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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Election 2011 - Sharing Provincial Wealth

With the provincial election in full swing, and especially after the leader’s debate (argument) it occurred to me that it might do us all some good to step back from the political rhetoric for a moment and consider our future without the political spin.

I realize I’ll probably get plenty of nasty on this article. I also suspect I’ll be branded a “typical townie” or told my political leanings are overriding my common sense. So be it. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of being a Tory, a Liberal or an NDP (depending on the time of day and subject at hand). None of it is true of course.

The truth is that the only things I hate more than politicians who are willing to say anything to win is keeping my mouth shut or sitting in front of an idle keyboard. In this case all three of these pet peeves have combined to lead me to type this commentary rather fast and furiously, even for me.

So, lets start with a question: Has anyone living in, or who recently visited, the St. John’s area noticed that on nearly every major road there are numerous signs practically begging people to apply for a job?

I drove down Torbay Road a few weeks ago and counted no less than 11 such signs in a 1-kilometer stretch. It was inspiring.

Granted most of those jobs are in the service sector, but with the high demand for employees these days those companies are now offering everything from medical and dental plans to flexible shifts, above market wages and a myriad of other perks.

A quick scan of newspaper or online job postings reveals that employment opportunities in the metro area have skyrocketed and are growing all the time. Most often those jobs are for higher paying professional positions.

At this point you may be wondering if I’m bragging about how good things are this side of the overpass and what any of it has to do with the current election campaign. Well, it has a great deal to do with the election because while this new reality, where there are more jobs than applicants, might exist in the St. John’s area, once you move into rural parts of the province the picture gets much more bleak.

The unemployment rate across the rest of the province is staggering and it is this reality, our “dual economy” which is providing fodder for politicians, especially for Liberal leader, Kevin Aylward in this election. In fact I’d argue Mr. Aylward has hung the future of his party on perpetuating the myth that rural Newfoundland and Labrador has been forgotten.

Well folks, that position may make for good political spin and it may sway some voters, but is it true?

I don’t believe it is, not for a second, no matter how often I hear it repeated.

It wasn’t true under the Williams government, it isn’t true under the Dunderdale government and for that matter it wasn’t true under the Liberal and PC governments of the past either. In fact, I’d argue that a great deal of focus has been placed on rural areas for a very, very long time. Unfortunately, most of that attention wasn’t focused on what really mattered.

It wasn’t, for example, focused on protecting the fish stocks before they were destroyed. Rather it was more often directed at opening yet another unneeded processing plant to help ensure some candidate’s election victory. That’s just one example of course but one very reflective of the current election rhetoric by the Liberal leader.

No matter what any politician might say over the next couple of weeks, it is not the job of government to make work, beyond perhaps creating a job for themselves.

The point is that governments shouldn’t be in the business of creating jobs for the sake of creating jobs. I believe that’s where the misconception that rural Newfoundland and Labrador is being ignored comes from. It comes from those who see government as something it isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be.

The place of government is to make sure that essential services are delivered in the best way possible, that the public is safe on the streets and to foster an environment conducive to business growth. It’s business that should create employment, not government. Government can, and should, set the table, but its business that must pull up a chair and sit down. Anything else is smoke and mirrors.

A responsible government should, and usually does, encourage business growth. They do this by offering tax breaks or other incentives for business to set up shop in strategic areas. They also try to court investment and market the benefits of the places they govern. That doesn’t mean, no matter what any candidate might say, that government can, or even should, throw money at any particular industry or region simply to “make work” there.

I moved around the province and the country for years before finally settling in the St. John’s area. Essentially, I went where the work took me. I didn’t want to leave my home town and I still hope to return there when the opportunity arises. I did what I had to do and I’m still doing it every day.

It’s no secret that many people want to stay where they grew up, where they have family and where they are the most comfortable in their own skin, but most of us can’t do that. That isn’t government’s fault and it isn’t something unique to Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s happening across Canada and around the world.

