Let’s Start Clearing the Smoke on Cannabis

In another 12 months, we’ll be dealing with the real world impact of the federal government’s legalization of marijuana. There are still lots of unanswered questions about how this will roll out. These are questions with huge economic and social implications.

While the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) has conducted only one survey of its members so far on how recreational marijuana should be sold, comments from our members suggest there are still considerable divisions on whether legalizing marijuana is even a good idea.

While we have limited experience with cannabis per se, CFIB is a respected international leader on regulation, including how to get it right and what not to do. This includes considerable experience with liquor and tobacco regulation. The federal government has handed responsibility over to the provinces who will need to apply a laser focus on these key critical regulatory pieces.

Too often, governments examine a new area where regulation is needed and quickly expand the mandate to include every moving part. This automatically means proper enforcement is near impossible. We recommend focusing on a few critical regulatory priorities, such as preventing sales to minors, ensuring proper product safety information and rules, and prohibitions at work or while driving. Choose the most important aspects to regulate and then do them well. Leave the rest alone.

We also hope to see the same rules across the country. The provinces should be working together to ensure as much consistency as possible as legalization rolls out across the country.  As the new Canadian Free Trade Agreement works to undo the damage of multiple complicated regulatory schemes, the last thing we need is another patchwork quilt of rules in an emerging industry.

Additionally, while bringing recreational cannabis sales out of the underground economy will no doubt have positive revenue implications for the government (excise, sales, and corporate income taxes), there will be added costs for policing and health care. Government would be wise to resist the temptation to frame this as a giant cash cow.

That means getting the tax mix right. If taxes are excessive, particularly in early days, much of it will remain black market. High tax rates may discourage users, but they’ll also push sales into the underground economy. It is estimated that close to a third of tobacco sales are underground, often with links to organized crime.

Also, provinces would be wise not to let regulation get in the way of innovation. An above-ground private sector can stay much closer to customer preferences, the edibles market is a good example. It’s also a myth that only public sector employees can responsibly handle controlled substances. The private sector has held an important role in tobacco and pharmaceutical sales, as well as alcohol in some provinces.

CFIB is also recommending a central role for smaller, independent businesses within this emerging industry. We are already advocating for access to banking and payments services for smaller, independent businesses involved in legal cannabis retail and distribution as a measure to help achieve the goal of limiting the underground economy.

Even those who are involved in the emerging industry appear to remain unsure of where this is all going. A year out from implementation, we should be seeing some of the smoke begin to clear.

Jordi Morgan is Vice President, Atlantic of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. CFIB represents the interests of 11,000 small and medium size businesses in Atlantic Canada.

Cap and Trade for Nova Scotia Still Fuzzy for Small Business

cap-and-trade

The Nova Scotia government’s decision to go it alone with cap-and-trade to put a price on carbon raises more questions than answers.

This spring, government released a discussion paper, looking for feedback. They gave less than a month for responses and you needed a degree in environmental science to make any sense of what was being asked.

At an information session, executive director Jason Hollett of the climate change unit tried valiantly to outline a coherent picture, but he was working within an unreasonably tight timeline and without all the tools. In spite of a commendable effort, many left the session scratching their heads. Under questioning, somewhat ominously, he referred to the scheme as “a big regulatory beast.”

Without much heavy industry, Nova Scotia has few large greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters. Our coal-burning generating stations are pumping out the lion’s share (44 per cent). The transportation industry creates 27 per cent, followed by commercial and residential heat (combined 13 per cent) and the oil and gas industry (five per cent). The remainder comes from waste, agriculture and other industry.

For years, Nova Scotians have been paying through the nose to achieve GHG reductions through transition to renewable electricity generation and efficiency. We can pat ourselves on the back. After coughing up the highest power rates in the country over the last 10 years, our renewable portfolio has grown from seven to 27 per cent, exceeding our reduction targets.

Apparently unsatisfied with this progress, the Trudeau government, riding its mandate to legislate away climatic catastrophe, told Nova Scotia to put a price on carbon by 2018 or we’ll do it for you. The McNeil government initially balked, then came up with what it felt was the best option, a go-it-alone cap-and trade-system.

Using cap and trade, the premier successfully avoided the “carbon tax” narrative, opting instead for what appears to be a more saleable version.

The proposed Nova Scotia cap-and-trade model is fairly simple, but its administration is expected to be complex and therefore, presumably, costly.

Government will cap the amount of GHGs emitted into the atmosphere, hand out free credits for that tonnage to this handful of larger polluters and they can trade among themselves. When someone needs more, they can buy in this tiny market of emitters. How that will affect price is unclear.

A central tenet of carbon pricing is revenue neutrality. But with this plan, at least for now, there is no clarity in respect to dollars changing hands or how it will affect the price of electricity or fuel. Other questions: Will the incentive to be greener simply be higher energy and transportation costs? What would be the offset?

Moving ahead without the required evidence in respect to cost and competitiveness will frustrate business owners. In spite of a stated intention by government to measure and cost all regulation prior to application, none of these calculations are yet available.

