The Atlantic Provinces “special snowflake” syndrome.

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The term “special snowflake” is generally used as a term of derision in the service industry. It comes from the term parents may use for their singularly wonderful child being “special”, like a “snowflake”.

After being popularized in the 1999 movie Fight Club, the term has transmuted into a sneering reference to those who feel they are or-so-very unique, but generally fall into columns of all-too-common attributes.

Kind of like our provincial governments.

In many ways, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador are indeed unique. The geography is somewhat different, the weather is more severe in some areas and in some locales, we speak in unique and charming dialects.

Beyond that, all of us, all 2.4 million Atlantic Canadians, are dealing with pretty much the same thing. Our economies are primarily resource based, we are in debt up to our ears (personally and publicly) and for a population slightly smaller than downtown Toronto, we are grossly over-governed with far too many people living on the public dime.

22.6% of all jobs in Atlantic Canada are in the civilian public sector. That’s fully five points above the national average.

To add to this problem, the public service continues to grow while public sector unions complain about “austerity” when governments simply try to reduce the speed of spending growth. There has been only one year in this century that Nova Scotia has seen a drop in the percentage growth of program spending, while most years spending has far exceeded the benchmark of population growth and inflation.

Do you feel we are getting 3 billion dollars worth of better government than we did in 2007? I didn’t think so.

To govern us across this region we elect almost 200 federal and provincial politicians and if we are counting just the major census areas (not including small villages, towns, county and other governments) we elect a total of 137 municipal councilors. To manage just the municipal and provincial affairs of the region we are forking over in excess of 33 billion dollars to politicians and the public service.

If we were getting absolutely awesome service from our over-investment in politicians and the public service, perhaps we wouldn’t have reason to complain. If we were getting “World Class” public services, we could all look at our tax bills and rejoice at the universal higher standards of living here in Atlantic Canada.

Except we don’t because the vast majority of our citizens know our total tax burden is much too high and “government customer service” is the punchline to a joke.

For mostly parochial or political reasons, governments in Atlantic Canada have historically felt our uniqueness trumped all. Because our respective provinces were somehow unlike any other province in the region, it was necessary to have separate provincial regulations, laws, and labour standards reflecting our “specialness”.

Not so much. There is no longer any rational economic justification for the layers of unnecessary governance Atlantic Canadians must contend with. A recent APEC report clearly explains the problem and quantifies the burden, and it isn’t pretty.

However, a glimmer of hope has arisen in our region. Perhaps because of the tireless lobbying of group like CFIB, or maybe the stars lined up to provide four political parties of the same stripe in power at one given time, or perhaps just because of the urgent need to finally try to address the problem, we have a body to attack some of our ridiculous regional redundancies.

With Newfoundland and Labrador signing on in December to complete the quartet at the Joint Office of Regulatory Affairs, the region now has a central tool to start dismantling some of the unnecessary costs and confusion that comes with four sets of rules to do business.

While such an event may have only titillated the wonkiest of public policy aficionados, it could prove to be a pivotal moment in the political and economic evolution of our region.

If the four governments finally come to grip with reality and accept the tax load on our shrinking population to support our unnecessary layers of government is unsustainable and must be lowered,  if they can come together to find governance efficiencies between provinces and enact sensible regulatory and interprovincial trade policy, perhaps Atlantic Canada has a fighting a chance at being a special snowflake.

2014…a few odd thoughts on making Nova Scotia better

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As we head into another year, I thought I’d add a few ideas that have been clattering around in my head that just might make Nova Scotia a better place to live.

Some are old, some are new, some could be done tomorrow, others need either money and/or time to implement. I’d like to hear if you think these are things the new Liberal government could look at to improve our economy and the lives of the people in our province.