Major companies generally locate in larger urban areas where they can more easily find suppliers, are close customers and have a bigger pool of potential employees (including those in outlying rural areas) to choose from. This is as true for oil industry employers as it is for secondary industries like IT companies, retail stores, restaurants, hotels, taxi services and the rest. It isn’t some sort of conspiracy or plot to deny jobs to those in rural areas it’s just the way business operates.

Why is it then that so many people believe because there isn’t a job for them in their small town they are being neglected or forgotten by government?

How can anyone expect government to spend millions to “make work” in places where there is none and where business itself does not, for whatever reason, want to set up shop?

No matter how much oil or how much gas is produced, and no matter what politicians promise on the campaign trail, most of the direct business spin off from the oil industry will continue land in the St. John’s area. That’s something government, of any stripe, has very little control over, but that doesn’t mean rural Newfoundland and Labrador is not benefiting from the improved economy.

Think about what it would truly mean if government actually responded to the expectation of creating employment in every town or propping up failing businesses enterprises with provincial revenues.

In today’s reality, it would mean that tax dollars desperately needed for infrastructure, schools and hospitals right across Newfoundland and Labrador would be eaten up trying to find ways to make employment in one part of the province while, as previously mentioned, just a few hundred kilometres away, in another part of the province, employers are screaming for workers.

Does that make any sense?

When it comes to certain industries like fishing, aquaculture, wind farms, smelters and the like there are valid reasons why those are built outside of the urban centers, and there is no doubt that this sort of development will continue to be supported as profitable opportunities arise. It’s doubtful however that those developments will grow fast enough to make a serious dent in the unemployment rate in rural Newfoundland and Labrador. Neither will pumping millions of dollars into fish plants unable to turn a profit from ever decreasing fish stocks. That is also a reality.

Spending millions to try to create or prop up work in rural areas at the same time there is a severe shortage of workers in urban areas is a recipe for economic disaster.

So why are there still those who believe that because there is a dual economy in the province, rural Newfoundland and Labrador is getting nothing from the oil boom?

I come from a small rural town in the province but I work in St. John’s and now live just outside the city. Do you want to know a little secret? I get the same benefit from the oil industry and the resulting government revenues as anyone else in the province, urban or rural.

I don’t get a cheque from the oil companies in my mail box each week. I don’t glide to work on gold paved streets, and I don’t spend my days sipping champagne at taxpayer’s expense while fairies cut my grass or shovel my driveway in winter.

I left my home town and moved to where the work was located like countless others. Each day I drive to and from my job over the same sort of pot hole filled roads many people in rural areas would recognize in their own towns.

On the other hand, I occasionally notice improvements in our highways when I travel across the island to visit family. (It’s here that the folks in Labrador may have a far better argument than most about being forgotten or neglected).

I sometimes read about new dialysis equipment, cancer clinics or seniors’ care facilities being built in different parts of the province.

I see attention being paid to refurbishing schools or to improving government services.

I see more or different medications being covered for lower income families through the government funded drug program. (Though not nearly enough)

I see provincial debt slowly being paid down and I see the amount of provincial taxes I pay slowly reduced thanks to the improved economy.

It’s these things that are all made possible by an increase in provincial revenues, much of it oil generated, and it is these things that are used to spread the wealth around the entire province.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not praising the current government for these things. It’s simply a fact that there is more money in provincial coffers today than there has been in the past and as a result more can be done to make life a little better for everyone.

I don’t doubt that more will be done as time goes by, no matter which party wins the election on October11. Though the specific spending priorities may change depending on who is in power the general way the wealth is distributed will not change, or at least it shouldn’t.

If it does change, if “Make work” replaces “Take work” (where ever you have to move to get it) then heaven help us all.

