(This column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner March 27, 2017)
No need to ask what the Halifax Chamber of Commerce wants to see in next month’s provincial budget. They’ve made their wish list plain enough in their own, well-chosen words:
- “Taxation: Reduce the tax burden by either reducing the corporate income tax rate, increasing the small business rate threshold, or indexing personal income tax brackets.
- Fiscal responsibility: Implement a balanced budget for 2017/18 and keep the provincial government on track to achieve the Ivany Report’s fiscal sustainability goals. Consider more aggressive action such as reducing departmental spending by one per cent.
- Regulation: Set annual targets for red tape reduction and push for more aggressive reforms.
- Immigration: Increase the amount of provincial immigration funding and continue engaging the business community on how they can take advantage of Nova Scotia’s immigration programs.
- Education and youth retention: Ensure that existing programs that support youth in the workplace are fast, flexible, and have a low administrative burden. For example, allow all businesses to take advantage of the Graduate to Opportunity Program.”
Oh, yes, and as for the provincial government imposing no-negotiation contracts on teachers and other public servants? The Chamber is good with that. “As a Chamber, we fully support the government’s position on this issue.” Thank you.
You probably won’t be surprised to see there are no references — and certainly no concerns expressed by the Chamber — about the issues facing everyday Nova Scotians: health care wait times, for example, or the abysmal lack of support for people suffering from mental issues, or an education system over-burdened and under-resourced, or precarious employment at best for young people, or the realities of how child poverty limits the hopes for success, even survival for poor kids.
We probably shouldn’t be surprised. The Chamber of Commerce is a business lobby group, after all. When it talks about immigration, it doesn’t care about promoting diversity; it simply wants to make sure business “can take advantage of Nova Scotia’s immigration programs.” Its interest in education has little to do with capping classroom size and everything to do with allowing “all businesses to take advantage of” programs intended to support youth in the workplace by reducing business’s administrative burden.
All of this would be fine if everyone had the same shot at convincing Premier Stephen MicNeil and Finance Minister Randy Delorey. They don’t.
When Graham Steele was finance minister in the previous NDP government, he was keen to shake up what he saw as an entrenched pre-budget non-consultation consultation process. As he explained it to me when I was writing a 2012 profile for Atlantic Business Magazine: “The minister would receive six or so interest groups, and then make a few speeches to the larger chambers of commerce and call that consultation. I wanted to do something different.”
He took his show on the road. In advance of his first budget, for example, he met with “19 different groups from Whitney Pier in Cape Breton to Yarmouth and even hosted a province-wide video conference session with Acadians.” He called it “the single best, most enjoyable part of my job and the part of which I am proudest. I heard from groups that were never heard before instead of the same people all the time. It widened the democratic process.”
There were those, of course, who weren’t impressed, including then opposition leader and now premier, Stephen McNeil, who called it a “charade.” In fairness, he wasn’t alone. Groups on the right and the left argued Steele’s consultations were really about optics and shaping public opinion in favour of the government’s pre-determined plans.
But at least there was an actual face-to-face public process.
Stephen McNeil’s finance minister?
Back in November, Delorey quietly issued a press release inviting Nova Scotians to “participate in Budget Talks 2017-18.”
Anyone who wanted to offer the minister suggestions about what should be in the next budget was invited to email, snail-mail, tweet, or talk to “an MLA.” Emailed submissions automatically generated an automated thank you. There were no face-to-face public consultations.
Despite its own low-key invitation, 544 people did respond to the minister’s announcement. They called on the government to invest in education and infrastructure, and made suggestions for tax reform. “The submissions were collected, reviewed and presented to the minister as part of the budget preparation process,” a government spokesperson told me. “We consider it a success.”
Although 544 submissions might sound impressive, consider this: there are 198 people — representing companies from Alta Gas to Vertex Pharmaceuticals — registered under the province’s lobbyists’ registration act to lobby the finance department alone. That’s two-thirds of all the registered lobbyists in the province. They almost certainly do better than simply have their submissions “collected, reviewed and presented to the minister.”
Interestingly, the Halifax Chamber of Commerce isn’t among those actually registered to lobby the finance department. But you can bet the Chamber — with its clubby, state-of-the-province luncheons with the premier, its meetings with the finance minister and its ready access to government bureaucrats — gets more than an automated thank you.
The day after this column appeared, Finance Minister Delorey made a speech to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce in which he promised to lower small business taxes and cut red tape.