ACOA in danger of becoming far too political

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Elimination of board of directors, ECBC raise issues about agency independence

Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency logo. File photo

The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency is in real danger of becoming a direct pork barrel pipeline from Ottawa to key ridings in the region leading up the next federal election. It appears the government is leaving nothing to chance in terms of strategic spending and lack of accountability at ACOA for the next year and a half. Two surprise announcements over the past couple of weeks would appear to support those conclusions.

Ottawa has dissolved Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation, an arm of ACOA which has led economic development across the island for almost 30 years to help overcome devastating closures of coal mines and the Sydney steel plant. Last month, just days after denials and assurances no such moves were planned, ACOA Minister Rob Moore announced he was folding ECBC into ACOA. It caused shockwaves across the island.

Perhaps even more surprising, Ottawa has also turfed the ACOA board of directors. News about the unexpected move was found in the government’s budget implementation act tabled in Parliament last Friday. The manner in which the board was dismissed causes suspicion. The surprise legislation also ended the requirement of the ACOA president to table a report every five years on how well the agency is fighting regional disparity.

The decision on Cape Breton has drawn mixed reviews, with some in support and some angrily opposing the move. If one could argue it’s cutting red tape, reducing bureaucracy and will make ACOA more responsive — then it’s a good thing. But if the change means an end to local input, local design and moving economic decisions to Ottawa, then it is a cause for concern.

The decision on the board offers little justification. The board’s job was to assist ACOA in fulfilling its economic development mandate. It had up to seven members from all four Atlantic provinces in place, since ACOA was founded in 1987, to provide guidance from outside the bureaucracy.

ACOA Minister Rob Moore’s office said the government now does so much consultation with local businesses that the need for the board has diminished. Apart from a meeting with the Greater Charlottetown Chamber of Commerce in early January, visits by Mr. Moore to P.E.I. since he was appointed minister last July have been few and far between. Regional minister Gail Shea would be seen as providing most of the consultation with local business.

ACOA president Paul LeBlanc had to write a comprehensive report every five years on the agency’s activities and how they’ve affected regional disparity. The budget implementation act ends that requirement. That is concern enough, but it was a surprise to learn that Mr. LeBlanc didn’t have to write such a report each year. Writing a report once every five years seems ridiculous. Where is the accountability? And who assesses ACOA now?

Opposition politicians have always accused the board as being a patronage factory — both when the Liberals were in power and now the Conservatives — but at least there was some local, civilian oversight. These changes give ACOA less oversight and less transparency. The board was allowed to shrink through attrition to just two current members — one being Tom DeBlois of Charlottetown, a retired business executive and a former federal Conservative candidate.

The Conservatives have cut nearly one third of ACOA’s budget since taking power but Mr. Moore gave assurances here in January that ACOA projects would remain fully funded. That may be the case but just where will those projects go? Apparently, that will be solely up to Mr. Moore and his party in Ottawa.

Organizations: Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation, Conservatives Greater Charlottetown Chamber of Commerce

Geographic location: Ottawa, Sydney, Cape Breton Charlottetown

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  • hmmm
    April 05, 2014 - 21:35

    There are other government departments that are becoming awfully political as well. The civil service, while having a responsbility to support the government of the day, is also supposed to be non-partisan in the execution of its duties. The times they are a-changin'.