Tag Archives: Council of Atlantic Premiers

Walking the low wire in fine and familiar balance

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A first-term premier in this corner of Canada can sometimes thrill the thralls, who newly elected him, by successfully negotiating the tightrope of regional politics, with or without a net.

To this end, New Brunswick’s young and inarguably energetic Brian Gallant practiced his equipoise in St. John’s earlier this week, alongside his counterparts at the annual Council of Atlantic “elected-men-in-suits”.

Did our fearless leader make it to the end of the line – strung merely inches above the ground, and, therefore, posing little risk to future career opportunities – or did he fall awkwardly to his knees?

As usual, this yearly gabfest among East Coast premiers promised more photo opportunity than perspicacity.

Still, it was incumbent on this bunch to, at least, appear effective. Hence, we are obliged to observe the Council’s official policy statement, issued Monday (helpfully provided by the Prince Edward Island government’s official website, among others):

“Atlantic Premiers are working together to improve the competitiveness of the region’s economy through actions to strengthen our workforce, harmonize and streamline regulations, ensure open transmission and transportation of energy, and provide more efficient and cost-effective services to Atlantic Canadians.

“The private sector is a key driver of job creation and economic growth across the region. Premiers announced today the Atlantic Red Tape Reduction Partnership. This partnership will identify business regulations and administrative processes that can be harmonized and streamlined to create a more competitive economic environment across Atlantic Canada.

“A competitive Atlantic economy depends on people having the right skills for the right job. Premiers extended the successful Atlantic Workforce Partnership for a further three years to continue harmonizing apprenticeship certification in 10 trades, and strengthen immigrant recruitment and retention in Atlantic Canada. This focus on demographic growth and skills enhancement builds on Atlantic Premiers’ commitment to increase the competitiveness of the region.

“Atlantic Premiers confirmed common priorities, including stable, adequate and predictable fiscal arrangements, Labour Market Development Agreements, immigration and energy.”

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

It’s not as if any of this is invigorating or even novel.

For at least a generation, Atlantic Canada’s premiers have barked madly about “closer cooperation” on what should be shared initiatives in the region – immigration, trade and labour mobility, procurement, social transfers from Ottawa, and federal-provincial protocols governing natural resources development.

And, this year they came together long enough to, as the St. John’s Telegram reported, “support the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador in pursuing a resolution to the ongoing dispute with the federal government over a proposed. . .package of fisheries-sector funding, tied to the Canada-European Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).”

Still, as the newspaper noted, “taking questions on the heels of the latest meeting of the Council of Atlantic Premiers, Stephen McNeil (N.S.) Robert Ghiz (P.E.I.) and Brian Gallant – with Newfoundland and Labrador premier Paul Davis beside them – stopped short. . .of offering full and unfettered support for the province’s position in the dispute.

The premiers generally restricted themselves to expressing support for the province’s ability to seek a correction to perceived wrongs.”

But, of course, what would we expect them to say?

Historically, as group, the Atlantic premiers’ collective interest in forging closer economic ties among them, as a bulwark against Ottawa’s policy of regional divide-and-conquer since Confederation, has evolved only glacially.

Each province has nourished its own, private interests with the feds even as each has nurtured its own, private grievances.

That’s how our rooked system has worked and continues to work in the second decade of the 21st Century. This is our fine and familiar balance – one to which all parts of the country have become inured.

And yet, at least, Mr. Gallant – who apparently enjoys being quoted – told the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, prior to the Council’s assembly, “It is a very good time to focus on our priorities vis a vis the federal government. Certainly, we hope that not only the federal government will take note but all of the political parties that will be vying for the support of Canadians during the next few months will listen as well.”

All of which is to say that New Brunswick’s premier can properly step off that tightrope without fear of bruising his knees – for now.

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Keeping our own economic promises

 

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The premiers of Canada’s least economically promising provinces display a marvelous esprit de corps, becoming a cheerful band of battle-ready brothers, when their mutual enemies in Fat City rattle their swords.

So it was this week when New Brunswick’s David Alward, Nova Scotia’s Stephen McNeil, Prince Edward Island’s Robert Ghiz and Newfoundland and Labrador’s Tom Marshall emerged from the semi-regular gabfest they dub rather self-importantly, Council of Atlantic Premiers, with agreements to, in effect, throw down the gauntlet on Ottawa’s front yard.

Having agreed to harmonize apprenticeship programs across the region (finally), they raised their voices en mass and called for Ottawa to stop pushing its immigration and jobs-protection agendas in the absence of any credible research or consultation on the subjects. 

Referring to a pending report he and his provincial counterparts commissioned on the impact of federal changes to the Employment Insurance system in the Atlantic region, Premier Ghiz told the Telegraph-Journal, “What this is really about is the Atlantic provinces putting together evidence-based research to take to the federal government that will indicate how the EI changes have negatively affected our region based on the seasonal industries that we have.”

Added Premier Alward: “It’s not just about EI. We can talk about any other changes. When they impactt regions, when they impact provinces, there needs to be a level of consultation before.”

Indeed, said Premier McNeil, the federal government must stop functioning as if it were in a partnership with only itself. “There needs to be a broader consultation between governments. The national government needs to make the provinces part of the decision making that has a huge impact on the regions or programs that are affecting regions.”

Well said, and bully for all of them. Now what? 

