“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.”
— Stephen Harper, May 2002
If the talk among federal bureaucrats is any indication, the Conservatives may be hoping to snatch victory from the jaws of so-called cultural defeat.
Electoral victory, that is.
Long an opponent of regional funding arms such as the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), Prime Minister Stephen Harper may be allowing, if not endorsing, a return to the days of cherry-picking projects and company expansions to throw cash at.
In Thursday’s National Post, John Ivison highlighted how Harper’s actions and words seem to be parting ways in recent policy decisions in Atlantic Canada.
As an example, he pointed to a recent $114,000 grant to build a skateboard park in Yarmouth, N.S.
“The funding announcement at the beginning of last month ushered in a Yuletide spending spree in which ACOA sprinkled $2.8 million like fairy dust across Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in 17 separate ‘community infrastructure’ improvement releases,” wrote Ivison.
The irony, Ivison continues, is that a Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters survey to be released today indicates the vast majority of companies would much prefer tax breaks on training programs.
Training, the report concludes, is much more vital in areas where skilled labour shortages are causing firms to move their activities elsewhere.
Harper, it seems, has undulated back and forth on the issue. When he first came to power in 2004, he vowed to move away regional funding and towards tax breaks.
“He retreated from that position in the 2006 election, in an attempt to woo Quebec and Atlantic Canadian voters,” wrote Ivison, “but subsequently reduced corporate tax rates and curtailed some of the worst excesses of programs like the (Technology Partnerships Canada program).”
In fact, ACOA has been hard hit in recent years. In October 2011, as part of broad restraints, the government made major staffing cuts at ACOA offices throughout the region. That came on the heels of yearly reductions in the ACOA budget.
“Since 2006, there has been a 40 per cent budget cut,” Liberal MP Gerry Byrne said at the time. “No other federal government department has had reductions in its budget quite like ACOA.”
Byrne, of course, held the ACOA purse strings in the final year of Jean Chrétien’s administration, from 2002-2003.
Now, the pendulum seems to be swinging back, at least for the Maritimes.
Ivison says Harper is aware of the need for skilled labour, and has reportedly requested a broad-ranging review of how the government contributes to training programs.
“But if the rumblings from deep within the bureaucracy are proven correct, the response may be less than strategic,” he wrote, “resulting in the same quasi-political organizations that dole out money for skateboard parks simply being placed in charge of millions of new training dollars.”