Wednesday, June 27, 2007

TILMA: National Post continues with its blatant pro-trade agreement bias

Financial Post reporter Paul Vieira’s latest pro-TILMA article, Flaherty backs B.C.-Alberta trade deal, reeks of desperation and cheap publicity for the beleaguered trade deal.

Reporting from Meech Lake, Quebec, where federal Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and his provincial counterparts met for two days of meetings, Vieira said the Minister “threw his support behind the recently implemented free-trade deal between Alberta and British Columbia.”

“I am a fan of the Alberta-B.C. agreement, and I urge the other provinces to emulate it. And if they can, they should join it,” Mr. Flaherty said at the conclusion of the meetings.

That Flaherty supports TILMA is nothing new. On March 19, 2007, Flaherty tabled in the House of Commons his governments Budget 2007 in which Page 177 states:
“In April 2006, the Governments of Alberta and British Columbia signed the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA), a wide-ranging internal trade deal that will make it much easier for goods, investments and skilled workers to move between these two provinces. This agreement, the most comprehensive of its type in Canadian history, has created significant momentum. The federal government is committed to building on this momentum and will work with interested provinces and territories to examine how the TILMA provisions could be applied more broadly to reduce interprovincial barriers to trade and labour mobility across the country.”
Prior to that, on November 23, 2006, Flaherty released “a long-term, national economic plan” called Advantage Canada: Building a Strong Economy for Canadians. Page 39 of the plan states:
“All governments within Canada have a responsibility to allow our internal market to operate as freely as possible. In that regard, encouraging progress has been made recently. The governments of Alberta and British Columbia have signed a comprehensive agreement that could significantly enhance the movement of goods, services and capital between these two provinces.”
The plan made the following policy commitment:
“The Government intends to foster a stronger Canadian economic union by continuing to engage with the provinces and territories to enhance internal trade and labour mobility and create a common securities regulator, and by encouraging the provinces to move ahead with the harmonization of sales taxes with the GST.”
Note the phrase intends to.

For the Financial Post to present Flaherty’s comments at Meech Lake as revelatory or some kind of late-breaking news story seems dishonest.

It also appears that the Harper Conservatives may be willing to move unilaterally on the issue if it does not get its way. In a June 7, 2007, news release Maxime Bernier, Minister of Industry, announced that he proposed to his provincial and territorial counterparts at a meeting of the Committee on Internal Trade held in St. John's that the Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT) be strengthened to ensure that Canadians enjoy the benefits of full labour mobility by April 1,2009.

According to the news release the proposal conveniently delivers on commitments made by the Government of Canada in its long-term economic plan Advantage Canada and in Budget 2007.

“Minister Bernier led the discussion on labour mobility and proposed that the AIT be amended to include mutual recognition of occupational qualifications by default and that a more effective dispute resolution mechanism be incorporated into the AIT. These provisions would be similar to those in the Trade Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) signed by British Columbia and Alberta in April 2006. TILMA provides for mutual recognition by default if parties cannot reconcile measures. It also has a strong dispute resolution process, with monetary penalties [up to $5-million] for non-compliance,” the news release said.

“Provinces and territories agreed to look at the Minister of Industry's proposal and recommend that the Chair of the Committee on Internal Trade consult with the Forum of Labour Market Ministers on the matter.”

Perhaps Vieira could have mentioned this to his readers.

(It is interesting to note a June 7, 2007, news release by the Canadian Intergovernmental Conference Secretariat (CICS) states that: “The meeting marked the first formal consultation between the Committee and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce to exchange views on the state of interprovincial trade in Canada. Ministers welcomed this opportunity for closer dialogue with a leading voice of the business community.” No word on whether anyone from the other side of the issue had been invited.)

One question Vieira never gets around to answering fully is why Flaherty thinks other provinces should emulate or join TILMA? The closest he comes to providing any kind of reason that can be attributed to Flaherty is that the trade agreement has “a strong enforcement mechanism that is lacking under the current federal-provincial structure aimed at promoting freer trade.”

It’s hard to imagine this lone reason can justify and warrant such a sweeping, intrusive, and hard-hitting piece of legislation as TILMA.

By most accounts it appears internal trade was meant to be a key agenda item at the meeting but got out-muscled by discussion on the strong Canadian dollar, the fear of rising interest rates, equalization and Ontario’s plea that Ottawa take an “more active” role in helping the manufacturing sector.

As the Toronto Star reported “The key agenda item of the meeting, eliminating internal trade and labour mobility barriers, resulted in little progress, although [Alberta Finance Minister Lyle] Oberg said the provinces and territories have agreed to establish a ministers' panel that would review issues of internal trade at future meetings.”

That the finance ministers were comfortable shuffling the matter down on the list of priorities seems to suggest that it is not the burning issue some believe.

Even the June 20, 2007, news release issued by Flaherty’s department after the meeting buried the matter near the bottom of the page saying: “In an effort to strengthen Canada’s economic union the Finance Ministers discussed ways to reduce barriers to inter-provincial-territorial labour mobility, trade and improving regulatory efficiency.”

According to Vieira, Lyle Oberg, the Alberta Finance Minister said at the meeting TILMA “is something that has to be taken across Canada…It needs to be driven forward.”

Once again left unsaid is, why? No meaningful explanation from Oberg is given. His quote seems to have been thrown into the article for dramatic effect and nothing more.

Furthermore, Vieira failed to mention that TILMA obligates signatories to support and promote the trade agreement no matter how bad it is or how much of a shellacking it gets in the media. Honestly, what else was Oberg expected to say?

Vieira does take the time, though, to point out that “the tearing down of interprovincial barriers” is “an issue economists and think-tanks say is necessary to improve productivity and make Canada a more amendable place for foreigners to invest.”

Unfortunately, Vieira made no attempt to list the barriers between provinces nor did he provide the names of the economists and think-tanks he referred to. There are certainly economists and think-tanks out there that do not support TILMA as a vehicle to achieve removing the alleged barriers in question but they aren’t mentioned either. In fact, the article contains no dissenting opinions whatsoever. This is, after all, a CanWest newspaper.


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