Trade deal authors spread the gospel

Two guys who helped author and negotiate a free-trade pact between Alberta and BC insist their Whitehorse visit was show and tell, not sell.

Two guys who helped author and negotiate a free-trade pact between Alberta and BC insist their Whitehorse visit was show and tell, not sell.

“We’re not salesmen,” said Robert Musgrave, director of trade policy in BC.

“We’re here to provide a technical briefing.”

At the invitation of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce, Musgrave and Shawn Robbins, director of internal trade for Alberta, spoke to local business people about the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement.

“It allows people and business to move freely and operate in a larger economic base,” said Musgrave.

TILMA is a free-trade agreement between the two western provinces that calls for no restrictions on movement of labour and investment between provinces.

“Gone are the days of requirements to open a local office or be a resident,” said Robbins. “If you register your business in a jurisdiction, you’re registered in both.”

It comes into full effect in April 2009.

Other provinces and territories are encouraged to sign on. The Yukon government is considering it.

“The barriers aren’t in the form of a Berlin Wall,” said Musgrave.

“What we do have are regulatory barriers. If you’re any one of 200-odd occupations without two-way mobility, that wall may be that you have to go back to school for two years.”

Members of the audience asked about business incentive and local procurement policy exemptions.

One such program offers rebates to Yukon businesses that hire local labour or use products manufactured in the territory.

Under TILMA, the future of such programs is uncertain.

The agreement aims to “eliminate barriers that restrict or impair trade, investment or labour mobility.”

A policy like the business incentive program might have to be negotiated as an exemption before the territory signs the agreement, said Musgrave.

Those negotiations take place before a government decides to adopt TILMA, he said.

“It’s the only way it could happen,” he said.

“No one would sign on before knowing what they’re agreeing to.”

Saskatchewan rejected the deal this summer.

Participating regions must reconcile differences between existing trade and labour policies.

They are prohibited from establishing new standards or regulations that may restrict or impair trade and labour mobility.

There is still a lot of discussion needed in the Yukon before Whitehorse can approve of a deal, said Mayor Bev Buckway.

“You sense there would be some benefits, but there’s still the worry about what the disadvantages are,” said Buckway.

“I’m not sold one way or another, yet. I still want to see what the agreement would look like, what the exceptions would be.”

Municipalities have been some of the most vocal critics of the free-trade pact and selling the agreement to municipal leaders is a priority for TILMA proponents.

The BC government recently started a campaign to appease the concerns of municipal officials.

Buckway and Association of Yukon Communities policy and planning officer Dave Black were seated at the head table with the TILMA guys.

There’s a lot of misinformation about the agreement, said the two TILMA experts.

They’re here to give the facts.

Local debates about the deal are closely monitored.

News reports and clippings are delivered to his office regularly, said Robbins.

Getting a handle on what TILMA is and how it will affect people and businesses is difficult, said Musgrave.

“What we’re telling you are the facts and then you come along with the believability factor — here’s the government telling us what the facts are,” said Musgrave.

“If you’re really want to know, you hire the best trade lawyers available to tell you who’s right. I’m confident they’ll tell you we’re right.”

Assertions that governments can be sued is false, he said.

However, governments can be assessed “monetary penalties” of up to $5 million if they violate the deal, he said.

These fines are binding.

Alberta and BC placed the “monetary penalty” in TILMA because similar provisions in the Agreement on Internal Trade weren’t enforceable, he said.

Governments who’ve signed the agreement are required to introduce legislation making panel rules binding, said Robbins.

There is the possibility that provinces that have rejected TILMA could sign other bilateral agreements, creating a bunch of trade-pact fiefdoms across the country and causing more red tape, said Musgrave.

“We would hope Canada doesn’t fragment into a bunch of different bilateral agreements,” he said.

“But there’s an obligation under TILMA, or any other agreement, to let anyone else in.

“If Saskatchewan and Manitoba made an agreement more liberalizing than ours, we might want in on that.”