New Brunswick

Liberals must offer clear vision without regional development ministers

The decision to not appoint individual cabinet ministers for Canada’s six regional development agencies may not spell the end for the organizations but it should force MPs to articulate a clear vision for creating jobs in the regions, according to a public policy expert.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not name ministers for Canada's 6 regional economic development agencies

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled his cabinet on Wednesday. The smaller cabinet did not include dedicated ministers for Canada's six regional economic development agencies. (CBC)

The decision to not appoint individual cabinet ministers for Canada's six regional development agencies may not spell the end for the organizations but it should force MPs to articulate a clear vision for creating jobs in the regions, according to a public policy expert.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled his new cabinet on Wednesday, he presented a slimmed down cabinet and one that rolled up the responsibilities for each of the development agencies into the hands of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains.

This move bucks the long-standing tradition of appointing full-time ministers, or ministers of state, to the organizations, such as the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

Donald Savoie, a Canada research chair in public administration and governance, said the Atlantic Liberal caucus needs to articulate a clear vision on economic development for the four provinces. (Acadia University Communications)
Donald Savoie, the Canada research chair in public administration and governance at the University of Moncton, wrote a report in 1986 that led to the creation of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

He said the lack of an ACOA minister from the region is a return to when former Liberal industry minister John Manley was responsible for the economic development agencies during the Jean Chretien government.

"I would remind Atlantic Canadians that ACOA used to report to John Manley at the Department of Industry. Would I call [the current appointment] ACOA's heyday? No," Savoie said.

"But ACOA survived John Manley, who had little understanding of Atlantic Canada as history shows. If ACOA could survive John Manley, it can survive anybody."

The lack of a full-time minister from the region should put more pressure on Atlantic Canada's 32 MPs to present a clear plan for growing the region's economy.

"How do we shape policy that has a regional bias that understands Atlantic Canada? I think a 32-member caucus and ministers are important," he said.

One former senior civil servant said the lack of a full-time minister from the region could put the agencies at risk when budget decisions are made.

Agencies could face 'chopping block'

Norman Spector, who served as an ACOA president from 1995 to 1996, said the future of these agencies could be in peril without having permanent ministers advocating on their behalf.

Norman Spector, a former president of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, said senior public servants in Ottawa have never been supporters of regional economic development agencies. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
"This is going to be low-hanging fruit. It is a lot tougher to abolish an agency that has a minister, particularly if that is the minister's only job, than it is to abolish an agency that is essentially an agency of public servants," he said.

The six agencies include, ACOA, Canada Economic Development for Quebec Regions, Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario and Western Economic Diversification Canada.

I think people in the Atlantic will quickly gravitate to their regional ministers as opposed to  Navdeep   Bains  as a way to unlock these projects.- Norman Spector

In the past, the agencies had full-time ministers, or ministers of state, or the portfolio was attached to a specific minister from the region, who carried other cabinet responsibilities.

The federal agencies directly deliver and administer hundreds of millions of dollars to help spur on regional economic development. For example, ACOA, which was the first agency created by the federal government, had a budget of $298.6 million in 2015-16.

Spector said he is suspicious that the agencies "will be on the chopping block" once the Trudeau government begins assessing its financial options around implementing its election platform.

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains is responsible for the regional economic development agencies. (CBC)
There are other reasons why ACOA and the other development agencies could be in jeopardy. These agencies, Spector said, have never been popular among Canada's top civil servants.

"The deputy minister community have never been strong fans of the regional agencies, there have been overtures before to try to get rid of them and to try to fold them into the Industry department," he said.

"Not having a minister makes it easier when it comes time for program review to in fact do that kind of consolidation. That has been on the agenda of some people for quite some time."

Savoie said he agrees with Specter that the agencies have not always been popular inside the upper echelon of the public service. But he said he does not believe there is a chance that the agencies will be eliminated.

So, he said the region needs to lean on its 32-member Liberal caucus to remind Trudeau and Bains of the importance of regional economic develop in order to avoid the issue sitting on the backburner.

"There are 32 MPs and it is for the Atlantic caucus, not a single minister, but the entire caucus has to say to the government, 'We delivered a majority government for you. For the first time in history, you won every single seat. What we want is a policy that works for our entire region," he said.

"We need some form of machinery of government, some form of agency to articulate how the region fits in the new global world."

Possible overcorrection ahead

The omission of an ACOA minister came as a surprise to many observers in Atlantic Canada, a region that delivered all 32 of its seats to the Liberals on election night.

Tom Bateman, a political science professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, said it is too soon to tell how regional economic development policies will shift under Trudeau

Tom Bateman, a St. Thomas University political scientist, said it is too soon to tell whether the lack of regional economic development ministers signals a shift in how the Trudau government prioritizes regional job creation. (CBC)
But he said the political blowback from the lack of an ACOA minister could cause the Liberal government to take note in the short term.

"I dare say the new government is aware of the perceptions and we might even see a bit of an overcorrection in the sense that more money will flow at least in the short term to make it clear to Atlantic Canadians that they are important to the government of the day regardless of whether there is a regional minister with ACOA attached to his or her portfolio title," he said.

The political scientist also said it will be important to watch how federal money is distributed in the future. He said the Trudeau government could identify projects, which may have been previously funded through ACOA, and pay for them through other departments.

The federal investments would still arrive in the regions, but it would come through different funding channels.

LeBlanc unfazed by ACOA decision

The lack of a dedicated ACOA minister isn't concerning New Brunswick's lone cabinet minister.

Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc, who is New Brunwswick's lone cabinet minister, said people can come to him if they have concerns about the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc said on Information Morning Fredericton on Friday that he does not believe ACOA's status has changed inside the Trudeau government even though it does not have a full-time minister.

"[Trudeau] took a model where all the economic development agencies, not just ACOA … are centralized in a new department, which in fact he called Economic Development," LeBlanc said.

"The former Industry department now has in its title a mandate for economic development, so ACOA would be part of that portfolio."

ACOA may be a focus of many people because it is highly visible in the region. But LeBlanc said if the Trudeau government is going to fund "transformational" projects, he said the money for infrastructure projects or immigration reform may not be coming from ACOA. 

Bateman said LeBlanc's statement that groups could go to him if they had ACOA questions reinforces a practice of regional ministers, who can wield immense influence inside the federal government, even on files outside of their own departments.

Spector said he also believed that the lack of a full-time minister for these economic development agencies could boost the prominence of regional ministers.

When he was ACOA president, Spector said he dealt with LeBlanc, who was working at the time inside Jean Chretien's Prime Minister's Office, on regional economic development files.

Based on that experience, Spector said he does not believe files will wither on the policy vine.

"I think that take the case of New Brunswick, Dominic LeBlanc will not be shy about pushing projects," he said.

"I think there may be concern about whether these projects are worthwhile as opposed to politically driven. How much evidence-based policy is there going to be in some of these projects? I think people in the Atlantic will quickly gravitate to their regional ministers as opposed to Navdeep Bains as a way to unlock these projects."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Daniel McHardie

Digital senior producer

Daniel McHardie is the digital senior producer for CBC New Brunswick. He joined CBC.ca in 2008. He also co-hosts the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.

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