Friday, June 15, 2007

TILMA: Saskatoon StarPhoenix campaign of insults and misinformation continues, columnist refuses to consider opposing views

Saskatoon StarPhoenix columnist Randy Burton’s June 14, 2007, opinion piece No need to fear new trade deal seems to pick up right where his June 24, 2006, column Saskatchewan needs to join western front left off – only this time there is more in the way of insults, name calling, ignoring of facts, no evidence to support claims, dismissing out of hand or altogether ignoring opposing views etc. Generally just more of what has come to be expected from this particular CanWest newspaper.

Burton takes a swipe at the Council of Canadians, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Saskatchewan Federation of Labour but not once has Burton ever produced an analysis of his own addressing the legitimate concerns that are being raised by these groups to explain why he thinks they are wrong.

Burton instead lashes out at critics of TILMA calling them “alarmist” and “doomsayers”. On May 15, 2007, the SP editorial board referred to the same people as “the usual anti-trade and protectionist suspects” and “scaremongers”. To strike this much fear into the media could mean that the truth about TILMA is hitting a little too close to home. As the Council of Canadians so wonderfully said “The greatest strength of the case against TILMA is that it is entirely based on the wording of the agreement itself.”

It seems that for Burton and the StarPhoenix editorial board the only weapon left in their arsenal is personal attacks, insults and misinformation with the hope of creating an atmosphere of negativity towards those speaking out on the issue.

In his article Burton wrote:
"We are told that when the corporations rule, our legislature will be emasculated and our municipalities neutered. It will be a race to the bottom where our standard of living will presumably be reduced to that of Alberta."
In one fell swoop Burton manages to insult Vancouver, Yellowknife, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon, Burnaby, Coquitlam, the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association (SUMA), the Lower Mainland Local Government Association (LMLGA) and organizations like the BC School Trustees Association and Saskatchewan Teachers Federation that have come forward with very real and legitimate concerns with TILMA and its potential impact on municipalities and institutions. Some of the concerns are so intense that outright permanent exemptions from TILMA are being sought. Burton ignores this completely.

The “race to the bottom” scenario that Burton scoffs at so easily minimizes the gravity of the impact TILMA could have on governments to legislate in the public interest and for the public good.

In her analysis Asking for Trouble: The Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (Feb. 2007) for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Ellen Gould wrote:
“Some of TILMA’s most sweeping provisions, such as its prohibition on government measures that are obstacles to trade, derive from the Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT).”

“AIT dispute panels have consistently ruled that governments cannot use the fact that they are acting within their constitutional authority to justify violations of the AIT. For example, one panel stated: “In signing the Agreement, the Parties recognized that constitutionally valid measures may be contrary to the Agreement and may need to be changed in order to achieve the objectives of the Agreement.” TILMA, by pairing the strict wording of the AIT with the ability of private investors to enforce it, will significantly limit the policy space provincial and local governments are granted under the Canadian constitution.”

“TILMA does not incorporate provisions from the AIT that moderate that agreement’s impacts. For example, TILMA subjects investment to a “No Obstacles” requirement, whereas the AIT exempts it. The AIT stipulates that when environmental and consumer protection regulations are being reconciled, governments are prohibited from engaging in a deregulatory race to the bottom. TILMA omits these safeguards.”
Steven Shrybman of Sack Goldblatt Mitchell offers this perspective in his February 2007 analysis of TILMA for the Ontario Federation of Labour:
“The pressure that TILMA creates to reduce regulatory standards to the lowest common denominator was recently described by the Executive Vice-President of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants in testimony before the Standing Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce:

“Although we support the merits of trying to enhance labour mobility, we bring to your attention the important need to recognize that provisions such as article 13.1 of TILMA could lead inevitably to the risk that standards of qualification for professionals are thereby reduced to the lowest level prevailing in the country.

