Sunday, May 27, 2012

Don't mess with Atlantic Canada

The following column by Peter McKenna appeared in the May 25th edition of the Ottawa Citizen, as well as other newspapers around the country. 

Am I missing something or has the Harper government placed Atlantic Canada in its cross-hairs?

With proposed changes to several key areas of public policy, it’s hard not to think that this region is being singled out for special punishment.

 For instance, possible changes to the owner-operator and fleet separation provisions of the fishery are certain to put fishers in Atlantic Canada in a precarious position — most likely seeing their boats and gear eventually bought up by companies and individuals with deeper pockets.

 Perhaps the deepest cut of all comes in the form of the newly released adjustments to the Employment Insurance (EI) program, which will surely penalize numerous seasonal workers in this region by trimming benefits to repeat users, imposing stricter rules for eligibility, and by altering the “suitable employment” requirements.

 Still, the federal minister responsible for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), Bernard Valcourt, is adamant that the Conservative government is not out to get Atlantic Canada.

But Newfoundland and Labrador NDP MP Ryan Cleary is not so sure, telling one media outlet: “We need to be supporting the economy, not putting up roadblocks. Stephen Harper claimed years ago that Atlantic Canada has a culture of defeat, but it is the Conservatives who have a defeatist attitude toward our region.”

 Of course, the critical questions here are obvious: why and why now?

More important, does it make political or electoral sense?

One is hard-pressed to explain why the Harper government is so hell-bent on making these changes.

Besides an ideological or philosophical rationale, I can’t quite figure it out.

Perhaps the majority government secured by the Harper Conservatives last May presented them with the opportunity to do what they were unable to do under a minority situation.

That is, to put in place a series of policy measures to seek greater efficiencies and marketization; but those same initiatives will also inflict substantial pain on Atlantic Canadians.

 It is also well known that Stephen Harper has harboured negative impressions of Atlantic Canadians for many years now.

We all remember that derogatory and simplistic “culture of defeat” remark that Cleary referenced. One wonders whether these proposed changes are part of the Harper “hidden agenda” that many Atlantic Canadians have feared all along?

 Some in his cabinet no doubt are perturbed — mostly for ideological reasons — about those in the fishery who purportedly take advantage of the EI system.

And there are those who cringe at the thought of Russian immigrants being brought in to work in P.E.I. fish plants because Islanders, faced with some of the highest unemployment levels in Canada, won’t work there.

 It’s worth remembering, though, that the governing Liberals sought to alter the EI rules in the mid-1990s and paid a huge price for doing so in the 1997 federal election.

Not only were two high-profile cabinet ministers defeated, but the overall Atlantic caucus of Liberals was cut severely from 31 MPs to 11 (losing all 11 of its seats in Nova Scotia).

 Are the Conservatives not worried about electoral retribution?

Have they forgotten the political lessons of 1997?

By moving forward with these controversial changes, are the Harper Conservatives willing to sacrifice the few gains that they made here in the 2011 election?

Maybe the Conservative Party believes that any losses in Atlantic Canada will be made up from the additional 30 seats that will be added across Canada, many in the West, for the October 2015 election.

It’s also possible that the party’s electoral prospects will be boosted in places like Ontario (and further parts West) by cracking down on Atlantic Canadians.

There are some in the parliamentary press gallery in Ottawa who firmly believe that Stephen Harper has told his closest confidantes that they won’t recognize Canada once he is done governing.

Are these recent changes part of what he has in mind?

It certainly makes you wonder whether it’s very personal on Harper’s part.

And if that is the case, what will be next on his Atlantic Canada hit list?

 Will Harper go after regional development expenditures and the equalization program with similar vigour? I guess this is what happens when there is a majority Conservative government in Ottawa and a predilection among Atlantic Canadians to vote “Anybody-But-Harper.”

Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.

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