Don’t for a minute believe that rural Newfoundland and Labrador has been forgotten simply because unemployment is higher or because a particular mill or fish plant has shut down. You can blame that on a lot of things, the global economy, declining fish stocks, a limited need for newsprint, but it isn’t government that closed those industries and it isn’t government that can re-open them, at least not if they are to be profitable rather than a drain on taxpayers.

If the next government opts to spread the wealth, or worse yet, drive us all deeper into debt, by artificially creating work in areas where private industry is unable to turn a profit then we will all pay the price for their short sighted approach.

The future of our province and the full benefit of our economic growth can only be ensured if we recognize the most beneficial role of government and if we “take work” not “make work”.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Does the Atlantic Gateway Really Exist?

In October of 2007 the federal Conservative government announced a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Atlantic Provinces. The agreement was hailed as a landmark partnership that would allow for the creation of an Atlantic Gateway helping to ensure improved trade, economic growth and prosperity for the entire region.

The Atlantic Gateway Initiative, it was said, would allow for, “…leveraging our most important transportation systems to better connect Canada with the world”.

Four years later, how much do any of us know about what’s been done to make the Atlantic Gateway a reality and what economic benefits have we seen as a result of the initiative?

A few months after the agreement was signed, a handful of official announcements were made touting the importance of the MOU and boasting of a $2.1 billion national fund. It was said that a portion of that fund could be leveraged to finance partner projects as part of the Atlantic Gateway. The exact proportion of funds available in Atlantic Canada was not identified.

After the initial media blitz the Atlantic Gateway website reveals no further press releases or announcements for an extended period of time.

The next public statements out of Ottawa regarding the Atlantic Gateway don’t appear until February of 2011, more than two and a half years after the MOU was signed.

At that time, and for a few short weeks, releases again began to appear. These identified a hodgepodge of funding for small projects under the Atlantic Gateway banner, everything from small wharf improvements to airport lighting. The announced projects had a combined value of less than $50 million dollars, were spread across the four Atlantic Provinces and came in the 3 months leading up to the last federal election.

Since the election last May silence has once again descended on the Gateway.

The Atlantic Gateway site shows no comprehensive list of project funding and no accounting of the money spent. No identification of Gateway related policies or planning activities can be found there either. In fact the site provides little substance beyond the posting of the handful of intermittent political press releases previously identified.

Compare this with the official site for the Pacific Gateway, a similar program on the West Coast of Canada, which was initiated just 12 months prior to the Atlantic MOU being signed.

A visit to that site reveals a number of informational links on everything from federal investments to security activity, marine and air policies, environmental information and more. Visitors can even access an interactive map identifying exactly where and how much funding has been provided and what was accomplished with the dollars spent.

The map shows that nearly a billion dollars has been spent in Lower BC alone. That figure is in addition to more than $600 million allocated to other projects throughout the West, all tagged as part of the Pacific Gateway initiative.

Since the Atlantic Gateway, like its Pacific counterpart, is intended to boost trade by enhancing transportation infrastructure it might be expected that the Harper government would try to “brand” any and all federal funding for air, sea or ground transportation projects as part of the Atlantic Gateway Initiative. No doubt that tactic accounts for at least a portion of the funding identified out West but when compared to the low level of spending in the Atlantic region the numbers are no less staggering.

It would be easy to announce funding for bridge work, highways or even the new ferries for Marine Atlantic in Newfoundland and Labrador as a part of the initiative, even though they are all part of the normal activities of government. It’s exactly the sort of thing politicians are so efficient at doing but in this case they don’t even appear interested enough in the Atlantic Gateway concept to muddy the waters that way.

When it comes to the dollars specifically identified for Gateway initiatives in Canada it appears that the Atlantic Initiative has garnered only 3% of the funds spent on the Pacific coast, hardly indicative of a federal priority.

Granted Canada’s largest trading partner, the U.S. is easily accessible overland or through the Great Lakes. Granted as well, a high volume of trade between Canada and China is a valid reason to improve transport infrastructure in BC. That said, an enormous trade deal is about to be signed with the European Union. It seems rather short sighted that more emphasis has not been placed on ensuring Europe’s closest ports of call, in Atlantic Canada, are able to fully take advantage of that reality.