“As provincial standards for regulation of professions are not uniform to begin with, this provision essentially makes the lowest of the standards that may exist in Canada acceptable as the base of qualification — essentially a race to the bottom, if you will. We do not believe that this is consistent with the obligation of legislators and governments nor of the professions themselves to ensure that the public is protected.

“Given the broad prohibition on regulatory intervention set out by Articles 3 and 5.3, it is inevitable that various efforts for reconciling or harmonizing provincial standards (see Articles 5.1, 5.5, 11.1 and 13.6) will create real pressure to reduce standards and regulations to the lowest common denominator, or abandon them altogether. If further evidence of TILMA’s deregulatory intent is needed, it can be found in the fact that it fails to incorporate AIT provisions intended to moderate the “race to the bottom” effect of trade liberalization.”
Burton does not address these issues he simply dismisses them as “alarmist” and “far-fetched” without actually addressing them in any meaningful way.

In his column Burton wrote:
"[I]f you look at the TILMA agreement itself, its hard to find a basis for many of the claims that have been made."
Look at the TILMA agreement itself – now there’s a novel approach! This is exactly what the groups opposed to TILMA have done. It appears Burton has neither read TILMA nor any of the analysis put forward by the various groups he attacks otherwise he might not be making some of the comments that he is. Or perhaps it’s that he just doesn’t want to know.

In his column Burton wrote:
"[T]here is a long list of exemptions to this deal, including labour standards, minimum wages, employment insurance, social assistance benefits and workers compensation. Policies affecting aboriginal people, water and associated infrastructure, tax policies, natural resource royalties and regulated utility rates are all exempt.

"Subsidies for culture and recreation are exempt, as is help for non-profit organizations. Assistance for academic research is exempt, and so is environmental policy. Forestry and fish management are not part of the deal."
Here we go again with the exemptions. The StarPhoenix and other pro-TILMA groups just can’t seem to find it within themselves to level with the public on this particular matter. They simply refuse to acknowledge the existence of Article 17 in TILMA that requires a ministerial committee to “review annually the exceptions listed…with a view to reducing their scope.”

The exemptions will eventually be removed and exposed to the full force of the agreement. The Conference Board of Canada’s impact assessment of TILMA for the BC Government states on page fourteen that: “TILMA is considered to be an improvement… since future negotiations can focus on the removal of the exceptions from the explicit exclusion list.”

The BC and Alberta governments, in their own official TILMA publications, have stated that “ongoing efforts will continue to reduce exceptions”

So labour standards and codes, minimum wages, employment insurance, social assistance benefits and workers compensation, among other things, is by no means safe.

Subsidies for recreation, academic research and to non-profit organizations could be at risk since they too are subject to Article 17 and BC Minister of Economic Development Colin Hansen has stated on more than one occasion that “TILMA is designed to eliminate subsidies.”

Groups like the Fraser Institute bitterly oppose exemptions and have stated in no uncertain terms that there should be none in TILMA period. Why do Burton and the StarPhoenix refuse to come clean on this issue?

In his column Burton wrote:
"The Conference Board of Canada has concluded that TILMA would increase Saskatchewan's GDP by $291 million, and increase annual employment by 4,400 person years. In other words, signing the agreement could cause economic growth that exceeds our average annual increase in employment."
In their June 5, 2007, submission to the The Standing Committee on the Economy public hearings into TILMA, the Canadian Labour Congress wrote:
“The Conference Board projects that TILMA will add $291 million (at 1997 basic prices) and 4,400 jobs to Saskatchewan’s economy. These figures seem implausibly optimistic for three reasons.

“First, $291 million (at 1997 basic prices) equals 0.92% of Saskatchewan’s GDP. In other words, the Conference Board is suggesting that a “free trade” agreement with two other provinces would produce gains twenty times greater than those previously estimated for complete “free trade” with all provinces. John Helliwell, a former President of the Canadian Economics Association, judges “the maximum gain to be a small fraction of the 0.92% of GDP estimated by the Conference Board.”

