Wednesday, October 29, 2008

TILMA: Saskatchewan Ministry of Intergovernmental Affairs denies access to briefing notes regarding controversial BC-Alberta trade agreement

BC Premier Gordon Campbell and Alberta Premier Ralph Klein sign
TILMA behind closed-doors on Apr. 28, 2006, in Edmonton. Is Saskatchewan next?

In what has become an all too common occurrence the Saskatchewan Party government has turned down yet another request for information.

An access to information request dated Sept. 22, 2008, was submitted to the Ministry of Intergovernmental Affairs asking for copies of any briefing notes between May 1, 2008, and Sept. 22, 2008, regarding the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA).

The Oct. 23, 2008, response from Alan Hilton, the deputy minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, advised that access to the records requested “cannot be released because they contain information that is exempt from release in accordance with…The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.” Hilton cited the following sections of the Act as the reason for denial:

14(a) – Information injurious to intergovernmental relations
16(1)(a) – Cabinet documents
17(1)(a)(c) – Advice from officials
18(1)(d)(e)(f) – Economic and other interests

Sections 14, 17 and 18 are discretionary exemptions meaning government institutions are not required to withhold the information. It most cases, however, they do simply because they can.

The ministry’s decision appears to contravene Section 8 of the Act which states: “Where a record contains information to which an applicant is refused access, the head shall give access to as much of the record as can reasonably be severed without disclosing the information to which the applicant is refused access.”

The ministry’s letter gave no indication that this was considered. The ministry’s decision will be appealed to the Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner.

This represents the second time in five months that Intergovernmental Affairs has refused access to records. In May 2008, Hilton denied access to all correspondence between the Province of Saskatchewan and the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region (PNWER) for the time period of Jan. 1, 2008 to Apr. 20, 2008.

On Sept. 9, 2008, at the inaugural joint Saskatchewan-Alberta cabinet meeting in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach signed a protocol of co-operation committing their governments to working more closely together.

This is despite the fact that on Sept. 3, 2008, Wall said “there would likely be no concrete agreements out of the meeting.” [Alta., Sask. government committees to meet in Lloydminster (StarPhoenix, Sept. 4, 2008)]

A protocol is a formal agreement about areas of policy co-operation. Contrary to what Wall might think it is something concrete.

According to the Saskatchewan Government news release the protocol is broken down into three distinct sections: better services for citizens, building more competitive economies, and delivering greater efficiency and value. Under those sections the provinces will work for greater co-operation on a variety of topics including energy, health, education, transportation and trade.

A Saskatchewan-Alberta steering committee, co-chaired by the provinces’ Cabinet Secretaries, will ensure the intent of the Protocol is fulfilled and will recommend future agreements to the Premiers.

At their first joint cabinet meeting on Oct. 8, 2003, in Calgary, BC and Alberta signed a Protocol of Cooperation, which led directly to the creation of TILMA.

On April 28, 2006, TILMA was signed without public consultation or legislative debate.

The Saskatchewan-Alberta protocol is very similar to the one signed by BC-Alberta.

In the article Sask. pursues TILMA-like agreement (StarPhoenix, Sept. 11, 2008) StarPhoenix reporter James Wood all but confirmed that the Saskatchewan Party government is pursuing bilateral agreements with Alberta that could be similar to the controversial TILMA.

“Wall downplayed the possibility of an agreement including B.C., although he did not categorically rule out having TILMA on the table if all Saskatchewan’s concerns are dealt with,” Wood said.

“TILMA is intended to eliminate trade and investment barriers between Alberta and B.C. while also bringing about the harmonization of rules, regulations and professional standards.

“It has become a flashpoint, however, because it is sweeping in its scope, enables private interests to challenge government measures and gives significant enforcement measures to trade panels, which can levy fines up to $5 million.”

The Wall government’s secretiveness and refusal to release TILMA-related documents suggests that the Saskatchewan-Alberta negotiations are following the same trajectory as those conducted by BC-Alberta a few years ago. The end result will be an agreement that is negotiated and signed behind closed doors without any public consultation or legislative debate, which is exactly what Wall wanted former NDP Premier Lorne Calvert to do in the spring of 2006 when he demanded that Saskatchewan join TILMA.


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