If you’re trying to do a deal with someone, and one with real promise of benefiting both parties, it’s generally considered a poor strategy to begin the negotiations by spitting in the other guy’s eye.
This is what Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has just done to federal Industry Minister James Moore.
The topic at issue was what’s known as “internal trade barriers.” We have more of them in between each of us — more exactly, in between our provinces and territories — than does any other country in the world.
Trucks and vans making their way across Canada will, at some point, have to change their tires to meet different local standards. We’ve learned how to make quite good wine, but we haven’t yet learned how to allow someone in Ontario, say, to order British Columbia wine and get it delivered directly rather than having to go to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.
And on and on and on. Estimates of the amount of money we’re charging ourselves utterly unnecessarily varies from $12 billion a year to $50 billion.
The real cost is that we’ve made ourselves look, in economic terms, like self-centred brats. There are actually fewer barriers to trade between the sovereign member-states of the European Union (EU) than there are between Canada’s different parts, all of which belong (sort of, anyway) to a single country and one that is, in terms of population, only medium-sized.
Once the new free trade pact between Canada and the EU becomes law, the extent of our juvenilia will become embarrassingly obvious since from that time on some European companies will find it easier to do business across Canada than will some Canadian-owned companies.
Recently, there seemed to be a chance that sanity and common sense might intrude upon this ridiculous, self-defeating scene.
(Incidentally, we are every bit as immature in the way we are the only country in the world without a single, national regulator of stock markets; rather, we have 13 such regulators of our securities.)
The source of this ray of hope was Wall. The Saskatchewan premier is a bright and attractive individual, and if he took the time out to become bilingual could very well become a future Conservative prime minister.
Wall’s contribution was to convince his fellow premiers in B.C. and Alberta to co-sign a letter calling for Canada to craft a new coast-to-coast agreement to end most of the barriers. Specifically the trio called for scrapping the existing federal-provincial agreement that is called, surprise, surprise, Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT). The one thing everyone agrees on is that AIT, enacted in 1990, is totally useless because everyone ignores it whenever they want to.
A useful start this, at least in aspirational language. But then Wall spat in the eye of the person, Ottawa’s Moore, whom he’s trying to do a deal with. The trio’s letter began by pronouncing that the “premiers” had been doing “the leading on this file” and yet were prepared to welcome “the federal government’s recent interest in working with the provinces.”
Who knows whether there’s any truth to that claim of exclusive provincial virtue. Moore handled the jibe quite well by saying he welcomed any “momentum” in the direction of lowering internal trade barriers.
But the exchange does illuminate the core problem. Rather than a nation, we’re becoming an assembly of principalities, each focused obsessively upon itself.
Actually, our condition is worse than that. The term “nation” is well on its way to becoming unusable whenever applied to the country rather than to, say, Quebec or native tribes and bands. The parallel project underway to develop a single national securities regulator avoids the word nation by instead describing itself as a “Co-operative Capital Markets Regulator.”
Hands up all those who feel proud to be a citizen of a Co-operative Capital Market.
Richard Gwyn’s column appears every other Thursday.