If the Atlantic Gateway Initiative is intended to improve transportation infrastructure for trade imports and exports the jury is still out on how effective it will be. If the intent is to promote a gateway for Atlantic Canadian workers to head west in search of employment the concept may be very effective.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Call for Federal Inquiry Falls on Deaf Ears

On Monday federal MP, Ryan Cleary, announced plans to introduce a private members bill during the next sitting of the House of Commons. The bill would call on government to begin an official inquiry into fisheries management off the East Coast.

In 1992, under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the federal government enacted a complete moratorium on the fishing of northern cod. The region, long recognized as having the best fishing grounds in the world, was dramatically impacted by the collapse of the stocks and the decision to shut down the industry. The fishery there had been the biggest in Canada and the mainstay of the local economy for centuries.

Nearly 20 years after the collapse of the cod stocks very little recovery has been seen and many questions remain unanswered.

Cleary, the NDP representative in the federal district of St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, championed the cause of the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery long before entering the political arena and during the most recent federal election made the call for an inquiry a central part of his campaign message.

When speaking with reporters this week Cleary said he believes the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is responsible for mismanagement of stocks and for political pandering. Cleary said quotas have been issued based on political agendas rather than sound science.

He indicated that he has had off the record conversations with DFO staff who say the science branch of the agency has been reduced to a skeleton crew, morale is horrible and science vessels are aging and in disrepair.

"Our future is threatened. It is threatened by a lack of vision. It is threatened by the absence of a rebuilding plan. It is threatened by apathy in all quarters” Cleary said.

The rookie MP is calling for a commission of inquiry to investigate the effectiveness of current management processes, the state of fisheries science, quota allocation practices and regulation enforcement.

The closure of the northern cod fishery came just 40 years after the federal government assumed control of the industry. That collapse put thousands of people out of work effectively destroying a way of life that had existed in the province for nearly 500 years. It decimated small towns and villages and sent the provincial economy into a downward spiral. In the end it was the biggest single loss of employment ever seen in Canada.

What followed was the largest out-migration from any province in Canadian history. Ten’s of thousands of residents left to seek employment, essentially crippling the economy of rural Newfoundland and Labrador, a blow from which it has never fully recovered. To this day, even as oil revenues boost the overall economy, unemployment rates in the province stubbornly remain the highest in the Country.

Fisheries activists from around the province are applauding Mr. Cleary’s demand for an inquiry saying it’s necessary and long overdue.

During his press conference Cleary pointed to a similar inquiry called by the Harper Conservatives into the decline of BC salmon stocks. He questioned why, after nearly 20 years and with little sign of recovery, a similar inquiry into the East Coast fishery cannot be undertaken.

Local speculation abounds about the reasons for this inaction by officials. Although most suspicions have never been proven, it’s widely believed that the North Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) which includes Canada, Russia, Spain, Portugal and others has too much influence on Canadian decisions affecting the industry. It is also broadly believed that there are far too many “skeletons” in the closet of the federal bureaucracy and of elected representatives, both past and present, to ever allow the facts to be become public.

Evidence of mismanagement and political interference will be difficult to uncover without a full inquiry.

Mr. Cleary, when working as a journalist during his pre-political career, indicated many times that requests for information, especially regarding foreign fishing in Canadian waters, were consistently blocked by officials. The reason often given for withholding this information from Canadian citizens was that it might prove “embarrassing” to the nations involved and could have a negative impact on foreign relations and trade.

Even though fish stocks have not rebounded and the effects are still being felt throughout Newfoundland and Labrador a full inquiry has never been held and it doesn’t appear that Mr. Cleary’s attempt to force one will be successful either.

Without an inquiry it’s unlikely the truth will ever be known and the recovery of stocks could forever remain in doubt.

