Revitalizing Atlantic Canada

Writing for Free Exchange allowed me to examine a multiplicity of issues facing Atlantic Canada and the following are some that I have found to be of paramount importance.

The most prominent issue in Atlantic Canada is slow economic growth, which has resulted in an enormous outflow of skill labourers, young professionals, and families who have left for British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan to find work. Economic growth rates in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, for instance, have fallen below the national average of 2 per cent in 2013. Newfoundland and Labrador, which is currently booming due to oil production, is somewhat of an exception, however, declining revenues threaten to derail the province’s path to prosperity. In addition, the three Maritime Provinces experienced declining populations in 2013.

NL’s growth is largely attributable to strong oil and gas production, which has been growing in the province since the mid-2000s. The rest of Atlantic Canada could benefit from NL’s model and the region may need to look toward the oil and gas sector. New Brunswick currently boasts an opportunity to host the Energy East Pipeline and has a prospective shale gas industry. Other opportunities include increased cooperation or shared services between the three Maritime Provinces and exploring trade prospects with emerging markets.

Another problem facing the region, and the entire country, is unfunded liabilities. In other words, public sector pensions are a significant issue that plagues both federal and provincial government. This is where Atlantic Canada can lead: New Brunswick and Nova Scotia both made changes to their pension programs and the rest of Canada could learn from their progress.

In addition, Canada’s healthcare system requires additional consideration and policymakers must look into issues plaguing it. Through the Canada Health Transfer, the federal government allocates funds to the provinces to assist them with growing wait lists, quality assurance, and a number of other issues. However, progress has been futile. The federal government has given $41 billion in additional healthcare funding since 2004, yet, in 2010, Canada ranked last out of 11 countries in terms of wait times. This is why policymakers should consider alternatives to the status quo.

There are also serious democratic issues facing the country. The Senate remains unelected and unaccountable, and the Supreme Court’s recent ruling inscribed the current structure in stone. Its ruling does not need necessarily indicate defeat, though, and the Prime Minister, in addition to supporting premiers, must take the lead and ensure reform to the Upper Chamber.

While many Canadians may agree that these issues are of great importance, there must be action. We often criticize the political sphere for not dealing with these issues adequately, however, the truth is that we, as electors, must show that they are a priority or politicians will not give them due consideration. It is our duty to ensure that ideas, such as natural resource development, prudent fiscal management, and adequate healthcare, receive fair scrutiny, rather than arbitrarily dismissing them from the outset; it is our duty as citizens to place them on the political agenda.

Randy Kaye is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute

Reforming Canadian Healthcare

The provinces are responsible for administering and delivering healthcare in Canada and while provincial jurisdiction may appear odd, it was not of major concern when the Fathers of Confederation ratified the British North America Act in 1867. Following several years of debate, however, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council declared the provinces responsible for administering and provisioning healthcare. The federal government is responsible for public health, in addition to providing healthcare to certain groups, including First Nations, Inuit, military personnel, and federal inmates. It does provide funding to the provinces via the Canada Health Transfer, which is supposed to assist them with costs and ensure some degree of equivalency between provincial healthcare systems.

Former Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas, widely recognized to be the “Father of Medicare,” fought ardently for the implementation of a publicly funded healthcare system. In 1962, one year after his departure from provincial politics, Saskatchewan began providing public healthcare and, shortly thereafter, so too did Alberta. Former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, in 1958, announced the federal government would fund 50 per cent of provincial healthcare, and eight years later, then Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson ratified this motion.

As a result, Ottawa’s role in healthcare funding is controversial and has been a major policy issue in Canada. Indeed, without federal funding, there would be significant disparities among the provinces in terms of quality, yet, despite these concerns, healthcare innovation is provincial jurisdiction.

The debate over federal funding remerged following the expiration of the Canada Health Accord, established in 2004 under Paul Martin’s tenure as Prime Minister of Canada. It guaranteed six per cent annual increases in funding for healthcare and was supposed to help with deficiencies, such as high wait times. Stephen Harper’s government recently committed to a six per cent increase until 2017, after which the government will fund based on inflation-adjusted economic growth (although the level of funding will not fall below 3 per cent). This development has prompted critics to demand the government return to guaranteeing the six per cent increase, arguing that underfunding issues could worsen the system, and more worrying, allow new issues to emerge.

However, despite funding increases, very little has changed in terms of quality. Kelly McParland of the National Post, for instance, notes the lack of progress in reducing wait times. Moreover, citing the Health Council, he noted that homecare services for seniors are inadequate, primary care is insufficient, and prescription drugs are unaffordable. For example, as reported by the National Post, the federal government has given $41 billion in extra healthcare funding since 2004, yet in 2010 Canada ranked last of 11 countries in wait times.

McParland is not the sole critic. Indeed, there are several reports revealing the shortcomings of Canada’s healthcare system given the amount of money spent on it. Funding, therefore, is not necessarily the issue. There needs to be real reform of the Canadian healthcare system: Ottawa should retain its role, however, the provinces must consider new healthcare models as a means of strengthening their programs. Perhaps the first step ought to be reforming the Canada Health Act to be less restrictive in terms of delivery requirements. The Act requires that healthcare be publicly administered, greatly restricting any partnership with private entities. France, on the other hand, embraces a two-tier system, which typically performs highly in comparison to healthcare systems administered by other rich, democratic countries, in terms of both cost and outcome.

Randy Kaye is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute

Unfunded Liabilities and the Need for Reform

There is a major economic issue emerging in Canada: unfunded liabilities. Government and media often focus on economic issues like budgetary deficits, slow economic growth, and unemployment, and though these issues are paramount, unfunded liabilities are a stark reality that every level of government must accept in the coming years.

Unfunded liabilities are exactly what they seem: that is, liabilities (or financial obligations) for which there is a lack of funding. In the context of government, the issue encompasses pension plans and the large shortfalls in funding them.

Canada Post is the most recent to have announced problems funding pension liabilities. The National Post reported in December 2013 that the crown corporation has a $6.5 billion pension shortfall, which requires major changes in the company’s structure, such ending urban door-to-door delivery, layoffs, an increase in the price of stamps, and monetary relief from the federal government. As a result, it will either need to seek concessions from pensioners, perhaps via higher premiums.

The National Post reported further that Canada Post’s pension shortfall is part of a larger problem. The federal government, for instance, holds nearly $150 billion in unfunded liabilities. For instance, C.D. Howe Institute’s Alexander Laurin noted that the number is actually closer to $219 billion after accounting for future veteran and other employees, which will require surpluses in the future. This will require either spending cuts or tax increases, both of which are politically difficult decisions. The difficulty associated with unfunded liabilities is likely why there has been little-to-no action from government on the issue.

These shortfalls make it clear that there is need for reform in the public pension system: it is evidently unsustainable. The only jurisdiction considering reform is the Province of New Brunswick, which recently switched to shared-risk pension plans from the former defined-benefit pension plans. New Brunswick’s provincial government asserts the new plan changes cost of living increases to a conditional state based on performance. When the plan generates an annual surplus, however, “There is an opportunity to reinstate for years when cost of living increases were not provided.” The province chose this plan in hope of finding a long-term solution that is financially sustainable without cutting retiree pensions.

Ultimately, solutions to the looming pension crisis are necessary and require serious attention. Detroit’s bankruptcy last year was, in part, largely attributed to unfunded liabilities and, therefore, government at all levels need to consider similar actions to those taken in New Brunswick.

Randy Kaye is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute