A policy revolution
Regulation and promotion should be kept separate

 Brian Flemming

MANY GREAT guerrilla fighters such as Fidel Castro started their uprisings in sparsely-settled hill country Slowly their revolutions spread to suburbs, then to cities until victory was theirs.

Natural Resources minister Ernie Fage recently launched a little noticed guerrilla attack on government. If his newly promulgated policy permeates the Hamm government – and spreads to governments elsewhere Fage could become the Che Guevara of Cumberland County.

Fage’s astonishing coup de main got little coverage. Indeed, one newspaper buried his revolutionary manifesto on page 23. And no editorialists or columnists – until now – have drawn attention to Fage’s policy putsch.

The first shots were fired Oct. 29 when Fage introduced amendments to the Mineral Resources Act He said: the department of natural resources “shouldn’t be a regulator and promoter.”

Henceforth, the Labour Department will regulate mine safety Fage’s department will be strictly a manager and promoter. As in other revolutions, Fage’s coup did not come without blood-shed.

Unfortunately, 26 men – the Westray miners who perished in 1992 – had to die to end the most destructive of public-sector conflicts of interest, the one that occurs when governments arrogantly presume to be able to regulate and promote the same industry at the same time

So different are the mindsets needed to perform these disparate functions, it’s incredible the conflict was not outlawed long ago. After all, judges, cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats cannot have conflicts of interest. Judges must even avoid a perception of bias. So, it’s about time government itself joined the “anti-conflicts” club.

But splitting regulatory and promotional functions in mining is only the first shot from the hills, one that warns governments they must ditch their dangerous control-culture mentality. Fage’s regulatory revolution must move to other parts of his department, such as fisheries where aquaculture is promoted, regulated and financed by a single authority

Looming disaster

A Westray-class disaster (minus the dead miners) is looming across this province where Fage’s officials are helping open-cage fish-farming of species such as Atlantic and steelhead salmon. Net-cage aquaculture has already spawned ecological and financial disasters such as the one in New Brunswick in which 1.2 million salmon had to be killed because they caught infectious salmon anemia.

That fish kill cost governments, federal and provincial, $23 million when they were forced to add insurers to their promotional, regulatory and financing functions. There have been many similar failed aquaculture projects worldwide in recent years. Yet Fage’s officials soldier on in their world full of conflicts.

When the inevitable disaster happens, a clone of Justice Peter Richard, investigator of Westray will “find” (as Richard did) that one department alone should not regulate, promote, finance and in-sure aquaculture. Some future Fage will then be forced to amend the Aquaculture Act to prevent similar conflicts from arising again.

Another conflict-of-interest crisis is brewing in Ottawa where “genetically modified” foods are beginning to trouble both government and the public.

Science-celebrity David Suzuki recently stoked the embers of fear by claiming Canadians are “unwitting guinea pigs” in a vast, hidden experiment involving genetically-modified foods.

His Frankenfood scare has already led to calls by 200 present or former food directorate scientists for Ottawa to end the conflict of interest they claim exists in Canada’s Food Inspection Agency where food is both regulated and promoted.

One anonymous scientist said, “Health should never be put in the hands of a department that is supposed to be looking after the producers’ interests. Britain recognized that only after mad-cow disease.”

Unfortunately recent regulatory reform efforts have concentrated more on the “paper burden” or regulatory costs than the more fundamental flaw of governmental conflicts of interest.

Maybe Fage’s guerrilla activity will inspire his colleagues to search out all regulatory conflicts before fresh disasters force changes such as the one he just made in the mining industry Perhaps he could prepare a new regulatory “commandment” for cabinet: No Single Department Shall Simultaneously Regulate, Promote, Finance and Insure Any One Industry

Regulatory reform

The first copy should be sent to economic development minister Gordon Balser for distribution to his officials and the officers of Nova Scotia Business Capital Corp.

Because Balser always supported regulatory reform while in opposition, he is Fage’s natural ally in helping to move regulatory revolution from the “countryside” to the core of the way government in Nova Scotia operates.