While public servants are trying to align regulations between provinces to break down trade barriers, Nova Scotia’s approach (in spite of the premier’s openness to having the other Atlantic provinces jump on board) could result in two, three or four carbon pricing schemes in the region.

cap and trade chart

CFIB members support environmental initiatives. Seventy-nine per cent believe it is possible to grow the economy and protect the environment at the same time. But 80 per cent say government must consider the cost to small business before implementing a mechanism to price carbon. That means measuring and communicating real economic costs and environmental benefits and establishing a reasonable window for consultation and implementation.

In light of the work by this government to improve the regulatory environment, introduction of a “regulatory beast” feels counter-intuitive and environmental and economic impacts are still fuzzy. For something of this size and importance to be a cost of doing business in Nova Scotia, we need clarity.

This originally appeared in the Chronicle Herald, April 26, 2017

The Atlantic Provinces “special snowflake” syndrome.

special-snowflake

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.

Economic barbed wire

Barbed Wire

Steps are being taken by Atlantic Canadian political leaders to dismantle a virtual wall erected between provinces over more than a century.

In perhaps one of the most memorable moments of his presidency, in 1987 Ronald Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gates in Berlin and implored Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” The purpose of the speech was to compel the Soviets to submit their economy to accountability, transparency, and greater freedom. While there may be lingering questions about the impact of Reagan’s rhetorical flourish, there’s no doubt the subsequent destruction of the Berlin Wall was transformative for the European economy.
While not the magnitude of Reagan’s oratorical overture, steps are being taken by political leaders in Atlantic Canada to dismantle a virtual wall erected between provinces over more than a century by creating a new office to begin pulling apart the red tape that often acts like economic barbed wire between provinces. Mention of internal trade barriers is frequently met with confused stares. After all, there are no border guards on the Confederation Bridge or economic sanctions against the province of Nova Scotia. Our members tell us that these barriers take the more insidious form of unnecessary and burdensome regulation.
Whether due to political interference, parochial interests, or simply grown from the nature of our different bureaucratic cultures, red tape inhibits businesses that aim to work in other jurisdictions by creating a prohibitive and expensive maze of differing rules, requirements, regulations, and practices.

From a business perspective, why do New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have different requirements in fall arrest requirements when gravity appears to act with remarkable similarity in both provinces? Why would first-aid kits in each province require different contents or trucks require different wide-load signage? Some of the examples border on the ridiculous, but either by default, or in some cases by design, all of these differences add cost, drag productivity, and ultimately make things more expensive for consumers.

The recent signing of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Europe further highlights the need to move on freer trade within Canada. In some cases, the new agreement means that European companies will have access to opportunities across Canada that companies in a neighbouring province or territory may not. With a more global business environment and greater opportunities for free trade, we can’t continue to ignore the impact that our own provincial differences have on our economic competitiveness.

In fact, a recent poll conducted for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) by Ipsos-Reid shows that the majority of working Canadians agree it’s time for premiers to work together to remove impediments to the flow of goods, services, and workers across provincial and territorial boundaries.

With that in mind, CFIB has been cheering some of the recent work being conducted by both the Council of Atlantic Premiers and the Council of the Federation to help tear down those walls. Earlier this year, Premiers Gallant and McNeil took the significant step of creating the Joint Office of Regulatory and Service Effectiveness between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. More recently, Prince Edward Island’s Premier Wade MacLauchlan and Newfoundland and Labrador’s government are showing interest in the process.

All of the Atlantic provinces stated in January that they would create an Atlantic Red Tape Reduction Partnership that would help streamline business requirements to create a more competitive economic environment within the region. Our neighbours are important trading partners, and we encourage these bodies to set meaningful regulation reduction targets, reach them, and report publicly on their achievements.

Further to regional work, the Council of the Federation (Premiers) has also been the scene of some encouraging progress. While we’ll have to wait until next spring to see what progress is made with reforms to our main national trade agreement, the Agreement on Internal Trade, we did see a positive step with the premiers signing the Provincial–Territorial Apprentice Mobility Protocol at their recent meeting in St. John’s.

Most notable about this new mobility protocol is that it follows the principle of mutual recognition. Rather than a lengthy bureaucratic process of trying to harmonize each and every regulation across each jurisdiction, the premiers simply said, “If it’s good enough in Province A, it’s good enough for Province B.” This is the gold standard for modern trade agreements and is precisely the direction we want our governments to go when removing barriers.

While the stakes may not seem as high in Atlantic Canada as for the Soviets in 1987, reality shows that we’re facing many daunting economic challenges and unfavourable demographics. With the world of trade changing around us, it’s becoming increasingly important that we work together to break down barriers between our provinces to make the best use of our economic and human resources. If we don’t, we risk isolating ourselves behind our walls of red tape.

Jordi Morgan is the vice-president, Atlantic Canada, and Erin McGrath-Gaudet is the director, P.E.I. and intergovernmental affairs, for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. CFIB represents the voices of 11,000 small and medium-size firms in Atlantic Canada, with 109,000 members across Canada.

This piece originally appeared in Progress 101 issue online, by subscription and on newstands across Canada