I was surprised to see my editorial board colleagues advocate the formation of a Maritime union in Wednesday's edition of the National Post ("Toward a unified Nova Brunsward," Nov. 29).
Such a union could take various forms – anything from combining government purchases to achieve economies of scale, to creating a brand new province. Using the combined purchasing power of the three Maritime governments would indeed be a good idea, because it would save taxpayers money. But it would do nothing to solve the problem of the three provinces being "terribly over-governed," which has been used as an argument to advance the union by Senator Mike Duffy and the National Post editorial board.
To fix the problem of having 1.8 million people supporting three separate bureaucracies, they would have to combine into one mega-province. (The Post editorial board calls that province "Nova Brunsward.") But creating this new province would entail reopening the constitution. And given the lingering hangover from Meech Lake and Charlottetown, there is little political will for constitutional change – not to mention that it would be next to impossible. Such a process would go far beyond a Maritime union: The national conversation also would focus on Quebec and Senate reform, which would open other cans of worms.
With 24 seats in the Senate and 25 in the House of Commons, the Maritime provinces are over-represented. That's a problem, yes – but at least the overrepresentation is diffused over three small provinces, so no one makes much of a fuss about it. The problem would become exacerbated under any agglomeration plan, because the combined province of "Nova Brunsward" would have way more clout in the federal Parliament than its population warrants – singlehandedly controlling 8% of the House and having the same number of Senate seats as the much larger provinces of Ontario and Quebec. This would create a more severe and obvious imbalance in the federation than the one we already have.
Another benefit of having three provincial governments in the Maritimes is that it provides a degree of competition over regulatory and tax regimes. If, for example, a Maritimer felt his taxes were too high, or his business was being over-regulated, it would be relatively easy to move elsewhere. He wouldn't have to decamp to Newfoundland, Toronto or Montreal.
Another benefit of having strong provincial governments is they are able to act as policy laboratories. Often times, new policies will start in one province, before being adopted by the others. The more jurisdictions we have experimenting with policy the better (within reason, of course).
The main obstacle to the provinces coming up with new and innovative ways to deliver public services isn't the number of provinces we have, or their size. It's that Ottawa has become involved in areas of provincial jurisdiction. Since the federal government, unlike its provincial counterparts, has the power to levy direct taxes, the provinces always have been somewhat dependant on it for funding. But when the Constitution was written, areas of provincial responsibility, such as education and health care, were not as important as they are today. To take health care as an example, if one provinces wanted to experiment by injecting limited private competition into the system, it would risk losing its federal funding.
Thus, if we wanted a solution that would give the provinces more leeway to experiment with different ways to provision services, while reducing government duplication, we should look to a recent policy paper from the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. It argues that a majority of public projects require the support of three levels of government. This increases overhead because funds need to be transferred between them, while reducing accountability and incurring huge costs when one level of government cuts funding to a project that another government already has started.
Rather than combining the Maritime provinces to reduce the problem of over-governing, we should be encouraging the federal and provincial governments to focus on the areas in which they have constitutional responsibility, while giving the provinces a dedicated source of funding that does not limit their ability to experiment with policy alternatives.