“Second, TILMA would handicap Saskatchewan’s economic development policies. Due to Alberta’s vast resource wealth, businesses located there enjoy lower tax rates and higher levels of public spending. Although Saskatchewan cannot match Alberta on this basis, it can currently use targeted incentives to compete in specific sectors. TILMA would not address the omnipresent subsidy created by Alberta’s overall tax rates and public spending, but would prohibit the more focused and affordable “business subsidies” provided by Saskatchewan.

“According to Dr. Helliwell, “increases in mutual access will always tend to favour firms located in the richer province. This fundamental nonneutrality means that the playing field can never be level between Alberta and Saskatchewan firms. This may indeed be the most important fact affecting the evaluation of TILMA by Saskatchewan, even though it is not mentioned in the Conference Board report.” By aggravating this disadvantage, TILMA could slightly reduce Saskatchewan’s GDP rather than slightly increasing it.

“Third, Saskatchewan imports substantially more from its prospective TILMA partners than it exports to them. Since no significant inter-provincial barriers exist, TILMA would not significantly increase trade flows. However, if TILMA fulfilled its objective of expanding these flows, it would increase Saskatchewan’s trade deficits.

“The most recent figures dividing Saskatchewan’s inter-provincial exports and imports by province are for 2003. In that year, Saskatchewan’s international trade surplus offset most of its inter-provincial trade deficit, leaving a net deficit of only $43 million. If Saskatchewan had exported 10% more to Alberta and BC and imported 10% more from these two provinces, this deficit would have been $288 million.

“Other things being equal, a larger trade deficit (or smaller trade surplus) implies a lower GDP and less employment. Larger trade flows might increase productivity, which might increase GDP. However, productivity does not create jobs: “since the gain in GDP is coming from productivity increases, the increase in GDP is not based on hiring more workers but on reducing the number of workers required to produce a given amount of GDP.” Even if TILMA were to increase GDP, it is completely unclear how it could create 4,400 jobs.”
It is unclear whether Burton attended any part of the public hearings that were held in Saskatoon between June 11-15 at the Radisson Hotel or made a submission of his own outlining why he feels TILMA’s opponents are wrong in their assessment of the agreement.

In his column Burton wrote:
"University of Saskatchewan economist Eric Howe was contracted by the government to examine this study and he concluded the Conference Board might be underestimating the benefit.

"Nor should we believe that we can avoid the process of reducing trade barriers, he argues.

“Any policy-maker who contemplates sitting out this particular dance should consider that the trade liberalization party will not be over. The process of trade liberalization will continue.

"If Saskatchewan decides not to sign TILMA, it will tend to further the isolation of our businesses and make them more insular relative to their competitors to the west (or elsewhere) and make them more dependent on the non-tariff-barriers we have erected,” Howe wrote in his analysis."
It is interesting to note that, aside from the discredited Conference Board of Canada, the only other source of information Burton and the StarPhoenix seem willing to cite is Dr. Howe, and then only selectively.

Dr. Helliwell was contracted by Saskatchewan Government Relations to provide a cross-review of Dr. Howe’s analysis of the Conference Board of Canada’s impact assessment of TILMA on Saskatchewan should the province join the agreement.

In his report Dr. Helliwell noted:
“In the three-province community of British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, it is realistic to think that the agreed standards would be set to match the preferences of the larger provinces, so that any cost reductions are only achieved by accepting the standards of the other provinces. Given the different resource endowments, growth prospects and sometimes political orientations in the three provinces, Saskatchewan would almost surely be better to wait for the greater gains flowing from harmonization at the level of the AIT.

“In any event, the size of the cost reductions likely to be made available by TILMA are so small as to make it essentially costless to use whatever leverage Saskatchewan may have to improve the AIT rather than join TILMA.”
Helliwell went on to say:
“Eric Howe says that the Conference Board assessment is likely to be too small since some of the survey respondents (those favoured by exsiting procurement policies, for example) will over-estimate the costs of joining TILMA. (Howe does not, as I thought he would and should, reject the notion of job gains as being inconsistent with the appropriate equilibrium methodology.) But would not the gainers be as likely to over-estimate the gains, for analogous reasons?

