It seems one of the few areas of agreement between this federal government and the last is that the provinces should lead on eliminating barriers to internal trade. But, writes MLI Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley in Postmedia papers, "at this rate it will take a century to vindicate the basic rights of Canadians to live, work, sell, buy and invest anywhere in this country".

By Brian Lee Crowley, March 25, 2016

As the recent federal budget drove home, the Liberals are still busy distancing themselves from the legacy of the Harper Tories. Sometimes this makes sense, as in restoring the long form census; other times the decision is simply unjustified on its merits – think putting the OAS retirement eligibility age back to 65.

Ironically one of the few areas where the government is eagerly following the path blazed by the Conservatives is on internal trade. Yet the Tories’ approach here is demonstrably failing Canadians.

Internal trade is shorthand for the plethora of barriers that have been erected since the creation of Canada to impede or inhibit the free movement of people, goods, services and capital across our land. Navdeep Bains, the new Industry Minister, appeared recently before a Senate committee to reiterate the great things he thought would flow from the Tories’ approach to freeing trade between Canadians.

That approach, pursued by all federal governments since the early nineties, frames this issue as one of economic efficiency (barriers to trade cost us money and jobs) and federal-provincial relations (it’s the provinces’ job to tear down these barriers).

Both of these starting points have it exactly backwards, and that’s why progress has been snail-like. By Minister Bains’ own admission, the current approach has eliminated about a fifth of all such barriers. At this rate it will literally take us a century to vindicate the rights of Canadians to live, work, sell, buy and invest anywhere in this country.

If we want to make progress, we have to take seriously the previous sentence. These barriers are not a matter of intergovernmental bureaucratic negotiations. This is a matter touching the most fundamental rights of individual Canadians. How we earn our livelihood, the professions we choose, the goods we make, the commercial relations we establish with each other are just as central to our identity and dignity as any others in the pantheon of liberal-democratic rights.

Every barrier that the provinces throw up is a denial of our freedom to be who we are in any part of the country. It undercuts our birthright and devalues our citizenship. It is not in the first instance the fiefdom of provincial bureaucrats eager to protect local industry from competition, nor of economists seeking to wring another fraction of a percent from our economic growth rate.

Yet the federal approach for a quarter century has been that negotiation between the provinces is the answer. Canada was indisputably created in 1867 as a vehicle to tear down the barriers that separated Canadians, as you can read in speech after speech by the Fathers of Confederation and their supporters. That barrier-breaking power was explicitly assigned to Ottawa by numerous provisions of the Constitution, in part because the founders understood all too well that the provinces had all kinds of petty reasons to throw up barriers to protect local interests, and only a new national government with strong powers could unite Canadians by tearing them down.

Instead federal ministers wait like wallflowers at the ball for some dashing premier to step up and rescue them from their timidity. Indeed the premiers promised that by the middle of this month they would have negotiated a major new deal among themselves to tear down these barriers. Their own deadline has come and gone with nary a peep from them. Yet at the same time they are supposedly heroically giving up the barriers they have themselves created, what have they been doing? Throwing up new ones (to pipelines and electricity) and vigorously enforcing the old ones, such as prosecuting a New Brunswicker who had the temerity to bring home a case of beer from Quebec.

The provinces are too busy protecting local interest groups to protect Canadians' rights in this area. Ottawa alone has the authority and legitimacy to do it, but not yet the will. Bipartisanship in Ottawa deserves a more worthy standard-bearer than this.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.