Legislation knocks down trade barriers: Business between Alberta and B.C. gets easier but critics have concerns

EDMONTON - Alberta introduced legislation today that the governing Conservatives say will knock down trade barriers between Alberta and British Columbia, save companies money and enable workers to move easily across the provincial boundaries.

Premier Ed Stelmach called the legislation - the first bill of the new government's first session - "ground-breaking" and claimed it is the envy of other provinces.

He said other provinces should "join the team" if they want to compete with other jurisdictions in Canada and around the world.

"This is all about getting our act together and removing some of the most ridiculous regulations," he told reporters following the bill's introduction.

The premier conceded that the Trade Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) "is quite a mouthful" but it will allow people in 100 occupations to work in either province without having to upgrade their certification requirements.

The bill eliminates the need for small businesses to register in both provinces and allows Alberta to waive corporate presence requirements that force out-of-province oil companies to set up bases in the province.

Although some terms of the deal took effect a year ago, the agreement will remain in a transitional phase until next April 1 when it comes fully into force.

International and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Ron Stevens went after critics of TILMA during a press conference, saying the deal has the support of the Bank of Canada and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

"It's pretty obvious to most that TILMA is a powerful step forward for our economy but there are some who would believe otherwise," he said. "TILMA does not threaten the ability of local governments to make laws. It does not affect environmental priorities, social programs, aboriginal programs, taxation, royalties, water and labour standards or health and safety. Bill one is truly a great piece of news for Albertans."

Stevens said he didn't know why Saskatchewan has opted not to participate in TILMA, but he said the deal is being watched closely and with an admiring eye by many other provinces and the federal government.

During last fall's Saskatchewan election, both NDP Leader Lorne Calvert and victorious Saskatchewan Party Leader Brad Wall said they were concerned that the deal might negatively affect the operation of their numerous Crown corporations.

Stevens said he didn't see that as an issue.

"The principles we're working on are sound," he said in a later interview. "What we're trying to do is break down and eliminate redundancy and rules that don't make any sense basically and enhance the trade between the two provinces. It's difficult to see what the concern is."

Stevens said Ontario and Quebec are now exploring the idea of a similar deal between their two provinces and his office has fielded queries from the Yukon and New Brunswick.

The agreement stipulates that governments or third parties must take alleged violations of the agreement to a TILMA tribunal rather than the courts. Stevens, the province's former justice minister, said he didn't think that requirement could be successfully challenged under the Canadian Constitution.

"I am confident this process will stand any challenge that may come," he said. "I can't stop people from challenging things but I am satisfied the system we've put in place will stand up to any challenges that will come forward."

So far, no cases have been brought before the three-person tribunal that consists of one member from each province and a chairman selected from either side by both.

Opposition leaders have opposed the agreement.

"The concern is that it's really a race to the bottom in terms of standards, and I think the secrecy in which the government has pursued this up until now, said NDP Leader Brian Mason. How long has it been since they signed the TILMA agreement with British Columbia and they're just bringing it in now?"

Liberal Leader Kevin Taft said he doubted the agreement would help address Alberta's labour shortage and he was dismayed the deal was signed last year without any public discussion or debate in the legislature.

"It illustrates or ought to illustrate how much the Alberta legislature has become a rubber stamp," he said. "The deal is done and then they bring it to the legislature."

Union leaders have been some of the biggest critics of the deal.

Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan said the TILMA isn't needed and is simply a way for the government to further corporate interests.

"The reality is that workers and investment flow freely between the provinces already, so there's no real need for this kind of agreement," McGowan said. "What we're concerned about is that this agreement - which is ostensibly about labour mobility - is a Trojan Horse for something much more sinister. We think this is nothing more than a corporate bill of rights."

Edmonton Journal, Tues Apr 15 2008
Byline: Darcy Henton

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