined amongst respective jurisdictions to create greater economies of scale,” Graham said. “That’s why we want to take these tentative first steps to look at where we can achieve consensus by working together.”

Graham, Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald and Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz announced on Monday the joint cabinet meeting at Mount Allison University in October. Four main themes will be explored: Developing the region’s aerospace industry, opening the provinces as a gateway for North American commerce, fighting a shared problem of population decline and enhancing inter-Maritime trade.

The Maritime Union idea was studied by a royal commission in the 1960s, although that process was derailed over time by the waning interest of successive governments. Since then any formal merger of the provinces has given way to joint cabinet meetings or the Council of Atlantic Provinces, which holds meetings of the premiers or ministers on specific points of concern.

A national business leader reignited the debate in March. Catherine Swift, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, called on the regional governments to examine union as a way to reduce red tape and cut costs.

Charles Cirtwill, the acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, said the merger question makes for good debate but bad politics.

“From an administrative side of things and efficiency side of things there are all kinds of good arguments to make for it. But the simple fact of the matter is from a political perspective it is never going to happen.

“You are never going to get a political consensus from the three provinces and the populations thereof to merge.”