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Against the Tide

J. D. House

Price: CDN$39.95

(Currently Unavailable for Purchase)

Book Description

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 Approach.

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 illustrates:

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
York University

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