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4Front Calls For Collaboration

Answer this quickly: What’s the one thing that private enterprise in Atlantic Canada wants governments to do to improve our competitiveness?

Did you answer, “Lower taxes”? It would have been my guess.

But we’d both be wrong.

The top business leaders in Atlantic Canada have spent more than two years studying the weak economic performance on Canada’s East Coast as part of the 4Front Atlantic series of conferences. Ahead of the third and final 4Front gathering on Thursday, the heads of the five working groups that wrote the 4Front report assembled Friday to brief the media on their recommendations. And a call for lower taxes was nowhere to be found.

Rather, the overarching theme of this complex report is that the four governments – five, if you toss in the Feds – must work more closely together to reduce regulation and increase prosperity across the region.

“If we can coordinate and cooperate, we can take down the costs of all four governments so less money is needed, so then it follows that taxes can come down,” said George Cooper, the McInnes Cooper Counsel who chaired the event.

The emphasis on collaboration rather than cuts is prudent. From its outset, 4Front has been a private sector-led initiative, meaning that businesspeople were trying to find solutions to our economic underperformance. But in order to achieve these goals, they had to come up with recommendations that are palatable to government. The call for lower taxes would have had a broken record quality. By calling for collaboration, they’re offering the Premiers a policy they can chew on without choking.

That is not to say the groups ignored tax policy. The Access to Capital group led by New Brunswick investor Gerry Pond advocated strongly for a regional tax credit that would channel more money into fast-growing companies. “I think we should be the best in Canada [in ETCs] so we can catch up with the rest of the world,” said Pond. (Full disclosure: on a volunteer basis, I helped to write the Access to Capital subcommittee report.)

That regional ETC would most likely require some interprovincial cooperation, and so would a lot of the other recommendations. The Talent group, chaired by BMO Financial Group Vice Chair Kevin Lynch, called for education that is more responsive to the job market, and for a greater push for immigration. Again, these are initiatives that will require action by several governments.

What the 4Front recommendations do NOT do is just pile all the blame for the region’s woes on government. Stephen Hartlen, Dalhousie University’s Assistant Vice-President  of Industry Relations and the head of the Innovation and Productivity group, said both universities and corporations perpetuate a stand-offish relationship that must be overcome. And the head of the Going Global group, Ian Smith, CEO of Clearwater Seafoods Ltd. called on government and industry to focus on strategic sectors and key markets for an integrated export policy.

The heads of 4Front are showing leadership by demanding as much of their corporate peers as of the governments in the region. What they ask of the four governments is simply to work together to produce more efficient government. Cooper, a former MP, admitted it is difficult for a politician in one province to advocate policies that benefit another, but the time has come for new thinking and new practices.

The Atlantic Provinces have a poor record of working together – ridiculously so when you consider how well the people of the four provinces get along. It’s time for the premiers to examine the recommendations and map out a mechanism that would allow the implementation of the better 4front ideas.

The Premiers may choose to ignore the recommendations. Who knows? What they cannot do is claim that the business community has brought them the same stale complaints that have been heard a million times before.