Donald Savoie is Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at Université de Moncton
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accomplished what no political leader was ever able to do. His party won all 32 seats in Atlantic Canada in the 2015 general election. The Conservative Party was at least able to win one seat in the three Maritime provinces in 1935, when Mackenzie King defeated R. B. Bennett in a landslide victory in the immediate aftermath of the Great Depression.
Mr. Trudeau has his work cut out if he wishes to pull off the same victory in 2019. At this point, at least, it seems unlikely. It may well be that the Prime Minister and his most trusted political advisers have concluded that it is simply not worth the effort, given that the region only has 32 MPs in a 338-member House of Commons.
Consider the following. For the first time since the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency was established in 1987, a minister from outside the region is responsible for the the ACOA. The minister is from Mississauga and is also responsible for the two federal regional development agencies in Ontario, one in Quebec, one in Western Canada and another for the North.
It is not lost on Atlantic Canadians that the federal government now has a regional development agency for every postal code in Canada. Best to focus on regions with heavily populated postal codes when the goal is to win power. The recently tabled budget committed $920-million over six years to one of two federal regional development bodies for Ontario. When this agency was established in 2009, it was given a time-limited budget. No more. It now has core funding like all the other federal regional agencies.
The minister is also responsible for an important line department – Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada and several other agencies besides the six regional development agencies. It is difficult to imagine that he can have more than a passing interest in Atlantic Canada’s economic circumstances and opportunities. This may well explain why the Atlantic Growth Strategy, unveiled with great fanfare a few months after the 2015 election, petered out before it even got off the ground.
Mr. Trudeau explained when he was in the region that he appointed an Ontario minister to head all the regional agencies “to reduce the kind of politics that have plagued regional development agencies.” This is a bit too rich and paternalistic for Atlantic and Western Canadians to take. One only has to remember Tony Clement, an Ontario minister who directed millions in federal government spending to host a G8 meeting in his riding, including $100,000 for a gazebo. This is hardly an isolated case.
It will be recalled that Mr. Trudeau, at one point, seriously contemplated taking away the one seat Atlantic Canada has on the Supreme Court. When tasked with replacing Thomas Cromwell from Nova Scotia on the court, Mr. Trudeau announced that the selection process would be open to “any qualified judge” from across the country. Atlantic Canadians believe that he would never do the same if it came to Quebec (the Constitution guarantees Quebec three seats) or Ontario and Western Canada (because here the political cost would be too high).
The Prime Minister had a change of mind in the face of stiff opposition from Atlantic Canada and elsewhere including the official opposition in Parliament. In the end, Mr. Trudeau appointed Malcolm Rowe from Newfoundland and Labrador to the bench.
Many Atlantic Canadians remain unconvinced by Ottawa’s argument that the Energy East pipeline failed because of market conditions. Ottawa gave, at best, lukewarm support for the pipeline which was viewed by many in Western and Atlantic Canada as an important national unity project. They saw Ottawa changing the rules of the approval process on the fly, adding new requirements with some retroactively. Mr. Trudeau told supporters of Energy East to accept the decision and avoid “stoking regional divisions.” He said nothing to Montreal and Quebec politicians who labelled the decision “a great victory for Quebeckers.” It made the point once again that when it comes to national unity, it is a one-way street.
The federal government’s decision to tax passive income inside private corporations – however watered down from what was first envisaged – has wide implications for Atlantic Canada, more so than for other regions. As is well known, the bulk of the region’s private sector consists of family businesses and private corporations. One can easily identify all publicly held corporations in Atlantic Canada.
Thirty-two seats seem modest in the grand scheme of Canadian politics where representation by population decides who holds power in Ottawa. The governing party should remember, however, that the day after the 2015 election, it only held a 29-seat majority.