Atlantica proponents face PR challenge

June 12, 2007

The Atlantica conference has drawn renewed attention to plans for a cross-border economic trading zone. Organizers say they want to tone down the rhetoric. Clearly, they want to distance themselves from the controversy surrounding their ideas for a transportation corridor to Buffalo, accelerating energy exports, and deregulation. This leaves the question of what exactly Atlantica stands for.

Is it the same as the Atlantic Gateway? Is it simply an initiative to support greater regional co-operation? Is it some grand scheme being promoted by big business to further integrate Atlantic Canada into the U.S. economy? Or is it simply an attitude, as some proponents have claimed.

Part of the problem may be Atlantica is an idea that needs to be developed further. Perhaps a vague concept is thought to be more publicly acceptable. Who knows? But given the controversial nature of any discussion around big business and closer relations with the U.S., the organizers have to expect close scrutiny.

What, in concrete terms, are the proponents asking for? What are they lobbying governments to do? Failure to provide answers fuels suspicions and leaves people to fill in the blanks themselves.

One of the conference objectives is to encourage trade through "harmonization of regulations" between Atlantic Canada and northern New England. Harmonization could benefit citizens on both sides of the border, if regulations were set at the highest standards in terms of health and safety and environmental protection.

But experience indicates regulatory harmonization is, in effect, deregulation and lowering of standards. For instance, Atlantica proponents, in the face of opposition from consumer protection and traffic safety groups, are lobbying to lower U.S. federal trucking regulations to bring them more in line with those in Atlantic Canada.

Some proponents have attempted to distance themselves from the market fundamentalist agenda. The labour movement and anti-poverty activists aren’t convinced, and who can blame them? More than two decades of corporate-friendly public policies and trade deals have resulted in the steady erosion of social protection and workers’ rights. The main Atlantica website, operated by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), takes aim at minimum wage legislation, public services and unions, identifying them as "policy distress" factors that thwart the region’s development. If this is not the view of the Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce, they need to say so.

Most Atlantic Canadians – including, I suspect, many opponents of Atlantica – would agree trade and co-operation between Atlantic Canada and New England is a good thing. Increasing co-operation and trade should be based on whether it provides benefits to workers and communities, and not just on increasing business opportunities. Some positive co-operation is already happening in the form of agreements by the Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers that set reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions well ahead of those set by the Canadian government.

How does the Atlantica initiative contribute to the provincial government’s recently proclaimed plan to make Nova Scotia "one of the cleanest and most sustainable environments in the world by 2020"? The trucking corridor for container traffic is not going to help.

What does Atlantica contribute to international Fair Trade and an environmentally sustainable regional and global economy? We don’t know because the controversy over Atlantica has diverted attention from these issues.

A troubling aspect of the Atlantica initiative is the assumption that what is good for business is inherently good for all citizens. To date, the discussions have not moved beyond the confines of meetings of regional business leaders. No effort has been made to facilitate a public debate or engagement with groups opposing Atlantica.

The conference news release states the event is "having all of the key players, including business, community, labour and environmental leaders, participate." Media reports quote organizers of the conference as stating they want to put an end to "cold war-style rhetoric" by having "everyone … under one tent" and all participants will be given a voice in how Atlantica should be defined. Yet the schedule does not include a single presentation from environmental, community or labour leaders.

The reality is that the registration fee of more than $600 means most community and environmental organizations are not able to attend.

The participation by Rodney MacDonald as a speaker is troubling: It indicates his support for the initiative, and it feeds suspicions that big business and Atlantica proponents have an in with some political leaders in the region. It also blurs the distinctions between the Atlantica transportation corridor, which is fixated on opening up a new highway for Asian cargo to move overland from Halifax to Buffalo; and the Atlantic Gateway, which will need to address the transportation needs of all of Atlantic Canada, not just Halifax.

Atlantica proponents face a public relations challenge. Notions of highway trucking corridors and reductions in minimum wages, unions and public services have come mainly from AIMS, the architects of the Atlantica concept. It is time the chambers clarify how their view differs from the AIMS version. A failure to do so ensures that Atlantica will continue to be a divisive issue.

John Jacobs is director of the Nova Scotia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, an independent public policy research institute. This commentary was originally published in the Chronicle Herald.