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JIM VIBERT: Little Nova Scotia office that helps businesses prosper punches above its weight

Premier Stephen McNeil announces his decision not the extend the deadline for the shutdown of the Boat Harbour effluent facility at a news conference in Halifax on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019.
The full force of Premier Stephen McNeil’s support and promotion is behind all that Nova Scotia’s Office of Regulatory Affairs and Service Effectiveness takes on. - Ryan Taplin / File

It’s hard enough to get the four Atlantic provinces to agree to co-ordinate regulatory activities. It’s next to impossible to get all 10 provinces and three territories to sign on.

So Nova Scotia’s little Office of Regulatory Affairs and Service Effectiveness, which has been a driving force behind reconciling business regulations, first in the region and now across the country, deserves some notice for punching above its weight.

It helps that the full force of Premier Stephen McNeil’s support and promotion is behind all the office takes on. But the premier’s influence isn’t all that great beyond the cozy confines of the Nova Scotia government. Yet, between his advocacy with his first ministerial colleagues, and the office’s work behind the scenes, there’s more progress being made in removing inter-provincial trade barriers now than at any other time in living memory.

Whatever the office is doing, maybe there should be more of it.

Actually, there is. The tool the office developed to calculate the costs of proposed regulatory changes on businesses is now being used in New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island and the Halifax Regional Municipality are looking at adopting it, as well.

In Nova Scotia, that cost calculator — called the business impact assessment — is applied to every new regulatory proposal so the province understands the compliance costs it is imposing on businesses before the fact.

The little office-that-could has already cut the cost of government regulations on Nova Scotian businesses by an estimated $34 million and has set its sights on another $10 million in saving by the end of this year.

Halifax lawyer Fred Crooks wears the somewhat deceptive title of Nova Scotia’s chief regulatory officer. The deception is that his job isn’t about making regulations, but rather streamlining or eliminating them. At least it was.

These days, he spends as much time trying to convince bureaucrats across the region and the nation of the wisdom of reconciling or consolidating the operating requirements they impose on businesses, so that a Canadian business can operate pretty much anywhere in the land without having to jump through a whole new set of hoops in each province.

We’re a long way from that common national business environment, but at least the provinces and territories are talking about it.

For the past year, Nova Scotia has chaired both the national Committee on Internal Trade, and The Regulatory Reconciliation and Co-operation table.

During that time, agreement has been reached across all provinces and territories to adopt some common occupational health and safety regulations, the same rules concerning transport truck weights and tires, common technical requirements for pressure equipment and eliminated the need to inspect and grade some produce products before they can be moved across provincial lines.

It’s not earth-shattering stuff, but it’s a start.

Last year, the provinces and territories also agreed to reconcile construction codes, adopt common energy efficiency standards for household appliances, and began the process to first connect and then streamline corporate registries.

In the digital age, it is not far fetched to imagine that a business registered in Nova Scotia is also automatically registered in Manitoba. We’re not there yet but dare to dream.

The Nova Scotia office’s work leading the reconciliation and alignment of various business regulations among the Atlantic provinces led to and inspired the national initiatives.

Nova Scotia’s efforts to cut red tape aren’t part of any right-wing, neo-liberal deregulation agenda. They, like the efforts to reconcile and standardize the rules applied to various businesses and industries across the Atlantic region and nationally, are intended to reduce the paper burden governments impose on businesses, allowing them to be more productive and efficient.

Plus, any time you can get governments working together, whether its 13 provincial and territorial governments, four Atlantic Provinces or the province and municipalities, you’ve accomplished something worthwhile.

Much of the progress in all these areas in recent years can be traced back to a little office tucked away in the remodelled warehouses on the Halifax waterfront. That’s a strong performance by any standard, government or otherwise.

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