Travelling For Trade

Premier Stephen McNeil was unable to meet Screen Nova Scotia at the end of August because he had a plane to catch.

The advocacy group for the film industry called for an “emergency meeting” with McNeil because one of its members, with six employees, was shutting down. This is part of the continuing fallout from the correct—but clumsily handled—reduction in film tax credits.

Both opposition parties called for him to accept the meeting but, when asked, the NDP would not say whether they would restore the previous program. The PCs agree that change was necessary, but argue for a more orderly transition to the new program.

The premier was just leaving for almost two weeks travel in Asia, primarily China, returning on September 10th. Was it worth it?

The cost is not an issue. Taxpayers paid for the premier, his chief of staff, two staff from the Department of Intergovernmental Affairs, and two from Nova Scotia Business Inc (NSBI). Taxpayers also paid $30,000 for five exporters to attend a major seafood expo. The exporters paid for their own travel.

A total cost estimate has not yet been furnished, but it seems likely to be in the vicinity of $100,000-$150,000. To put that in context, the province’s total spending is more than $1 million per hour every hour of the year, so this was less than 10 minutes of it. Or, phrased differently, less than 1% of the continuing annual subsidies to the film and digital media industries.

The province’s rules allow for business class travel for trips over nine hours. Nevertheless, the premier chose to fly economy. That will no doubt be applauded in an era featuring the egregious excesses of Canada’s senators and former Alberta Premier Alison Redford.

While there, the premier supported seafood and agrifood exporters in their efforts to build market share. He also participated as Saint Mary’s University signed a memorandum of understanding with a university in southern China, continuing a twelve year relationship. The agreement will lead to a China competencies training program at SMU for Nova Scotian business and government executives.

Relationships are important to building business with China, and the premier’s contribution had more than ceremonial value. China’s growth may be slowing, but it is still a vast market with enormous opportunities for Nova Scotian companies.

Suppose, for a moment, that the opportunity is there to double our exports of lobster, crab, scallops, and sea cucumber. Or frozen blueberries, onion rings, and fries. And, further, suppose that there is enough product to sustainably meet the demand.

There is still a significant obstacle. We don’t have enough workers, particularly in rural areas. Jules Leger of Ocean Pride Fisheries in Wedgeport—one of the exporters represented on the trip—says that he would have trouble finding the necessary staff even if both product and demand were available. Other rural processors tell a similar story.

There is not much point in creating jobs that cannot be filled. The problem will only get worse over the next two decades as more and more baby boomers retire.

Some might argue that the premier’s trip was an extravagant use not of money, but of his time. What else might he have been doing? Deciding to not have another meeting with the film lobby was an entirely reasonable choice.

But there are many pressing files—regulations are still not complete that would allow new aquaculture projects, nor for Invest Nova Scotia, which was first announced 18 months ago. Public sector labour agreements are not done, and provisions for emergency hospital services during a labour disruption have not been established.

At the top of any such list must be growing the number of immigrants. There was good news this week in the rising numbers, improving retention, and expanded opportunities through the express entry streams for high-skilled workers. But the 2,670 newcomers in 2014 is far short of the 10,000 per year we need to rejuvenate our population.

We must also, as individuals and communities, embrace the opportunity to receive refugees. It is sad that it took a picture of a drowned three year old to galvanize the world’s attention. It is in our own interest to do more than our share.

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