Friday, May 07, 2010

Deception, hypocrisy, betrayal, and the New West Partnership; Premier Brad Wall misrepresenting labour’s role on Enterprise Saskatchewan board

“I think there’s been a lot of consultation on this.”
– Premier Brad Wall commenting on the New West Partnership,
Global Regina, April 30, 2010
Premier Brad Wall and his good friends at the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce say the recently signed New West Partnership Trade Agreement (NWPTA) is critical because it will eliminate the barriers to trade that exist between Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. What trade barriers?

On April 3, 2007, two days after the BC-Alberta Trade, Investment, and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) began its three year phase in, the Edmonton Journal, in an editorial commenting on the trade pact, pointed out that “there was little in the way of genuine trade barriers remaining between the two westernmost provinces.” In a news release that day concerning TILMA, Saskatchewan Party Leader Brad Wall said that Saskatchewan was “the lowest cost jurisdiction… with fewer trade barriers and restrictions than either B.C. or Alberta.”

At no point since April 28, 2006, when TILMA was signed in Edmonton, has Wall, the Saskatchewan Chamber, or BC and Alberta governments produced a detailed list of genuine trade barriers that exist between the provinces. They talk about them ad nauseam but never say what they are. Why do you suppose that is?

It’s probably because they don’t exist, and even if they did, it is likely in such small numbers that it would put the supporters of TILMA and the New West Partnership to shame.

The Saskatchewan Chamber is enthusiastic about the new agreement.

“We applaud the government for this initiative and look forward to its full implementation,” said the lobby group’s CEO Steve McLellan in a media release.

The news release goes on to say that the organization “is pleased that regulatory simplification is a focus of the partnership agreement. The elimination of unnecessary differences in provincial business and occupation-related regulations and standards will support economic growth and enhance the competitiveness of Saskatchewan businesses in larger western markets.”

As with the phantom trade barriers, the Saskatchewan Chamber fails to provide a comprehensive list of the “unnecessary differences” in question.

The focus on regulations and standards gets us closer to the heart of the matter, and the real reason behind agreements like TILMA and the NWPTA: to pressure government’s to reduce standards and regulations to the lowest common denominator, or abandon them altogether. The agreements are by intent, design and structure no more than instruments for de-regulation.

Another red herring is labour mobility.

In a web-exclusive op-ed posted on The Globe and Mail’s website, the three western premiers said the new agreement will enhance the region’s competitiveness by removing barriers to labour mobility. “A skilled worker from one province will not have to unnecessarily prove their qualifications in another province,” the trio said. [We are stronger as one than if we stand apart (The Globe and Mail, May 1, 2010)]

The premiers either have a short memory or are purposely ignoring the fact that issues around labour mobility were largely addressed by the Council of the Federation on January 16, 2009, when all of Canada’s First Ministers signed a declaration revising the labour mobility chapter of the Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT) to enable any worker certified for an occupation by a regulatory authority of one province to be recognized as qualified to practice that occupation by all other provinces.

On February 2, 2009, the Wall government issued a news release announcing it had “approved and will sign protocols” to the AIT that will amend the labour mobility resolution chapters.

As a result, workers will not face mobility barriers within Canada. The amendments affect all regulated occupations, including (but not limited to): health professionals, engineers, accountants and people working in the skilled trades, the news release said.

“Agreement by all jurisdictions on labour mobility is a significant victory for Saskatchewan,” Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Bill Boyd said. “It will help our province attract much needed skilled workers and, together with our investments in skills training, these changes will lead to a more secure and prosperous Saskatchewan.”

The new labour mobility provisions became effective April 1, 2009. The level of importance the provinces are placing on this issue in connection with the New West Partnership is not warranted.

According to the StarPhoenix, Wall said at the signing ceremony that the new agreement covers all public-sector entities, there are specific areas -- including aboriginal issues, water, taxation, labour standards and support for the cultural sector -- where a jurisdiction’s ability to set policy will not be affected.

“There is in those exemptions just a lot of room for governments to continue to do what they’ve done to respond to the local realities,” Wall said.

