Maritimes make major move on red-tape reduction

Quietly, earlier this month, the Nova Scotia government took a significant step forward to change the way business is done in Atlantic Canada.

The premier, in his role as minister responsible for regulatory affairs and service effectiveness, tabled legislation that could reasonably be described as 50 years in the making. You’d think it might have made a bigger splash.

However, red tape reduction and/or regulatory reform isn’t sexy. It’s hard to get even the wonkiest of policy aficionados worked up over the idea. Beyond legislative assistants and clerks, when you bring up regulatory reform, most politicos’ eyes glaze over like a classical-fiction major in statistics class.

It’s probably why this regulatory reform legislation received only passing mention in the media alongside public sector union outrage and predictions of a mild winter.

However, this tiny, perfect bill, crafted by Fred Crooks and his folks at the newly formed Office of Regulatory Excellence and Service Effectiveness, has the potential to be a landmark act in the economic history of not just Nova Scotia, but also the Maritimes and perhaps all of Atlantic Canada.

Anyone who has followed the activities of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) will know the red-tape file is one of our obsessions.

CFIB fervently frets over red tape because regulatory compliance consistently comes in at the top of the list of serious concerns for small- and medium-size enterprises (SMEs).

We take our marching orders from our members and red tape hits the bottom line. Small businesses usually don’t have compliance officers or legal affairs departments to deal with regulation. Most entrepreneurs spend their nights, after supper, figuring out how to manage workers’ compensation claims, occupational health and safety requirements, Canada Revenue filings and the remaining avalanche of government paperwork of dubious usefulness.

It is particularly difficult and annoying when trying to do business between provinces where regulatory inconsistencies can make small- business owners tear out what’s left of their hair.

This is why this legislation is particularly good news. As part of the agreement underpinning the establishment of the Joint Office between P.E.I., New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, each government has committed to enact mirror legislation. This means the creation of a consistent legislative and regulatory framework between the three Maritime provinces.

So what?

It might be an historic opportunity. Since the time Louis Robichaud, Alex Campbell and Robert Stanfield mulled over the idea of Maritime union, there have been various visions of knocking down the borders between the Maritime provinces to create administrative efficiencies and more fluid and porous interprovincial boundaries. Maritime union has been trotted out on various occasions, regularly and thoroughly trounced by parochial interests, self-interested politicians and an ambivalent bureaucracy looking to protect provincial turf.

But this isn’t some grandiose vision of one Atlantic political entity. It’s much more practical than that. This new legislation and the creation of a joint office may turn out to be just the chisel to loosen the mortar of the regulatory walls that have been building between our Atlantic provinces over the past century.

The old management axiom says, “if it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed.” This legislation has committed to measure, manage and publicly report on red-tape reduction. It has the all-important accountability framework built in as a pillar of the process. This will give those who have an interest in freer trade between the provinces a tool to measure progress.

It has taken the establishment of broad international trade agreements (CETA, TPP) to open our politicians’ eyes to the reality that business in other countries may, in some cases, now have more favourable trade arrangements than business in neighbouring provinces. This important legislation is an important step in breaking down those interprovincial trade barriers and adds an important cog in the machinery of regional economic prosperity.

It ain’t sexy, but it sure is newsworthy.

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