In a press release issued immediately after Cleary’s press conference Conservative Fisheries Minister, Keith Ashfield, quickly dismissed the announcement saying there will be, “…no inquiry…(because)…a judicial inquiry represents a costly and duplicative exercise into decisions made over 20 years ago”.

When informed of the Minster’s quick and dismissive response Cleary said he couldn’t believe the reaction.

The MP cannot understand how the federal government can investigate management policies in one end of the country through the BC inquiry and not at the other end when they have so clearly failed everywhere. He said he sees Ashfield’s reaction as evidence that the Conservative government has written off the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery.

As an example of continued mismanagement Cleary said he believes the reason DFO has not publicized the issuing of nine fishing citations to foreign vessels in the past year alone is because Ottawa doesn’t want to jeopardize ongoing Free Trade talks with the European Union. Talks that have the potential to lead to even further European influence on fisheries decisions in Canada.

As to the cost of an inquiry, Cleary asked the public to consider how much the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador has lost and will continue to lose in the future as a result of mismanagement in the fishery.

Mr. Cleary indicated that regardless of the expected outcome in the Commons, or the position taken by the Harper government and the Minister of Fisheries, he will proceed with the presentation of his bill during the fall session.

Chad Banana to Sue Local Reporter.

With election fever about to take hold here in Newfoundland and Labrador I thought it might be a good time to look at the light side of politics.  I hope you get a chuckle or two.


Chad Banana to Sue Local Reporter

Local political hopeful, Chad Banana, announced today that he is in discussions with his legal team – Dewey, Cheetham and Howe – about moving forward with a lawsuit against freelance reporter, Jimmy Dingle.

Alleging defamation of character Mr. Banana claims that in an August 30th interview and subsequent article Mr. Dingle defamed his character by referring to his political career as “15 minutes of fame”.

Banana says he takes issue with that characterization. He says he has personally done the math and determined that his time in the spotlight is far closer to 20 minutes.

“Nearly double the time indicated by Mr. Dingle” Banana told reporters.

Mr. Banana admits that his estimates may not be 100% accurate as he couldn’t decide between a Conservative or Liberal estimate, but he believes that doesn’t matter because, “Dingle is an idiot anyway”.

During today’s press conference, held near dumpster number 6 at Robin Hood Bay, Banana told those attending, “I’m sick and tired of reporters smiling sarcastically every time I put myself out there on the political stage”.

“I just don’t get it. I used to be the Mayor of my home town you know. My time there, managing the affairs those 90 residents, makes me far more qualified to lead this province than either Dunderdale or Yvonne Jones.”

Upon being reminded by one media representative that Ms. Jones is no longer the leader of the Liberal Party Banana appeared puzzled and said that if this were true he might consider leading the Liberals himself since the NDP didn’t accept his nomination papers when he tried to assume the leadership of that party.

At this point reporters in the attendance began to whisper among themselves then, smiling sarcastically, one stood to inform Banana that it was actually the PC party which had rejected him and that he had already tried to win the leadership of the Liberal party but lost his bid to Kelvin Awkward.

Mr. Banana then appeared to become quite agitated and began yelling at reporters to stop acting so superior.

“I’ll sue you all”, he shouted, “each and every one of you will pay for this if it’s the last thing I do today”.

Banana then pulled a golf pencil and a Loony-Tunes notebook from his jacket pocket and began demanding the names of every person in the area, including Robin Hood Bay staff, who just happened to be sweeping up some discarded Tim Horton’s coffee cups at the time.

Those in attendance then began to disperse while diligently avoiding eye contact with Mr Banana.

When last seen Banana was furiously writing in his notebook and muttering to himself, “Damn Karen Appleyard anyway, I should be the new leader, not her. It’s just not fair! Where are my lawyers”!

There was no report of what became of the discarded Tim's cups.

By Lex Smurphy (name changed to protect the libel)