Province-building: moving south?


In Canada, intergovernmental relations have also changed, first minister's meetings are less common, and politics often trumps policy. (26) Images of Danny Williams (NL premier, 2003-2012) taking down the Canadian flag, (27) or his attack on New Brunswick's deal with Quebec Hydro (which was subsequently scrapped), or even his campaign for "anyone but Conservatives" in the 2008 federal election, help to remind us that politics has become more aggressive, insular, and populist over time. In Nova Scotia there has recently emerged a new populist Liberal premier (Stephen McNeil) who defeated a first-term government - a rare feat in that province. (28) McNeil has made few promises but is equally determined (as evidenced by his position on the NL's Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador) to defend province-building autonomy and capacity. As argued by Bakvis et al., "The fact that executive federalism is the norm reinforces the government-to-government nature of relations between the federal and provincial orders and makes it difficult to form regionally based legislative coalitions that cut across governmental jurisdictions." (29)

We are now living in an era when premiers have become more populist (influenced by New Public Management practices), (30) executive powers have increased at both levels of government, and executive federalism has "replaced the courts as a primary venue of change in the federation." (31) The federal system has changed a great deal since the early 1970s when there was much federal pressure for the Maritimes to work together on a regional basis. (32) Even during the 1990s, when NL rejoined the Atlantic club under the leadership of Clyde Wells (Joey Smallwood had pulled out of Atlantic Premiers meetings as a result of a spat over Terms of Union) there was much more interest and federal pressure to push Maritime cooperation onto the public agenda. In fact, the Liberal Plan for Canada that got Jean Chretien's Liberal federal government elected in 1993 pushed a regional vision for the country, especially in the West and Atlantic. (33) But the idea of Pan-Canadianism has lost much momentum since then, as have national objectives and federal intervention.

We are no longer living in an era when the federal government is interested in promoting regional collaboration. Quite the opposite. Intergovernmental relations have moved in the direction of bilateral, not multilateral approaches to policy decision-making. Partly due to the scare of the close-run 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum, the federal government (beginning with the Chretien Liberal government but more so with current Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper) lost interest in reinforcing multilateral approaches to defining and solving problems.

In a number of policy fields (health care, labor market policy, national child care, infrastructure, and so on) there has emerged a pattern of devolving power to the provinces while negotiating accords on a bilateral, as opposed to a multilateral basis. (34) Province-building remains stronger than ever. Executive federalism has become even more elitist and populist, as legislatures have become more outliers in the new accord-based system of intergovernmental relations. By design, these political agreements negotiated between governments have sidestepped legislative processes and formal rules, that, in the past, could be contested in the courts by so-called "special interests." (35) In this new form of intergovernmental governance, old systems of accountability no longer operate the same way. Provincial governments enjoy more autonomy and do not have to report to the federal government for spending in the way they did in the past, nor does the legislative branch perform a significant role in overseeing accords and evaluating outcomes. Rather, we are living in a new populist era where governments report directly to citizens. They do so by producing reports that citizens can judge themselves. As critics suggest, there are all kinds of challenges connected with this new system of accountability. While this it a topic that has not received much analysis, it certainly does help explain why premiers in the Maritimes, or elsewhere in the country, for that matter, have had less incentive to work together across borders.

Within such a context, it is not surprising that Maritime integration has become an even lower priority. NL is not the only province becoming more autonomous. Given the new devolved intergovernmental system and pressure to build provincial policy capacity and enhance the power and responsibility of premiers over more policy fields, the tendency has been for the Maritime premiers to collaborate even less than they did in the past. There is much incentive to focus on provincial priorities and report to different audiences. Seen this way, it is hardly surprising that many of the old regional agencies of the past (such as the Land Registration Information Service) no longer exist.

In the 21st century, the Maritime Premiers have tended to focus on their own provincial issues and priorities. Since the days of NB Premier Frank McKenna (1987-1997), regional cooperation has not attracted much attention. (36) Whether in the area of energy, recruitment of health care professionals, tourism, or other policy fields, the Maritime premiers play to different audiences and compete for power and influence. For example, fracking has become an accepted practice in New Brunswick, but is not permitted in Nova Scotia. The fact that NB decided to ship dirty water from fracking to be stored in NS has not helped the regional cause. But it is not surprising that NS responded by disallowing this practice. (37)

It is also important to recognize that the party system in the Maritimes has witnessed much change and volatility over the years, as evidenced by the election and then defeat of an NDP government in NS. In NB, in recent elections since McKenna's strong Liberal rule, the Conservatives and Liberals have taken turns forming governments and then being defeated. Maritime premiers' high turnover has added to the challenge of working together across boundaries.

In our era the political executive has become more powerful in Canada. By controlling when parliament is dissolved and when elections are called, by imposing party discipline on Members of Parliament and limiting resources for parliamentary committees, Canada's executives have centralized their power. (38) Since these executive powers exist at both levels of government within a highly decentralized and competitive federal system, the trends towards centralization reinforce each other at the different levels of government rather than providing a counterbalancing effect. This is particularly the case in energy policy where evolving centralization combines with provincial ownership of natural resources to make it increasingly difficult to construct regional approaches to energy issues. But this Canadian brand of territorial competition over patterns of development and associational activity has moved in new directions with the rise of continentalism and new opportunities to build energy infrastructure south.

To fully understand the effects these trends are having on cross-border regionalism, we also need to pay closer attention to the various competing economic interests connected with dissimilar province-building regimes, and the impact they are having on New England energy politics and decisions regarding infrastructure. These competing energy interests from Canada are playing a significant role in shaping energy infrastructure priorities and building support south of the border for their agendas through partnering with American interests.

Battles over hydro development and province-building, where premiers pushed north-south in a quest to gain control over territorial boundaries and spatial patterns of association, began in Ontario in the 1920s, and spread to BC, Quebec, and Manitoba

decades later. In more recent times these battles have moved away from the north, and are creeping gradually south into the United States. (39) Free trade and deregulation have simply created opportunities to move in new directions. Each province relied upon competing province-building initiatives to open up frontiers...

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