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Closing the Atlantic Gateway 

Rodney MacDonald is committed to making Nova Scotia one of the last dinosaurs.

Thank god for rising oil and gas prices. SUV sales are down, people are getting leery of suburban sprawl, businesses are trying to use less fuel. The sorts of changes that environmentalists have been advocating for years---to fight global warming---are now going mainstream because of a little pain at the pumps. The end of the Age of Waste is finally here, and we can move on to...oh, wait a sec. Premier Rodney MacDonald is still talking up the Atlantic Gateway idea, trying to make Nova Scotia one of the last dinosaurs. That has to stop.

Last week, RodMac announced the province and the federal Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency are together putting $165,000 into an Atlantic Gateway Initiative at Dalhousie University. "We know the Atlantic Gateway will play a vital role in the economic success of our region," RodMac said via press release, pinning his future to the dream of turning Nova Scotia into a major player in global shipping. Dal, according to the same release, will spend the money on a pro-Gateway conference and other ways to "encourage the academic community to help develop the Atlantic Gateway strategy." So much for critical thinking.

Once upon a time, the gateway scheme might have seemed tenable. Back when flush American consumers were buying stuff as fast as factories in China and India could produce it, there was a traffic problem brewing. So many container ships were coming to west coast ports from Asia that the ports couldn't handle much more. The solution, as Atlantic Gateway dreamers saw it, is to send the boats the long way from China---heading west, through the Suez Canal and across the Atlantic---to Halifax. Then the containers of cheap plastic shit would be unloaded and on the road to Chicago faster than the busy west coast ports can manage.

Even when it was a good idea (Dal's new gateway site links to a 2004 study) it was a bad idea. The west coast ports could see the traffic problem, too, and they quickly invested lots more than $165,000 to increase capacity. (See my March 13 "Gateway fantasies" column for more.) What they couldn't guess is that both the American economy and the cheap-oil business model would both go into the toilet. A story in the June 26 Wall Street Journal describes the changes that are already taking place: "To fill their metal crates, container-shipping lines depend on customers in one place taking advantage of the lower cost of goods made in distant locations. But transportation costs have begun to erode the benefit of such sourcing, and that pressure has prompted some Western-based companies to relocate manufacturing plants away from Asia."

Given RodMac's record of brain-dead leadership, it's natural that he's still spending on the gateway. (Watch for him to announce a compact disc factory or an asbestos plant to improve the fortunes of modern Cape Breton.) The surprise is that Dalhousie has jumped on the sinking container ship. A plausible explanation comes from a report put out last week by the Association of Universities and Colleges Canada, which shows government funding for post-secondary education has dropped sharply since the early 1990s. Apparently schools have gotten so desperate they'll do anything for money, even if it means going intellectually bankrupt.

For the challenges and opportunities of the post-oil economic order, weakening the universities is exactly the wrong thing to do. Building on Nova Scotia's strong history as an education destination should be a no-brainer for a government looking to stay relevant in the information age. Is free tuition really that hard to imagine in the land of the free ATV? Memorial University in Newfoundland has one of the lowest tuition rates in Canada, averaging $2,633 per year, and is attracting students from all over Atlantic Canada. Plenty of them are Nova Scotians, tired of paying the nation's highest average tuition while RodMac waits for his ships to come in.

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