In March of 2002 Stephen Harper set off a firestorm of criticism after being quoted in the Saint John Telegraph Journal. When asked about the economic performance of the region, he responded by saying, “I think in Atlantic Canada, because of what happened in the decades following Confederation, there is a culture of defeat that we have to overcome. …Atlantic Canada’s culture of defeat will be hard to overcome as long as Atlantic Canada is actually physically trailing the rest of the country.”
The headline writer didn’t have to dig to deep to find gold. His political opponents of the day didn’t have to work to hard to extrapolate all the verbal batons with which to beat him over the head. I still believe had Mr. Harper not framed it just so, the federal political landscape might look a lot less Liberal and NDP is this neck of the woods. I knew as soon as I read that he said it there would be a significant personal political price he would pay in Atlantic Canada. There was.
Fortunately, Ray Ivany and his panel on Nova Scotia’s economic recovery aren’t worried about getting elected. If any politician had stood up and spoke as frankly as Ivany did yesterday, political opponents would be falling over themselves to discount the formidable truth of what was said. It was true 12 years ago. It’s still true today.
The panel’s findings are nothing new. Collectively we all realized or at least suspected the key points. People who are paying attention have known it for a long time. The Herald editorial call it a “unvarnished, awkward and often unflattering truth— about our collective selves.”
Essentially, the report says we have developed a culture of “No”. Call it what you will but Harper’s 2002 interpretations ain’t far off. We can argue about policies going back to Confederation that have entrenched this attitude but there is no denying it exists…in Now or Never, An Urgent Call to Action for Nova Scotians, Ivany’s panel affirmed this in spades.
Among other points, it’s made clear we depend too heavily on government interventionism. Ivany takes pains to point out some new program or policy tweak is not going to turn this around.
Evidence of this may no clearer than our response to the shipbuilding procurement strategy. There is no denying that injecting 30 billion dollars into a local economy will have an impact…but let’s see it for what it is. It’s primarily federal public money backed up by provincial public money going into DND, another publicly funded entity. It’s redistribution not wealth creation.
Is this simply going to become another government teat on which we will become dependent or do we actually believe it will transmogrify into private sector wealth creation and development? To do that we had better understand that it’s through the private sector we will make that happen through export development and market expansion of defense technology. I can already hear the naysayers.
Government also has to look at its relationship to business and figure out how to get the hell out of the way. Our tax and regulatory load in this province is debilitating. All the payroll tax credits and government “incentives” in the world won’t alleviate the outright punitive measures that are in place to set up shop and run a business in Nova Scotia. Can you say the highest Workman’s Comp rates, convoluted apprenticeship regulations, the First Contract Arbitration legislation…? I could go on for days. While we’ve seen some nominal reduction of regulatory burden recently, it’s not nearly enough.
On my radio program I tried on many occasions to talk about immigration. From most of the calls I received, we don’t much like folks “from away”. This is bad. Very bad.
Ivany’s report talks about our demographic decline. We have a rapidly aging workforce and shocking levels of out-migration. These alarm bells have been ringing for a dozen years.
It’s not good enough to just tolerate higher levels of immigration, as a culture we must be embracing the benefits of immigration and promoting Nova Scotia as a place that wants and welcomes immigrants. The provincial government may not be able to solve this problems on its own, but having the highest personal, business and consumption taxes in the country doesn’t exactly say “céad míle fáilte”.
Perhaps the most refreshing component of yesterday’s illuminations was Ivany’s insistence that this was a message for the people of the province, not simply a message for government. While I accept his point, government however is how we collectively make decisions and it is, or ideally should be, a reflection of our collective will. Let’s hope government listens and embraces these ideas.
Ivany usefully called for long-term targets be legislated and that the legislation be enforced. I would take this a step further and demand short, medium and long-term targets be legislated and rigorous metrics be transparently applied to ensure governments are meeting those goals and reporting back to the public.
It’s true we may not be capable of running government like business but we can sure as hell take a few cues from successful enterprise and apply it to public policy.
Ivany’s comment about Nova Scotia taking a long hard collective look in the mirror is a great one. Often when criticism comes from outside, as Maritimers, we are too quick to become defensive. Ivany has said we need to take an honest look at ourselves, reset our attitudes and get on with the work of turning our beloved province around.
I guess it just must be said by someone who isn’t “from away.”