Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Liberals make waves on East Coast

As power shifts West, east of Quebec now saying it wants in

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Call it Atlantic alienation -- a growing belief that the federal government in distant Ottawa is out of touch with its eastern provinces and pursuing policies that are punishing the region and its citizens.

Peter McKenna, a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island, popularized the term in a recent newspaper commentary, after one of his students drew a parallel between Atlantic Canada's political isolation and the rise of western alienation in the 1980s.

There's "a palpable sense in the region that Atlantic Canada's voice doesn't much matter in Ottawa these days," McKenna wrote. "It's as if the Harper Conservatives don't care what people think down here, that they've written off the region electorally."

A disproportionate share of federal civil-service cuts. New employment insurance eligibility rules that disrupt the region's seasonal fishing, forestry and tourism industries. Dispatching the "pogey police" to the doors of EI recipients to root out false claims. Less money for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, which supports economic development.

Even a bid by a trio of Conservative senators to revive the idea of a political union of the three Maritime provinces -- unpopular among voters and provincial politicians alike -- is being seen as evidence of a federal government bent on imposing its will on the East.

It has added up to dismal poll results in the region for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his party.

The latest poll released by Halifax's Corporate Research Associates found support for the federal Conservatives among decided voters had fallen from 39 to 30 per cent since the end of 2011, putting them in a tie with the slumping New Democrats. The Liberal Party catapulted from worst to first -- to 36 per cent from just 23 per cent last year. A recent Nanos survey confirms those numbers, pegging the Liberals at 38 per cent to the Conservatives' 29 per cent.

The Conservatives have only themselves to blame. The Corporate Research poll suggests almost three out of five Atlantic Canadians are dissatisfied with the Harper government's performance, while a quarter of respondents would prefer to have a Liberal -- even interim Leader Bob Rae -- as prime minister.

The alienation is real, at least in terms of political support, and that raises a question: Should Harper care, any more than Pierre Trudeau appeared to care when his National Energy Policy sounded the death knell for Liberal support in Western Canada?

Politically, there's not a lot at stake east of Quebec. A sweep of Atlantic Canada would net a federal party just 32 MPs, barely a tenth of the seats in the House of Commons. The proposed addition of 30 seats to the Commons -- none of them in Atlantic Canada -- would further erode the region's feeble political clout.

The Harper government did well here in the 2011 election, claiming 14 of the region's seats on its way to long-sought majority status. But eight were in a single province, New Brunswick, and the Conservatives could muster only one seat in P.E.I. and one in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Liberals, despite their disastrous showing nationally, almost fought the Tories to a draw in Atlantic Canada, winning a dozen seats. The polls suggest they're poised to do much better -- at Harper's expense -- in the next election.

While some policies have generated a regional backlash, there's plenty of evidence Harper has not written off the region. There's the $25-billion shipbuilding contract for Halifax's Irving shipyard and Ottawa's support for a pipeline to bring Alberta crude to Saint John, N.B., plus a federal loan guarantee to kickstart Labrador's Muskrat Falls hydroelectric development.

The region boasts five cabinet representatives, even if the spate of anti-Atlantic policies suggests their voices are not always heard. And when Harper needed a new minister last month to take over the hot-potato Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development portfolio, he turned to New Brunswick's Bernard Valcourt.

Such moves may reverse the Conservatives' East Coast slide before the next federal election. If not, the chief beneficiary of the Liberal resurgence may be leadership front-runner Justin Trudeau, who was in Nova Scotia last weekend to campaign and to debate his rivals.

It would be ironic, as political scientist Peter McKenna has noted, if Trudeau rides a wave of eastern unrest three decades after his father set the stage for the rise of Western Canada as a political force.

Dean Jobb, a professor of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, is the Winnipeg Free Press East Coast correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2013 J6

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