Atlantic Council’s relevance needs repair

Who books the hall for a day of feckless gabbing?

Who books the hall for a day of feckless gabbing?

Before the Council of Atlantic Premiers lectures Ottawa about the devastation federal policies for skills development and employment insurance are wrecking along the East Coast, it might consider the role its own fecklessness plays in the steadily unravelling regional economy.

According to its website, which appears frozen in time like grandma’s fine china, the Council sputtered to life in 2000 with a “mission” to “promote collaboration among the four Atlantic provinces.”

In this hopeful version of reality, “Premiers are committed to working together and with the federal government on issues of importance to all Atlantic Canadians, including enhancing trade opportunities, supporting research and development, investment in renewable energy initiatives, and economic and social cooperation.”

The useful context of history reminds us that its near-doppelganger, the Council of Maritime Premiers, established in 1972, “was the first agency of its kind to provide an effective legal framework for cooperation among provinces.”

Again, the website crows triumphantly, “The goal of the Council is to ensure maximum coordination of the activities of the governments of the three Maritime provinces, and their agencies. There are three primary ways that the provinces advance their interests through cooperation: creating regional organizations; harmonizing provincial policies and programs; and having common positions on matters involving other parties, such as the federal government.”

In fact, would that more of this were so. Anyone who wants to comprehend why Maritime economic – let alone, political – union is currently impossible need only observe the functioning of these two councils. Putatively committed to forging pragmatic solutions to shared problems, they are far more adept at issuing weak statements of principle about “joint collaborations” when they are not channeling regional grievances against their common enemy, the federal government.

As platforms for political polemics, they are marvelous institutions. As purveyors of useful policy. . .well, not so much. And, given the stench wafting from provincial ledgers in this part of the country, that’s a shame.

Can anyone explain, with a straight face, why the Maritimes, hosting a total population of 1.8 million, requires three separate motor vehicle departments, corporate registries and liquor commissions, to say nothing of securities administrators?

Instead, the Council pats itself on the back for its school bus deal. “Joint procurement is an important tool in seeking best value and efficiencies for their governments,” its website declares. “The joint purchase of school buses is an excellent example of positive results achieved through joint procurement. Atlantic Canada currently saves $30,000 per bus purchased. In 2012, this arrangement resulted in $7 million in savings for the region.”

That, at least is a start. But, as Paul McLeod, Ottawa bureau chief of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, wrote in a piece for The Herald Magazine last month, this “and a Nova Scotia-Newfoundland bulk deal on firehoses. . both. . .date to the 1990s, before the council existed.”

Mr. McLeod also quoted one of the Atlantic Council’s founding fathers, former New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord, who sounded a somber note: “Part of the reasons I wanted all of us to create this is to streamline regulations, red tape and obstacles that exist between provinces. Early on, there were some wins. But if you ask me did we fulfill the complete promise of what we could have achieved, no, I don’t think we have because there are still too many barriers. There are still too many obstacles.”

Granted, getting out of their own way to get something done is not what politicians do best. But the bitch-fest earlier this week at the Council of the Atlantic in White Point, N.S., served little useful purpose.

New Brunswick Premier David Alward may have reflected the opinions of his provincial counterparts when he told Brunswick News, “the question of EI is on the agenda,” but he skirted the larger issue of building economic capacity in the region with the tool he and his colleagues already possess: The freedom to drive real change amidst their own company, without regard for either cutbacks by, or parting gifts from, the federal government.

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