Want more jobs? Drop the trade barriers

 

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Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall is proving that oil is not the only commodity in which the west is awash these days. Some pretty nifty ideas are also in long supply in Big Sky country where Maritimers go to, among pother things, retire their debts.  

Consider Mr. Wall’s concept of a “Canada Free Trade Zone”, in which goods, services, people, skills and professions move effortlessly across provincial borders, goosing the national economy by as much as $50 billion a year.

According to a report in the Globe and Mail this week, British Columbia and Alberta Premiers Christy Clark and Dave Hancock think it’s a grand idea and signed a letter to that effect, “urging their counterparts” in other provinces “to agree to modernizing the 20-year-old Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT) when their meet in Charlottetown in August for the Council of the Federation.” 

As Mr. Wall tells the Globe, “AIT is pretty anemic as a trade agreement. . .We start from the premise that everything is open.”

Evidently, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island Premiers Stephen McNeil and Robert Ghiz are enthusiastic. And while there’s no official word on New Brunswick Premier David Alward’s sentiments, the chances are excellent that Mr. Energy East Pipeline will endorse anything that threatens to enrich Canada’s second-least populous province, where 750,000 souls shoulder an annual public deficit of $500 million and a long-term, structural debt of $12 billion.

In fact, dismantling inter-provincial trade barriers in this country has been an ongoing home improvement project for provincial premiers since at least 1995, when the AIT first came into effect to “reduce barriers to the movement of persons, goods, services and investments within Canada.”

Effectively, according to an Industry Canada blurb, the agreement establishes “general rules which prevent governments from erecting new trade barriers and which require the reduction of existing ones in areas covered under the Agreement; specific obligations in 10 economic sectors – such as government purchasing, labour mobility and investment – which cover a significant amount of economic activity in Canada; the streamlining and harmonization of regulations and standards (e.g. transportation, consumer protection); a formal dispute resolution mechanism that is accessible to individuals and businesses as well as governments; and commitments to further liberalize trade through continuing negotiations and specified work programs.”

The problem is, as Mr. Wall observes, it’s worn out and obsolete. Recent international trade agreements provide foreigners, in many cases, with readier access to Canadian markets than Canadians, themselves, enjoy.

In an interview with the Halifax Chronicle-Herald last year, Corinne Pohlmann, vice-president of national affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said a study her Halifax office conducted “indicated that nearly half of all small business owners want apprenticeship changes. . .It seems ironic that we are approaching a trade deal with the European Union while we have so much regulatory variation between our own provinces and territories. . .All these often conflicting restrictions on interprovincial trade and movement of skilled workers and products must seem petty when viewed from outside Canada.”

They do, indeed. Still, there is precedent for enlightenment in this country. There is, for example, the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) between Alberta and British Columbia. 

Signed in 2006, its purported benefits include the scaleable opportunities (in terms of both GDP growth and job creation) possible in a fluid marketplace of nearly eight million people and an economy of more than $400 billion.

Moreover, says the Agreement, “A tradesperson such as a plumber or a welder, or a professional such as an architect or a nurse, can move to Alberta from British Columbia or vice versa and have his or her certification recognized in the new province of residence. . .Duplicate business registration and reporting requirements as well as residency requirements have been removed.”

Meanwhile, “Allowing goods, services, capital and labour to flow more freely across the Alberta-BC border (boosts) trade, makes it easier for businesses to expand into the other province, and lower costs for businesses and taxpayers. . .Open procurement policies with low thresholds help ensure that people get the best value for tax dollars. They also create more opportunities for businesses to bid on public contracts at dollar levels where small and medium-sized enterprises are able to compete.”

Perhaps, this time, Mr. Wall’s modest proposal is an idea whose time has come. 

 

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