Of all the electoral surprises, one of the greatest was the Liberals' clean sweep of Atlantic Canada.
The Liberals were expected to do handsomely in the region. But nobody predicted that the party would capture all 32 seats. An oceanic metaphor for these four coastal provinces is apt: When a powerful political tide comes in, nothing can stop it.
This is a rare political moment in Atlantic Canada. All the federal MPs are Liberal. The three Maritime premiers are Liberals. In the Nov. 30 election in Newfoundland, the Liberals will likely oust the Progressive Conservative government, putting Liberals in power in all four Atlantic Canadian provinces.
If ever, therefore, the political leadership of Atlantic Canada could work together and do something big for the region that time must be now. And the region needs help.
What it doesn't need, however, are old-style Liberal remedies that have done so much to shape the political culture of the region. Put another way, the flip side of this rare opportunity for progress is the possibility that Liberal governments and MPs will squander this chance by dropping more money into old programs to perpetuate the status quo, because propping up the status quo brings the largest harvest of votes.
Atlantic Canadian Liberals practised the politics of patronage and the pork barrel for decades. The electorate came to expect it, and Liberals tried to deliver. Even in the recent election campaign, echoes of the past reverberated around turning back the clock on changes to unemployment insurance.
The region's political culture makes it hard for politicians to tell the truth that the provinces are up against it. Two of them have large fiscal deficits: New Brunswick and Newfoundland. The slowdown of the Alberta economy means fewer remittances sent home.
The populations of the four provinces are aging fast. Nineteen per cent of New Brunswick's population, for example, is over 65 compared with a national average of 14 per cent. Unemployment rates are higher than the national average, although the provincial averages are distended by very high rates in rural areas. Out-migration of young people continues apace. Tax rates are high by national standards.
Getting citizens to face these and other realities is difficult, partly because the realities are painful, partly because the drip-drip of relative decline makes it harder to galvanize people to action than a sudden crisis, and partly because transfer payments from Ottawa cushion the decline.
What might a new Liberal agenda look like?
Start with regional co-operation. Too many barriers remain among the Maritime provinces – different regulations and standards, professional codes, government policies. Getting rid of as many of these as possible would help Maritimers and their governments to think and act as a region. Local pride is fine; parochialism is so yesterday.
Immigration: All four provinces desperately need more immigrants. Efforts to promote immigration have been halting. They run up against intrinsic suspicions of people from far "away" who might take scarce jobs. The provinces, working with a co-operative federal government, should do a Manitoba and actively recruit immigrants and help them relocate. (Who better to be immigration minister than the new MP for Winnipeg South Centre, Jim Carr? As former head of the the Manitoba Business Council, he got to know all about that province's efforts.)
Infrastructure: Figure out two or three big projects – not a series of itsy-bitsy ones scattered everywhere for maximum political impact – the region needs most. Broadband? Distance learning? Transportation hubs? Research centres?
Trade: The free-trade and investment deal with the European Union and the Trans-Pacific Partnership are good news for Atlantic Canada, especially but not exclusively the fishery. Think how to position the region to take advantage of these opportunities.
Innovation: Build up specialized research capabilities in universities and build networks in these areas around them. Work hard to keep some people from "away" who attend the region's universities.
Energy: It's the region's biggest potential trump card. New Brunswick's only prospect for a big revenue boost comes from exploiting its natural gas and making Saint John an energy hub. An oil pipeline from Alberta to Saint John is a national imperative.
Some of this agenda was outlined in a 2014 report about Nova Scotia entitled "Now or Never" produced by a team led by Acadia University president Ray Ivany. Dust it off. Make it happen regionally. The political stars are all aligned.
Eds Note: An earlier version incorrectly identified Jim Carr as head of the Manitoba Chamber of Commerce.