Prime Minister Trudeau must understand that real reform on internal trade needs to come from Ottawa, write Brian Lee Crowley and Sean Speer in the Globe and Mail. It is the only way to assert a true national economy unshackled from parochial or narrow interests.
By Brian Lee Crowley and Sean Speer, July 1, 2016
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is rightly proud of his father’s accomplishments. So why is he repudiating his legacy? When confronting obstructive provinces and their apologists, Pierre Trudeau famously asked, “Who speaks for Canada?” His answer, the right answer, was Ottawa.
Yet his son recently said the surest way to free Canadians from interprovincial trade barriers is to have good relations with the provinces rather than impose federal solutions. Depending on the provinces to eliminate these barriers to trade and commerce is a sure-fire plan for inaction and failure. Ottawa must act to defend the national interest and the rights of Canadians.
Our freedom to trade with one another is at the heart of the Canadian project. One of the central justifications for Confederation was to establish a national economy free of barriers to trade and commerce. It was a powerful vision of economic freedom for all Canadians.
In 1867, the federal government was thus given clear jurisdiction over these matters. The founders understood that a central purpose of a national government was to protect the national interest against parochialism, protectionism and provincialism.
Fast forward to 2016, and the founders’ vision is still far from complete. The confluence of provincial thinking and special-interest politics is responsible for erecting barriers to the free flow of goods, services and people. These obstacles have an economic cost – estimates vary, but even conservative figures suggest it is $8-billion a year, compounding – and human cost paid by all those Canadians whose livelihoods and hopes and aspirations are unjustly obstructed.
Ask the Quebec restaurateurs who cannot sell their lamb burgers in Ontario because of subtle regulatory differences. Or the owner of a small transportation company whose trucks do not comply with separate rules across provincial lines. Ask Gerard Comeau, the retired steel worker from New Brunswick who was prosecuted for buying beer in Quebec. And the provinces are not done yet, as their new claims to be able to erect barriers to pipelines, for example, show.
Here is the inherent flaw in relying on the provinces to solve the problem: Provincial governments imposed the barriers in the first place and reap local benefits. What incentives or reasons would they have to remove them? This is not rhetorical. The government of New Brunswick is now appealing the court ruling that said it is Mr. Comeau’s constitutional right to be able to buy beer wherever he likes.
Trying to cajole or charm the provinces into giving up their barriers voluntarily is an exercise in futility, as we know from more than a decade’s experience with the Agreement on Internal Trade, on which progress has been basically non-existent.
Real reform must come from Ottawa. It is the only way to assert a true national economy unshackled from parochial or narrow interests. Those who have studied the matter seriously, such as the Senate committee on banking, trade and commerce, have come to similar conclusions.
Ottawa has the constitutional power to introduce a sweeping statute – an economic charter of rights – to ensure that no government rules or policies unnecessarily restrict the free movement of goods, services, labour and capital, and give individual citizens clear legal remedies against such restrictions.
The charter would be faithful to the founders’ vision and rooted in the principle that a Canadian has the right to seek employment, earn a living and sell his or her goods and services anywhere in Canada without exception. This would take the removal of barriers out of the hands of government and place the power in the hands of Canadians.
No doubt some voices will argue against such an idea. The Prime Minister should not be among them if he wants to be true to his father’s legacy of national leadership in face of provincial obstructionism. It is time someone stood up against parochialism and for Canada once again.
Waiting on the provinces to deliver progress on interprovincial trade barriers is a fool’s errand. At the current rate of progress, it means that we would be waiting another century and a half, and the cost will be less economic activity and fewer opportunities for Canadians.
It is time for Ottawa to act – to unshackle Canada’s economy, to help the so-called little guy who is shut out by needless restrictions and barriers, and to complete Canada’s nation-building project. We’ll drink a beer to that.
Brian Lee Crowley is managing director, and Sean Speer is a senior fellow, at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.