Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Saskatoon StarPhoenix columnist supports TILMA

"Saskatoon and Saskatchewan have the most to gain in the West from this deal. With relatively cheap labour and land costs, an abundance of resources and a highly skilled and innovative workforce, this deal is most likely to bring needed diversity and strength to the economy."
--Gerry Klein, Civic Affairs, The StarPhoenix
[As expected The StarPhoenix, a member of the conservative CanWest Company newspaper chain, is beginning to climb on board in support of TILMA.

Despite the serious reservations with the agreement that were raised by Saskatoon city solicitor, Theresa Dust, and despite admitting there are "way more questions than answers" civic affairs columnist Gerry Klein suggests the deal would be good for the city and province.

Klein acknowledges that no consultations were done with municipalities in British Columbia and Alberta prior to TILMA's signing yet doesn't say whether this was appropriate or demand that Saskatchewan conduct meaningful public meetings and study before deciding if it should join the pact.

Klein calls concerns raised by Saskatoon city administration "issues" and fails to mention that, as far as the city is concerned, TILMA "cannot be adjusted to fit cities". It should be remembered that BC Premier Gordon Campbell, in the Dec. 14, 2006 Vancouver Sun, said Saskatchewan and Ontario were welcome to join "provided they don't try and tinker with the deal."

Klein does not acknowledge the importance of the "right to local choice" that all three of Saskatchewan's provincial parties endorsed when it approved The Cities Act in 2002.

"Cities like Saskatoon, which have a long history of doing things first and doing things differently, will be at the greatest risk of TILMA challenges," wrote solicitor Dust.

Naturally, Klein doesn't report this but does say that Saskatoon city administration should be given credit for raising "issues" then goes on to warn the provincial government that it "has to be careful not to throw this baby out with the bathwater." More of this can be expected from The StarPhoenix in the weeks and months ahead.]

Trade deal a mixed blessing

Gerry Klein
The StarPhoenix

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

There is perhaps no greater expression of a confident, mature economy than its willingness to enter free-trade agreement with its trading partners.

These deals also require a massive leap of faith.

By agreeing to harmonize regulations governing such critical areas as investment, labour mobility and trade policy, society is indicating that -- all things being equal -- it has what it takes to go head-to-head with competition in another jurisdiction.

It is natural, therefore, for some people to be concerned that they may be bowled over by those who are better prepared or more adaptable.

Given the stakes, it is no wonder that the Government of Saskatchewan is taking a close look at the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement TILMA) between British Columbia and Alberta set to come into effect next month. Compared with our two western neighbours, Saskatchewan's economy is small and relatively fragile.

But TILMA is a far cry from a deal between two underdeveloped jurisdictions -- even if Saskatchewan was thrown into that mix.

Not only do these provinces have economic and social structures similar those in Saskatchewan, their populations are so similar they are almost indistinguishable.

That doesn't mean there aren't areas the deal that require close scrutiny.

For example, last week Saskatoon city council received a report from its solicitor's department looking at the impact TILMA could have on the city, should Saskatchewan jump into the bargain.

And there were way more questions than answers.

The civic administrators spoke about the deal with counterparts in Alberta and B.C. and with the Alberta Union of Municipal Associations and the Union of British Columbia Municipalities.

They were told that the deal was reached by the respective provincial governments with no consultation with local governments.

Although municipalities are included in the deal, the impact on them is unknown. To that end, when it comes to municipal governments TILMA won't take effect until April 2009.

And there is a lot that will have to be considered, according to the report by city solicitor Theresa Dust and city clerk Janice Mann. Although they make it clear they aren't taking a position on the relative benefits to the province of expanding TILMA, the report raises a number of issues that must be considered.

They point out that among the city's main responsibilities is dealing with local development issues. For example, Saskatoon is one of the only jurisdictions to require stadium-style cinemas to be built in its downtown, while most cities allow them to be constructed in suburban areas.

I drove down Second Avenue Monday night, past the Galaxy Theatre that I worried would be an empty blue box in the heart of the downtown should North American trends in movie attendance play out in Saskatoon. Instead, even after 8 p.m., I couldn't find a parking spot for two blocks around the theatre.

The city's gambit seems to have paid off, and an already dynamic downtown is even stronger because of that rule.

"That is the kind of independence and risk-taking by cities that does not fit with the TILMA concept of standardization of regulations affecting business investment," the report says.

It also points out the city has rules and incentives in place to encourage investment in core neighbourhoods, to control the maintenance standards of rental properties and to regulate where people can smoke.

"Under TILMA, as we understand it, 'investments' could include residential rental property purchases," the report says. "Investors may be able to challenge the city's right to set higher standards for this industry and perhaps, also, the city's right to set higher standards of enforcement." Saskatoon also has a tradition of having its citizens sign petitions or holding referendums to force regulatory change.

For example, Sunday shopping came about as a result of such a vote.

"As another example," the report says, "it is fair to assume that Saskatoon is the only city in Canada which has, on two separate occasions, through a referendum, refused to allow a casino business within its boundary. As we read TILMA, referendums would not have recognition or priority." Although some exceptions could be written into the deal -- for example, to allow local governments to control land use regulations -- TILMA could leave municipalities holding the bag, the report says.

"Based on the information that we have to date, we do not believe that local choice can be adequately protected by adding specific exceptions to TILMA." But, while the agreement clearly leaves municipal governments exposed -- at least until whatever protections they can be accorded are worked out over the next two years -- Saskatoon has to consider if the potential benefits are worth the gamble.

Looking at other free-trade deals -- such as the one that set up the European Union or the one initially struck between Canada and the United States -- in almost all cases rather than a rush to the bottom, as Coun. Pat Lorje worried about last week, protection and trade strengthened.

Saskatoon and Saskatchewan have the most to gain in the West from this deal. With relatively cheap labour and land costs, an abundance of resources and a highly skilled and innovative workforce, this deal is most likely to bring needed diversity and strength to the economy.

And because these three western provinces have the fastest growing economies in Canada, and face some of the same challenges (such as the quest for labour), by harmonizing standards it should be easier to attract foreign or Canadian labour and the attention of Ottawa.

Mann and Dust should be given credit for raising these issues -- issues that should have caught the attention of their counterparts in B.C. and Alberta -- but the government has to be careful not to throw this baby out with the bathwater.

┬ęThe StarPhoenix (Saskatoon) 2007


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