“However, my reason for dismissing the point is not that it only sees the possibility of under-estimating gains. Rather, as I outline in my report, there is essentially no empirical support for converting the qualitative survey response to an estimate of the changes in GDP, so how can one possibly say that the Conference Board gave too much weight to the naysayers? This would only be possible if one had some other means of establishing what might be a realistic estimate of the efficiency gains from the change from AIT, current and projected, to TILMA. Howe provides no such evidence.”
It should be noted that in his report Dr. Howe also said “We don’t want to get this wrong. We need to weigh the tradeoff between the social advantages and disadvantages.”

Howe’s report does not do that. In fact, Howe inexplicably devotes just two measly sentences to describe the trade agreement’s negative impact: “The disadvantage of signing TILMA is reduced sovereignty. TILMA will restrict some abilities of provincial and local governments to enact certain laws and requires that some regulations be standardized across the signing provinces.”

“[T]here is very little discussion of future social policies for Saskatchewan that will be prohibited by signing TILMA. In the absence of such discussion of anticipated future social policies, it is nearly impossible to objectively quantify what the social disadvantage of signing TILMA will be,” Howe said.

Those discussions have not taken place in Saskatchewan. They certainly did not happen in British Columbia and Alberta where TILMA was signed without public consultation or legislative debate.

Howe says non-tariff barriers are extremely heterogeneous in nature. “It is difficult to know how signing TILMA will affect current government policies,” he said.

The absence of such information did not seem to deter Howe, though, from concluding that Saskatchewan must join TILMA anyway.

Unfortunately, Randy Burton does not touch on any of this.

In his column Burton went on to attack the NDP government:
"In spite of the fact the NDP provincial government still professes to have an open mind on the issue, it faces huge pressure from its own supporters to conclude that TILMA is bad. So bad, in fact, that Premier Lorne Calvert may want to run against it in a provincial election, whatever the experts conclude.

"He will do this because Saskatchewan Party Leader Brad Wall thinks TILMA is really good. So good, in fact, that he wants the Saskatchewan cabinet to start meeting with the Alberta cabinet right away."
Burton’s anti-NDP sentiments are well known. Naturally, he fails to tell his readers, however, about Saskatchewan Party Leader Brad Wall’s blatant hypocrisy when it comes to TILMA or that it was closed-door cabinet meetings between BC and Alberta that helped create TILMA.

During much of 2006, Wall condemned and vilified NDP Premier Lorne Calvert both in the legislature and in news releases for not being at the negotiating table with BC and Alberta during their closed-door discussions and for not signing the agreement which, by the way, occurred on April 28, 2006, without any prior public consultation or legislative debate. It’s clear that a government under Brad Wall would have done the same underhanded thing.

In the last few months Wall and his party have suddenly embraced the public consultation process and even went so far as to say they should have happened years ago. The funny this is Wall made no mention of consultation when berating Premier Calvert last year for not signing the agreement.

Burton also failed to tell his readers about Brad Wall’s March 19, 2007, letter to the City of Saskatoon outlining his party’s three criteria for signing TILMA. Those criteria are:

1) That it not negatively impact on the public ownership of the major Crowns
2) That it not negatively impact environmental standards
3) That it not negatively impact the well-being of workers.

Everything else it seems is open season and fair game to dismantle.

If Brad Wall and the Saskatchewan Party cannot come right out and say that it supports a permanent exemption for important social policies, programs and services then it seems reasonable to assume that they have no intention of protecting them let alone enhance them.

Like the StarPhoenix editorial board and Saskatchewan Party Leader Brad Wall, columnist Randy Burton appears to have little credibility when it comes to TILMA.


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