May 11, 2006

"Atlantica: BS without Boundaries"

Atlantica: BS without boundaries?
‘Broad social project’ not working for ordinary people
Chris Arsenault

It doesn't require a PHD in economics to know that Atlantic Canada is a 'have not' region.

A group of corporate executives, the thinktanks they fund, and some government officials say they have a solution to the region's relative economic deprivation: Atlantica. The initiative, which is being launched at a major 'Business without Boundaries' conference in Saint John on June 8-10, is an attempt by some of the wealthiest people in Atlantica Canada and the Northeastern United States to privatize some public services, reduce national sovereignty, and lessen the negative effects "minimum wage legislation", ie: open the door to lower legislated wages.

"This is a broad social project," said Brian Lee Crowley, the executive director of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), one of Atlantica's key intellectual architects.

He wants to see expanded economic and political links between the Maritimes and the Northeastern United States.

Crowley believes representatives from the Atlantica Initiative, whose members are drawn exclusively from pro-business lobby groups and corporations, are entitled to a seat at the table during the annual New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers Conference. "There are a lot of people with an interest in seeing Atlantica proceed, who want to make sure these ideas get discussed at that meeting," he said.

Some of those people include: Chris Huskilson (CEO of Emera, the parent company of Nova Scotia Power), Richard Egelton (Senior VP and Chief Economist at BMO Financial Group), and Rob Bennett (CEO of Bangor Hydro).

The idea of someone from Atlantica having a seat at the Premiers' conference doesn't sit well with Dee dee Daigle, a New Brunswick representative from the Canadian Labor Congress.

"Ordinary people aren't at the Atlantica table, it's big business and government, essentially the elite. Ordinary people won't have a voice," she said. "It's ironic they want to open the border for goods and services while people are going to have to get new ID cards to get across. It shows where their priorities are."

Crowley openly admits that Atlantica continues along the political trajectory of deregulation and continental integration set out by NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. "It is always going to be in our interest, when dealing with a far more powerful trading partner like the United States, to put these [trade] rules down on paper," he remarked.

But in the recently resolved softwood lumber case, formal trade agreements weren't worth the paper they were printed on. NAFTA's internal dispute settlement panel ruled that Canada was within in its rights to export lumber harvested from crown land. The US simply ignored the ruling and continued to impose its illegal tariffs.

When Prime-Minister Harper announced last week that negotiation had solved the dispute, Gordon Ritchie, one of the architects of the original Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement, called the negotiated settlement, "a bit of a hold-your-nose deal." Ritchie went on to call himself a "realist" who knows, "the kind of obscene political strength the U.S industry possesses." If the people who got us on the NAFTA bandwagon are speaking out against the "obscene political strength" of US industry, then maybe 'free' trade is costing too much?

Crowley agrees the Americans "behaved badly on the softwood issue", but still maintains, "there is nothing we can do about the fact that our economy is deeply intertwined with the American economy." That's debatable, but surely if dependency is causing problems we shouldn't actively be tightening the policy noose around our collective necks? Instead we should be focusing on producing for local markets by strengthening networks between rural farmers and urbanites; publicly investing in renewable energy technology, which will be a key to the world's economic future; and properly funding post-secondary education.

From the get-go, it seems like Atlantica will have some image problems with regular citizens.

Corporate executives and politicians, the people spear-heading the initiative, are among the least trusted members of Canadian society; politicians are the least trusted group in Canadian society and CEOs are the third least, according to 2005 Ipsos-Reid polls.

"I certainly think the observation is fair that politicians and businesspeople will be looked on with suspicion by some people," said Crowley, who argues that Atlantica should be judged on its merits not just on the people who are driving it.

Students, unionists and other social activists in Fredericton and Saint John aren't buying it. They're already holding meetings to plan a counter-conference and protests against a concept they say will give greater power to corporations who already have too much of it. They are bringing internationally recognized author Maude Barlow, chairperson for the 100,000 member Council of Canadians, to Saint John in June to speak against Atlantica.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini once remarked, "Fascism should more accurately be called corporatism as it is the merger of state and corporate power." If Atlantica becomes reality, we may see Mussolini's dream waking up in our own backyard.

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