We can expect actual substance from premiers' meet

Agreements on labour mobility and trade could improve federation

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The Gazette, Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Every year the premiers get together and disagree among themselves, but agree that everything is the fault of the feds, and demand that Ottawa hand over more money.

It has been like this since Jean Lesage first convened the modern premiers' conference over a game of golf back in 1960.

This year could prove to be an exception. Jean Charest will play host to the premiers tomorrow and Friday in Quebec City. The setting is historic - the Château Frontenac, site of the wartime Churchill-Roosevelt-King summits in 1943 and 1944, and the Mulroney-Reagan Shamrock Summit of 1985. The occasion is festive- part of the year-long Québec 400 celebrations. And Charest, as the father of the Council of the Federation, which he first proposed in the 2003 election campaign, wants to demonstrate that a strong federation includes strong provinces.

This is all about striking the right mood, in an absolutely perfect setting. As part of the setup, Quebec sent an actor dressed in the role of Samuel de Champlain to all the other legislatures, inviting their leaders to the conference in Quebec. The meeting has been carefully orchestrated to actually get something done in the spirit of what Charest calls "inter-provincialism."

So, rather than the usual whining and complaining about Ottawa, Charest wants this meeting to be remembered for inter-provincial agreements on labour mobility and interprovincial trade that will enhance the Canadian economic union.

Charest sent a highly visible signal on reducing trade irritants last week when Quebec announced that it would permit yellow margarine in stores. Of course, this has nothing to do with the colour of margarine, and everything to do with the colour of butter.

As if, as one senior official in Charest's office put it, people couldn't tell the difference. This is a symbolic win for free markets and a defeat for the Quebec dairy lobby.

Next, at the conference table, the provincial and territorial premiers will sign an agreement on labour mobility among the provinces, to take effect in April 2009. The inspiration is the 2006 Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement between British Columbia and Alberta, the TILMA, creating an open economy between the booming western provinces.

Charest is currently in talks with Dalton McGuinty, with a view to negotiating a similar arrangement between Quebec and Ontario. With B.C. and Alberta, you have the Big Four provinces of the federation, accounting for about 80 per cent of the population and even more economic activity in Canada.

The labour-mobility agreement to be announced in Quebec will not resolve all interprovincial issues. For example, you can take a cab from the Château Laurier in Ottawa to the casino in Gatineau, but if the driver tries to bring a fare back across the Ottawa River, he faces a huge fine. Free markets weren't built in a day. Government procurement will remain another test of good intentions.

But the point, as one senior Quebec officials puts it, "is that many provinces are facing labour shortages, and simply need feet on the ground."

Well, it's one thing to welcome workers from Newfoundland to the oil sands in Alberta, and another thing to accredit professions from one province to the next. The proof of the labour-mobility agreement might not be in the rhetoric, but in the fine print.

Charest is also looking for impetus from his provincial colleagues for the idea of a Canada-European Union Free Trade Agreement, an idea he has been pursuing with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, with the support of Ottawa.

International trade is a federal jurisdiction but as Charest points out, "provincial governments must be involved because we're going to be discussing areas of provincial jurisdiction," including procurement, investment and recognizing professional credentials.

This is not the small stuff of parish-pump provincialism, but big-picture stuff. Vision stuff. The kind of stuff that gets politicians re-elected.

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