After signing trade deals with South Korea and the European Union, the Harper government is turning its attention to dismantling the protectionist barriers that exist between provinces and cost the Canadian economy as much as $49-billion annually.
Federal Industry Minister James Moore begins a cross-country speaking tour Tuesday to drum up support among consumers, businesses and provincial politicians for efforts to overhaul the 20-year-old agreement on internal trade. His road trip has a six-city itinerary from Vancouver to Halifax with more stops planned for July and August.
Interprovincial trade barriers thwart Canadians and companies when they try to do business outside their home province or territory. They inhibit sales of wine, block workers from freely crossing provincial boundaries and restrict who can bid for government contracts, among other things.
Mr. Moore said it’s frustrating to note that once the Canada-European Union free trade deal is signed, entrepreneurs from Germany, for instance, will have more unhindered access to municipal and provincial government procurement markets in a given region than Canadians from elsewhere in the country.
“We need to have more free trade within Canada,” the Industry Minister said in an interview, adding his speaking tour aims to recruit more Canadians “at the ground level” to the cause.
Mr. Moore is treading where many previous industry ministers have tried, and failed, to make headway. These trade barriers exist because provincial politicians are sheltering local industries.
However, the minister said he believes there’s been a rare meeting of the minds between Ottawa and the provinces on the need to do something “bold and aggressive to beat down barriers to trade.”
The 1994 Agreement on Internal Trade was a deal for an earlier age, he said.
“It was written in a time when Canada had a free trade agreement with two countries in the world: the United States and Mexico. Now we have [deals with] 43 and we need to modernize it.”
Mr. Moore and his provincial counterparts are gathering in Manitoba in August to try to come up with a new internal trade agreement.
“We have co-operation across all partisan and regional lines, frankly for the first time in 20 years, to do something concrete and substantive and I am very hopeful that we will be able to do something that will have lasting benefit for Canadians,” he said.
From coast to coast, regardless of whether their partisan affiliation is Liberal, Conservative or NDP, he said, provinces appear ready to deal.
One of the drawbacks of existing rules on interprovincial trade barriers is what critics have called a toothless dispute settlement mechanism.
Mr. Moore said he’d like to see a revised deal include a binding means of settling disagreements between provinces.
The minister says he’s particularly heartened by the willingness of the new federalist Liberal government in Quebec to participate in efforts to broaden internal trade across Canada.
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and his new Economy Minister Jacques Daoust “have both been very open and sincere about their desire to build economic links with the rest of the country so Quebec can see the benefits of being in the Canadian family and prospering within Canada,” Mr. Moore said.
The minister said he would like to see a revised internal agreement that is premised on the idea all internal trade should move freely with only exceptions to this rule being listed.
“Rather than saying this particular product or this particular kind of labour or resource can freely move around the country, I think the default position should be [to] liberalize all trade within Canada.”