In an age of increasing privatization, deregulation and free trade, there are fewer examples
of governments taking a proactive approach to defining future directions for public policy. It
seems at times that the self-described goal of many elected officials is to render their jobs
obselete by surrending the tiller of society to market mechanisms. When there is a debate
about public policy, the impetus for the inquiry is generally a negative one. For the relucent
wheels of a royal commission or task force to begin to turn, there needs to be a significant
crisis -- such as the plight of aboriginal people in Canada -- which governments must be seen
to be addressing if they are to retain their credibility.
Atlantic Canada has had more than its share of bad news, and therefore more than its share
of royal commissions and task forces. Almost all Atlantic fishery policy comes out of one
inquiry or another in the aftermath of ongoing crises. Also, as a ‘have not’ region of Canada,
the Atlantic provinces are more prone to the social engineering realities of transfer payments
and regional economic development grants which are necessarily tied to goals arising from
the public sector, rather than from market mechanisms.
It is this world that Memorial University Sociology Professor J. D. House stepped into when
he agreed to chair the Economic Recovery Commission (ERC) from 1989 to 1996, a
provincial agency set up by the Newfoundland government of Clyde Wells. Against the
Tide attempts to both be a ''personal account'' of that ''difficult period in the recent history of
Newfoundland and Labrador,'' as well as an ''objective'' account of ''the facts as I know
them'' as the commission endeavoured to provide a plan for the shift from the ''old economy''
based on resources exports and transfer payments, to a ''new economy'' which was more
diversified and self-reliant. In order to achieve this renewal, the commission adopted an
''integrated approach'' to social and economic development, which will be set out in detail in
a forthcoming companion volume entitled Balanced Development: The Integrated
In trying to move Newfoundland and Labrador from the old economy to the new economy,
House very quickly came up against ''barriers and impediments that frustrate or thwart
efforts at economic renewal . . . '' that existed within the provincial bureaucracy. House
refers to this group of senior public servants as the ''Old Guard'' and describes them as
a control apparatus that systematically resists change, undermines innovative efforts of
agencies such as the ERC, and is highly successful at inducing successive political elites
(premiers and ministers), mainly unwittingly, to support its approach. In a society that has
become highly dependent on government, the Old Guard within the provincial bureaucracy
(abetted on some issues, such as income security reform, by the federal bureaucracy) is a
powerful conservative force that perpetuates dependency. It impedes efforts at transforming
Newfoundland and Labrador from a transfer-driven to a flourishing market-driven economy,
which would realize the potential of the province’s rich natural and human resources.
Although Premier Wells created the commission, House argues that, in large part, the
Premier remained wedded to the views of the Old Guard, despite the ERC’s attempt to
convince him othewise. When the Tobin Goverment was elected in 1996, it immediately shut
down the commission.
Within discussions generally on the ''integrated approach,'' what House presents in Against
the Tide is a graphic case of ‘the failure to institutionalize’ the increasingly complex
responses required to deal with problems such as unemployment. Within the literature on
community economic development or on environmental issues, for example, there is a
increasing recognition by theorists and practitioners that single sector, departmental
responses are insufficient to respond to issues such as unemployment or environmental
problems because the forces which cause these problems have become increasingly
complex and ‘messy.’ Case after case is fraught with jurisdictional overlap and stakeholder
conflict. In his analysis of the difficulties which confronted the implementation of the
''ecosystem approach'' to the Toronto Bioregion, Ron Doering refers to the ''Old Guard''
issue as ‘jurisdictional gridlock’ and ‘the bureaucratic mindset.’
The departmental structure at the provincial and federal level served the nation well in a
period of rapid economic expansion. But the messiness of remedial issues such as
unemployment or environmental problems -- whereas they may have a specific and local
focus -- cross many departmental jurisdictional boundaries and call for the coordination of
efforts among departments at levels well below that of Deputy Ministers, as House
The economy does not operate in isolation. Successful economic development depends on
successful social development and sound environmental management. Education and
training, employment programs, social-security reforms, transportation and communications,
infrastructure development -- all need to be coordinated and integrated so as to contribute to
economic development . . . At the regional level, this should be done through the ledership of
the twenty regional economic development boards. . .
Instead of being able to move in this direction as a result of the efforts of the ERC, House
instead concludes that the reassertion of the ''Old Guard'' under Premier Brian Tobin -- who
have, in turn, ''beaten down'' those who would like to work for change in Newfoundland and
Labrador -- is nothing less than a ''tragedy.''
As opposed to the ‘cargo cult’ mentality of economic development where prosperity is
supposed to crash land in communities in the form of mega-projects, House makes an
excellent case for a ''vision'' for Newfoundland and Labrador, which would put it at the
''very forefront in the sustainable development of its economy and society.''
Raymond A. Rogers
Faculty of Environmental Studies
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