GUEST COLUMN

New money, old refrains

Stewart MacLeod August 31 1987
GUEST COLUMN

New money, old refrains

Stewart MacLeod August 31 1987

New money, old refrains

GUEST COLUMN

Stewart MacLeod

You can’t blame Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his colossal cabinet for the shortcomings of previous Liberal governments—although the Prime Minister himself loves to point them out—but neither can you blame Atlantic and western Canadians if they seem just a touch cautious these days. I’d be.

Yes sir, when you consider all that our far easterners and westerners have gone through in the remarkable realm of regional development, it surprises one not a whit that two recent announcements didn’t set off barn dances or lobster fests. It was different in Northern Ontario, where the third regional development program was being digested. The people there don’t have the same expertise in announcement absorption. It’s an acquired immunity.

It’s fervently hoped that Mulroney wasn’t, as they say, overspeaking when he unveiled the new Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency with “new money, a new mission and new opportunity.” And there are similar hopes that he kept things in perspective in announcing the Western Canadian Diversification Initiative— “a new framework for economic renewal.” Again, new money, all $1.2 billion of it.

The accompanying glossy literature, background, foreground, letters of thanks, appreciation—you name it—would sink a refugee ship. And, naturally, there was the creation of a new government department—an automatic spin-off from any regional cure-all. If there is one constant in our 100-year war against regional disparity, it’s the creation of new departments. This time, it’s called Industry, Science and Technology.

Among the greying-around-thetemples set, this reorganization brings back many fond memories. Who can forget the excitement when Lester Pearson created the new department of industry, with special responsibility for regional development? Later, so as to provide access to international markets, it was merged with Trade and Commerce. Our first superministry.

Then came Pierre Trudeau and the new department of regional economic

Stewart MacLeod is Ottawa columnist for Thomson News Service.

expansion presided over by Jean Marchand, one of Quebec’s “three wise men.” Not only did this wise man understand regional miseries, but the department would be decentralized “with a strong regional presence.”

Sound familiar?

Space prohibits total tabulation, but since their creation, industrial development departments have gone through so many reorganizations that even their employees have trouble remembering the sequence of events. And when you get to the various boards, agencies and individual regional thrusts that spun out of these departments, it’s mental chaos. Our new superministry of industry, science and technology, complete with two ministers, does have a familiar ring, though. Perhaps it’s because Trudeau once had one of these super jobbies under the title of “minister

The glossy literature, background, foreground, letters of thanks and appreciation would sink a refugee ship

of state for economic and regional development.”

And of course we all remember the Regional Development Incentives Program. Seems like only yesterday.

Then we have all those ancestors of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, such as the Atlantic Development Council, the Atlantic Enterprise Program or the Atlantic Development Board. That’s only some. And, one supposes, they all harmonized with the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council. Want more? No? Okay.

As for the West, Mulroney’s new announcement also rekindled many warm memories from days of economic yore, especially when he said that western Canadians and their governments “are coming to a consensus about what needs to be done.” He sounded for all the world like one P.E. Trudeau.

The occasion was the 1973 Western Economic Opportunities Conference in Calgary. After getting his ears burned for a couple of days, the Prime Minister—whose western representation had dropped to seven MPS from 27 a year earlier—spoke enthusiastically

about western diversification. The West’s resources should be processed in the region, the federal bureaucracy should be decentralized—for the umpteenth time. The transportation system should be overhauled.

And just as Mulroney said last year—“We’re not going to be throwing money at anyone”—some old yellowed notebooks indicate that Trudeau shared the same sentiment. “Problems have to be solved where they exist, not by handouts.” He was always so philosophical.

Anyway, just as Saul dabbled in conversion on the road to Damascus, Trudeau, like Mulroney, saw the error of his ways. We can’t forget the highly heralded Western Development Fund of 1981, a massive $4-billion infusion that would change the face of the West. Lloyd Axworthy, the only western minister Trudeau had, was appointed to administer it.

It too was hailed as “new money,” that is, money that wouldn’t have been spent there anyway.

I would love to tell you how to distinguish between old and new money but I don’t have the faintest idea. If there is one impenetrable mystery in federal finances, it’s this. The Tories of the day were no dummies when they referred to the $4 billion as the Liberals’ “phantom fund.”

And today we have Liberal Leader John Turner and Axworthy saying the new Tory scheme is “a shortsighted attempt to deceive western Canadians into thinking less is more.” Naturally, they said Mulroney’s funding was paltry compared with the $4 billion “provided” by the Liberals.

What “provided” means is, of course, the stuff of game shows.

At least when New Democratic Party Leader Ed Broadbent called the new Atlantic agency “an incredible hoax,” he didn’t have any past record to defend. By his figuring, the Mulroney government had already cut $1.6 billion a year from regional development programs. The government, naturally and automatically, disagrees. But let’s not delve too deeply into digits—except for one passing reference: when all-out war was first declared on regional disparity in 1969, the jobless rate in Atlantic Canada was 7.2 per cent; after all the aforementioned, it’s now over 15 per cent. When it comes to building announcement immunity, that’s potent vaccine.

Allan Fotheringham