May 12, 2010

Critics question New West Partnership trade agreement

The New West Partnership trade agreement is being praised because it allows for Saskatchewan’s unique corporate culture, but some argue it is the same TILMA deal that was rejected by the people of the province in 2007.

“The problem is the way TILMA (Alberta-B.C. Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement) treats our Crown corporations and municipalities,” said Michael Fougere, president of the Saskatchewan Construction Association.

“The current agreement (New West Partnership) addresses that issue and allows municipalities to offer incentives to attract businesses and enterprises to a municipality.

“Crown corporations and municipalities should be able to operate the same as any other enterprise.”

The premiers of the three provinces signed the New West Partnership at the third joint British Columbia-Alberta-Saskatchewan cabinet meeting in Regina.

Like TILMA, the deal contains a comprehensive economic agreement, which removes barriers to trade, investment and labour mobility.

“Anything that breaks down barriers is good, but what was signed by the province is not TILMA,” said Fougere.

However, the president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour doesn’t believe this claim, which was also made by Premier Brad Wall.

“The New West Partnership is lifted almost word for word from TILMA and offers no meaningful protections for municipalities or Crown Corporations, the two issues Wall said just this week were the reason he wouldn‘t sign TILMA,” said Larry Hubich.

“This agreement isn’t TILMA-like, it is TILMA.”

According to Hubich, the New West Partnership is the same as TILMA, because it also contains a “no obstacles” clause.

This commits Saskatchewan to ensure that its measures do not operate to “restrict or impair trade.”

There is also a mutual recognition clause, which will harmonize provincial standards and regulations to the lowest common denominator, and an investor-state dispute resolution process, which gives trade panels the power to force governments to pay up to $5 million for any measure that violates the agreement.

Procurement for all provincial government entities, Crown Corporations, municipal governments, school boards, and publicly-funded academic, health and social services are included in the agreement, with identical thresholds as those found in TILMA.

The Saskatchewan government decided not to enter into the TILMA agreement with Alberta and B.C. after lengthy and broad public consultations.

At that time, Wall and other members of the Saskatchewan Party promised not to sign TILMA, without public consultation.

The Council of Canadians and the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, along with more than 30 groups and individuals, who participated in the 2007 TILMA review, sent an open letter to Premier Brad Wall.

The coalition was concerned that Wall was about to break his promise by signing the New West Agreement without a legislative review and full public consultation.

“Saskatchewan was right to reject TILMA then, and it should reject a rebranded TILMA now,” added Scott Harris, the Prairie Regional Organizer with the Council of Canadians.

“Nothing has suddenly changed to make lowest-common-denominator regulations and standards good for Saskatchewan. Nothing has suddenly changed to make giving corporations the right to sue elected governments for millions of dollars for ‘impeding trade’ – decided on by unaccountable dispute panels – suddenly a good idea for Saskatchewan.”

In 2007, more than 70 organizations and individuals raised concerns about several provisions of TILMA, including those that would lower regulatory standards and implement a private tribunal for corporations to challenge provincial rules and standards.

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