He said the New West Partnership also addresses concerns that kept the Saskatchewan Party from endorsing TILMA a few years ago. Municipalities will be still be able to offer tax incentives to promote growth and the ability to operate Crown corporations will not be affected, Wall said. [A western powerhouse (StarPhoenix, May 1, 2010)]

Wall is misleading the people of Saskatchewan by only telling part of the story.

Like TILMA, the New West Partnership through Article 17 requires the provinces to establish a “ministerial committee” to review annually the exemptions listed in Part V of the agreement “with a view to reducing their scope.” In other words, nothing is safe. And the few examples given by Wall are just the tip of the iceberg of what’s at stake. The so-called exemptions (or exceptions as they’re called in the agreement) also include:

▪ Regulated rates established for the public good or public interest;

▪ Social policy, including labour codes, minimum wages, employment insurance, social assistance benefits and worker’s compensation;

▪ Measures adopted or maintained to provide compensation to persons for losses resulting from calamities such as diseases or disasters; assistance for recreation, academic research, or to non-profit organizations;

▪ Measures adopted or maintained relating to the licensing, certification, registration, leasing or other disposition of rights to the harvesting of forest or fish resources; the management or conservation of forests, fish and wildlife; or requirements that timber be used or manufactured within the territory of a Party; and

▪ Measures adopted or maintained relating to the management and disposal of hazardous and waste materials.

On the issue of municipalities, the New West Partnership does indeed include an expanded definition of business subsidies. That definition specifies that if a subsidy program is designed with objective eligibility criteria, and only one company gets the subsidy, that provision of financial support would not contravene the agreement.

However, municipalities can still be challenged if a bylaw, regulation, standard, directive, requirement, guideline, program, policy, administrative practice or other procedure restricts or impairs trade, investment or labour mobility between or among the three western provinces. Municipal governments will also be subject to the agreement’s procurement rules. With thresholds set so low ($75,000 for goods and services, and $200,000 for construction) the cost of administering and complying with them could prove extremely cumbersome and create a huge volume of paperwork for even routine purchases.

On the issue of Crowns, trade ministers have signed a joint decision clarifying governments have the “ability to create, maintain or designate a government entity,” including Crown corporations. The good news ends there. Just so there is no confusion, the joint decision includes a second clause stating that nothing in the decision “is intended to alter the obligations of government entities once created, maintained or designated.” This means the Crowns are still subject to the agreement and are responsible for complying with it.

There is nothing in the trade agreement to stop the Wall government from selling or shutting down a Crown corporation. Furthermore, Saskatchewan has until July 1, 2012, before the Crowns are subject to the agreement’s procurement rules. In short, the Crowns can remain publicly owned while the crap gets beat out of them.

Erin Weir, an economist with the United Steelworkers union, made an excellent observation recently noting that other trade deals that cover provincial procurement, such as the longstanding Agreement on Internal Trade and the Canada-US Agreement on Government Procurement, do not apply to Crown corporations. As far as he knows, the NWPTA will be the first trade deal to restrict procurement by Saskatchewan Crowns.

Weir points out that since Saskatchewan has a much wider array of Crown corporations than Alberta and BC, it is committing much more. For example, Alberta and BC businesses will gain a legally enforceable right to access SaskTel’s procurement. But Saskatchewan businesses will have no parallel right to access procurement by Telus, the main telephone company in Alberta and BC.

Weir’s analysis also reveals some interesting facts buried in the government’s five-page backgrounder: “The second page provides for “financial penalties of up to $5 million if a government is found to be non-compliant with its obligations.” In case the reader still doubts that NWPTA replicates TILMA, page four helpfully notes that “British Columbia and Alberta fully comply with the agreement” already and then lists a series of “Saskatchewan-Specific Transition Measures.”

“There is no quid pro quo: only Saskatchewan has to change its tendering system, regulations and standards. There is no compromise: Saskatchewan must harmonize to the existing Alberta-BC model.”

As the premiers signed the new trade agreement in a ceremony at Government House in Regina on April 30, 2010, dozens of protestors gathered outside, blowing whistles, to condemn the Wall government’s lack of public consultation.

