Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em Provincial Trade Ministers Come Out Swinging at…Who?

The focus on new global trade deals seems to be sparking some interesting talks domestically, let alone internationally.

And so they should.

How can we, as an export nation, expect much from better global access when we don’t have our own house in order?

The latest development is a missive from each of the province’s internal (yes, internal) trade ministers.

On Tuesday, they reported on a meeting they had that day in Toronto, proclaiming they were going to work together to enhance and modernize the 20-year-old framework that oversees trade in Canada.

Here’s what they said:

“At the meeting, we reaffirmed our commitment to reaching an ambitious, balanced and equitable internal trade agreement that would strengthen Canada’s economic union for the benefit of Canadian businesses, workers and consumers…in particular, we reviewed our progress in the areas of goods and services, investment, government procurement, technical barriers to trade, and regulatory cooperation. These were identified in 2014 by Canada’s premiers and the federal government as areas of early focus for the negotiations.”

For sure, this is the stuff news releases are made of.

But it’s 2015. Isn’t it time we expect the provinces to work together?

I certainly remember when they didn’t, when plain brown envelopes would quietly appear on ag journalists’ desks containing juicy, damning documents about another province’s trade practices. Ah, the old days. A smiley-face icon would be most appropriate here.

And sure, it was great for news stories. But it made for arch enemies, nasty inter-provincial relations and impossible political standoffs. The west hated the east, and vice versa. Natural advantage versus political advantage. Treasury versus treasury, all in the same country.

Through this slugfest, our trading competitors watched from the sidelines with glee, breaking into applause with every blow delivered. Let the Canadians bash each others’ brains in. It’s part of our culture, like an old-time hockey brawl gone political. Dave Semenko versus Tiger Williams. Great for regionalism, tough on cooperation.

As we’ve come to learn, nothing good comes of this for the economy. For an exporting nation, the Hatfield-and-McCoy approach to inter-provincial relations is not sustainable.

It seems like the ministers have got the message too. Such respect and self-respect. Such determination!

“The strong presence of Canada’s ministers responsible for internal trade at this event reflects the importance we attach to these efforts to strengthen internal trade throughout the country… we also reaffirmed the need to adjust, where appropriate, internal commitments with those made in Canada’s international trade agreements, to ensure that Canadians do not receive less favourable treatment than is offered to foreign interests.”

That last comment sounds like a warning shot fired at the feds. But at least it’s coming from a single gun.

It’s hard to say if this spirit will endure and if indeed it’s truly reverberating throughout the country. It certainly appears to be real in Ontario and Quebec. You may remember a month or so ago when Quebec premier Philippe Couillard accepted an invitation to speak at the Ontario legislature, in an effort to show unanimity between the country’s two biggest provinces and send a message to Ottawa to play fair.

This was especially timely as the feds look at a trans-Pacific partnership which may see supply management face a very tough test.

Should the provinces have some say about this? Absolutely. And they’ll get a better hearing if they have a united voice.

But they’d better hurry up. They say they’ll meet regularly and have this puppy wrapped up by March.

I suggest they fast-track that agenda. The summer BBQ circuit is vital for Canadian politicians, making it tough to get together.

But smoother, more effective inter-provincial trade is vital too. It’s time for the ministers to do all the things they say they’re going to do, BBQ or not.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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