Finance Minister Diana Whalen must give a clear picture of the state of the provinces finances for those who don’t hold Masters degrees in public finance and accounting. While better than some previous efforts, the latest financial update proved once again that government officials and politicians struggle to communicate public finance, especially regarding the relationship to our debt. The Chronicle Herald’s Bob Howse did an admirable job of outlining this in his opinion piece last August. Surely to God with the battalion of communications staff the province has on the payroll, voters can be given better access and insight to the decision-making process than is now provided.

Nova Scotia should aim to be the best place to open a small business in Canada. According to the CFIB’s latest Nova Scotia Business Barometer®, twenty-five per cent of owners now say the state of their business is ‘bad’ versus only 35 percent who say it is ‘good’. There are a number of battles being waged in this province by small against government. This includes poorly thought changes to Workman’s Comp, an inability to streamline the apprenticeship process or get a handle on workplace safety issues.

High taxes and unnecessary red tape also create an environment that drives small business away. Attracting big employers to set up shop may make great headlines but small business remains the backbone of the provincial economy. Nova Scotia Business Development Program is a good start…promote it aggressively, create a better environment for entrepreneurs and then get the hell out-of-the-way.

Meaningful reductions in the size of the public spending cannot come soon enough. If this is done by eliminating revenue (read: lower taxes) and forcing balanced budgets, then so be it. The Harper government came under great criticism for its reduction of the GST by 2 points, eliminating billions in federal revenue. This left Finance Minister Jim Flaherty with the daunting challenge of balancing a budget without the additional windfall of consumption tax.One can argue the merits of the GST versus other forms of taxation, but in the end it meant there was less cash floating around Ottawa to spend.

Government spending in this province has grown from 6 billion to over 10 billion in the past ten years. Feel better served by government? Unless meaningful measures to restrict spending are enforced, the public sector will continue to balloon.

One small way to adjust this continued siphoning of money from the pockets of people is allowing Atlantic Lottery Corporation to grow a robust off-shore online gambling business and begin the reduction and replacement of localized gambling revenue. While it’s a voluntary tax, it is none-the-less emptying the pockets of Nova Scotians for little or no net benefit.

If we are indeed going to accept that government should profit from gambling, then let those gamblers come from other jurisdictions feed the beast. Constrict local gambling revenues, especially VLTs and allow offshore betting under the ALCs “Responsible Gambling” protocols.

Set defined timelines for the twinning of major highway arteries.The previous government’s efforts at de-politicizing the paving and highway infrastructure growth process was a step in the right direction. If plans are in the works, let the Minister responsible know what’s going on so they can answer direct questions about when work will begin on important arteries throughout the province. Then get the earth movers moving.

Set clear timelines and reporting structures for the creation of a universal medical information system in the province. It is perhaps the most critical piece of the puzzle to cut costs and create greater efficiency in the medicare system. Reducing the number of Health Authorities to cut unnecessary administrative cost is useful, but unless everyone gets on the same page with the transfer of information this restructuring will be a dogs breakfast.

The Department of Community Services requires a significant rethink. As the third largest cost behind Health and Education, Community Services delivers programming that is essential to those in need. Lumping disabilities in with social welfare blurs the line between providing a hand up to those temporarily in need and those who rely of government access to quality of life.

In Saskatchewan, the Brad Wall government has created a disabilities strategy which is actually consulting with those who live with cognitive, intellectual and physical disabilities. They are also separating disabilities initiatives from social welfare to make sure those with challenges are afforded proper housing, care and dignity.The Saskatchewan mantra is to be the best place to live in Canada for people living with disabilities. We should challenge that ideal.

On the really wacky side, what harm could there be in examining the establishment of a freeport or free economic zone in this province. Want to generate tourism traffic and local economic activity in a poor area? Want to attract multinational companies? Giving up a small part of tax revenue would be greatly offset by international traffic and spin-off benefits for surrounding communities. Who knows, maybe it could be in Freeport…mmm, maybe not.

So as we head into 2014, perhaps we can kick the can down the road toward a more prosperous and compassionate Nova Scotia.

What do you think?