“We’re blowing the whistle on this premier,” said Saskatchewan Federation of Labour president Larry Hubich. “He has an obligation to engage in meaningful broad-based consultation when he is going to tie Saskatchewan to these broad and sweeping trade agreements.”

Wall arrogantly dismissed the concern. According to the StarPhoenix, the premier said the people of Saskatchewan had a say during public hearings on TILMA in 2007, which took place under the previous NDP government. [A western powerhouse (StarPhoenix, May 1, 2010)]

Global TV in Regina served up this quote by Wall on the evening news: “When we signed the MOU for this agreement, we have sent it out to third parties, to the municipalities, post secondary, health care, to Enterprise Saskatchewan which has – a certainly – a labour representation on it. I guess I just don’t agree. I think there’s been a lot of consultation on this.” [Three Province Trade Agreement Signed (Global Regina, Evening News, April 30, 2010)]

This particular comment is not only absurd and extremely hypocritical it’s also blatantly wrong.

In the spring of 2007, the Opposition Saskatchewan Party demanded the NDP government consult with the public before deciding whether to join TILMA.

In a letter to the editor published in the Leader-Post on March 10, 2007, the party’s labour critic and deputy leader, Ken Krawetz, said a future Saskatchewan Party government would not sign on to the agreement unless certain it was in the best interests of Saskatchewan people.

“Given the impact of TILMA across the province, we also believe the provincial government has an obligation to consult with stakeholders and the public prior to accepting or rejecting Saskatchewan’s participation in TILMA,” Krawetz said. [TILMA contains no threat to labour (Leader-Post, March 10, 2007)]

Three weeks later, on April 3, 2007, Saskatchewan Party Leader Brad Wall in a news release called on the NDP government to release the Conference Board of Canada economic impact study on TILMA, “so the people of this province can make an informed decision about whether to join the agreement.”

With the NWPTA, though, the Wall government betrayed the general public completely, negotiating the agreement behind closed doors with no public consultation or legislative debate. There was no “informed decision” to be had because the public never saw the trade deal until after it was signed. The hypocrisy is incredible.

It’s important to note that in an interview on April 27, 2010, Wall said the new agreement is “not TILMA.”

On the idea of further public consultation, Wall said there has “been a lot of debate on this issue,” including the legislative committee hearings on TILMA.

But Opposition NDP Leader Dwain Lingenfelter questioned how the new agreement can be “not TILMA,” but the consultation process around the older deal is adequate, the StarPhoenix said. [Sask. close to signing trade deal, Wall says (StarPhoenix, April 28, 2010)]

For Wall to suggest that Saskatchewan’s 95,000-plus unionized workers were consulted on the agreement by virtue of having one representative on the Enterprise Saskatchewan board is ludicrous.

In the legislature on April 29, 2010, Energy and Resources Minister Bill Boyd indicated that the government consulted with the big city mayors, city managers, the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association, Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, University of Saskatchewan, University of Regina, and the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology. The question that needs to be asked is why? If Wall’s logic is to be applied evenly then these groups should not have been consulted since the Enterprise Saskatchewan board includes three individuals representing post secondary, rural municipality, and urban municipal.

As important as they might be, the groups the province consulted with in private come to the table with their own agendas and do not speak for the average citizen.

Wall’s assertion also appears to contradict the position put forward by the former Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation during the nomination process for the Enterprise Saskatchewan board. Ministry officials issued a news release on January 4, 2008, advising that over 300 invitations had been sent out to organizations inviting them to submit nominees to the board. The news release states: “The Board members selected from nominations will represent all aspects and sectors of the provincial economy, rather than concentrating on their own organizations or particular interests.”

The current labour sector representative on the board is Hugh Wagner, the general secretary of the Grain Services Union (ILWU • Canada), who was nominated by the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour. Clearly, Mr. Wagner is on the board to represent labour as a sector of the provincial economy not trade unions or workers.

Wall is misrepresenting labour’s presence on the Enterprise Saskatchewan board to justify his government’s repugnant behaviour towards the general public.


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