It’s true; since snatching power from the wobbly, scandal-riddled Liberals, federal Conservatives have displayed a dreadful lack of respect for the provinces, and not just the ones that hug the East Coast. Our region has, however, always seemed to earn special contempt from the callow, black-hearted, centre-obsessed boys and girls who populate the Prime Minister’s Office. 

Government of Canada reforms to EI seem almost deliberately crafted to cause the most inconvenience and disruption possible in the Atlantic provinces, where seasonality is, alas, one of the defining characteristics of the labour market.

Meanwhile, Employment Minister Jason Kenney’s ban on temporary foreign workers in the restaurant trade will hit the region’s tourist trade disproportionately hard, as the industry draws from an immigrant labour pool that is, alongside all the other evaporating ones, shrinking.

Still, Atlantic Canada’s premiers have complained about these and other slights for years and largely to no avail. Lamentably for Mr. McNeil, et. al, this is not a national government that feels any compelling need, whatsoever, to make the provinces part of its decision making. 

In fact, the federal Tories sometimes leave the impression that if they could shut down this messy Confederation of ours and run the whole show from glass towers impressively arranged along the banks of the Rideau Canal, everyone would be much happier. 

Poorer, for sure; but happier.

In fact, a more profitable use of our regional premiers’ time and energy – given the central government’s utter intractability – would be a full-sail vision quest, the purpose of which would be to translate their periodic displays of unity and filial bonding against a common foe into pragmatic commitments to formal socio-economic cooperation in the region itself.

Atlantic Canada’s real enemy doesn’t dress in blue pinstripes and speak with an Ottawa Valley accent. 

Our real enemy is our own parochial notion that our sputtering engines of growth are somehow stronger functioning apart from one another than they are operating in concert, together. 

Our nemesis is our pride, which cleaves to centuries’ old commercial conventions, long past their best before dates, that helps maintain an ossified culture of inter-provincial barriers against the movement of trade, people and skills.

In this regard, the Atlantic premiers’ decision to take the handcuffs off apprentices   is right and correct. 

But what more can this battle-ready band of brothers do for themselves, for the people they represent, for the region whose economic promise is not yet kept?

 

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Time to quit the Mickey Mouse Club

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Banding together in common purpose was once the stuff of boys’ adventure stories and early morning kids’ television programming. In the zeitgeist of popular culture, you could either be a mouseketeer or a muskateer; but never both.

It’s a little like that today in the real, hardscrabble world of Atlantic regional politics, where two distinct “groups of four” are forming to promote two competing conceptions of what it means to be a citizen of Canada’s most easterly realm.

In one corner, lately nestled along the white beaches of a certain Nova Scotia south shore resort, is the Council of Atlantic Premiers whose members seem to think that the most productive use of their time and energy is to issue stern denunciations of federal government labour market policies, and little else.

In another is the brand, spanking new “U4 League”, a group of mostly Maritime superheroes masquerading as university presidents whose initiates actually believe that the only way to improve life in this relentlessly unpromising pasture of the Great White North is to cooperate and. . .gasp! . . .get things done.

The League comprises Mount Allison University’s Robert Campbell, Acadia’s Ray Ivany, St. Francis Xavier’s Sean Riley and Bishop University’s Michael Goldbloom. Yesterday’s Globe and Mail story explains the unlikely collaboration as a marriage of virtue and necessity: “With public funding under strain and concerns about the quality of undergraduate education getting louder across Canada, the partnership is meant to get the most out of each school’s strengths.

Specifically, “The schools’ leaders aim to make it easier for students to tap the expertise of each university from their home campus, encourage faculty to work together across campuses, share ideas and find back-office savings – all without growing enrolments or eroding the intimate campus experience that is their hallmark.”

Does this suggest that these small institutions of higher learning are plotting a formal merger? Hardly. The point their head masters seem to be making is that forging closer ties – judiciously selected – will, in fact, strengthen their institutions’ individuality and independence. The approach could even cut costs without undermining the quality of the education they provide.

After all, as Mr. Goldbloom told the Globe, “At a time of limited public resources for public education, you had better be really good at what you do.” Meanwhile, added Mr. Campbell, “We’ll remain autonomous. It’s the competition that keeps us all sharp.”

Naturally, there is some tongue-in-cheekery in all of this, but there is a broadly good example to draw, as well: It has something to do with lemons and the making and serving of a tasty, refreshing drink, when one finds oneself in hot water.

Now, flash to Atlantic Canada’s sullen band of premiers, whose sole contribution to the process of transforming the region’s economy is their threadbare, bankrupt argument that bad dad Ottawa is determined to keep our seasonal workers under his hob-nailed jack boot until we run out of fish to catch or trees to cut or tourists to bed and breakfast.

Even if that were true (it is not), there’s nothing they can do about federal reforms to employment insurance or joint labour market agreements. And in their disingenuous hearts, they know this. But it’s a whole lot easier to take pot shots at the unfeeling “center”, than it is to roll up their sleeves and get down to the tough, necessary business of building, with the private sector, a competitive, durable, sustainable East Coast – one where home-grown innovation replaces tax-funded dependency in the lingua franca of the region.

The premiers’ implicit argument that changes to EI will make Atlantic Canada even less competitive than it is already relies, for its premise, on the absurd calculation that seasonal unemployment fuels economic growth.

But what, in fact, do they know about it? Which entrepreneurs have they consulted? How many full-time professionals and wage-earners have they tapped for advice lately?

The choice for Atlantic Canadians twas ever thus:

We can remain as mousketeers, or become, instead, musketeers.

Pick one; not both.

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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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