After an hour with a German-born free trader, I am convinced that Canada should be more like Mexico.
Yes, in November we'd all like Mexican Riviera weather but I am talking cars – and the regulations that bind us from getting some of the best in the world.
Tim Reuss, who runs the Mercedes-Benz and Smart sales operation in Canada, is on a crusade to bring the sensible Mexican solution to Canada. If Canada were like Mexico, he says, Canadians would be able to buy the next-generation Smart forfour sedan, a couple of potentially popular diesels and all sorts of other vehicles that meet standards in Europe and Japan, but not the United States.
The problem in Ottawa, he says, is "the bureaucratic government is locked in the 'though-shalt-harmonize-with-the-U.S. mode,' which means accepting U.S. standards. Therefore, you deprive Canadian consumers of innovation that the rest of the world has already seen."
I suppose it would shock mandarins on the Rideau to imagine there are lessons from Mexico City worth learning. But there are. Mexico does something simple and sensible: any vehicle that gets European or Mexican certification can be sold there. Simple and all NAFTA-friendly.
"Canada can do that on its own; Canada can do that today," Reuss says. He's correct. But Canada won't, not yet, and not for lack of political will.
Reuss fancies himself the point man in a battle to open up the Canadian light vehicle market to the world. The way he sees it, politicians are free traders who see the good sense in reciprocal agreements on safety and emissions standards between governments or unions that already have high standards – Europe, Japan, the United States. The bureaucrats? Not so much.
"We currently have a disconnect between the bureaucratic government and the political government in Canada," he says. "The political government has made a conscious decision to open up Canada to the world. That's why it is negotiating free trade agreements with Europe and other countries. Yes, we have a special relationship with our neighbours down south, but Canada is going to become more a part of the world community."
Not if the bureaucrats have their way. Transport Canada has long argued for its own rules for child seats, instrument displays (metric not imperial), bumpers and so on. But on the vast majority of big-ticket items, Canada does what the United States tells it to do.
Time for a change. If a car or light truck is good enough for Berlin, Warsaw and London, it's good enough for Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.
"The question is not what standard is better; it's just that they're different," says Reuss, frustrated, but not despondent. "The European standards are not up to snuff? Seriously? If you're saying the European governments don't take safety seriously, or that the standards are not good enough, then basically you're telling them they are negligent."
The point is, Canada could be like Mexico – and you'd be able to buy all sorts of interesting and desirable European cars – with the swipe of a pen. The Canadian government would take some American heat for standing up for the interests of its own people, but isn't that what governments are supposed to do?
You free traders longing to be able to buy a Mercedes-Benz A-Class take heart. Reuss may be the most vocal, but he's not alone. Plenty of his colleagues and rivals at car companies in Canada are pushing for change. The as-yet unratified free trade agreement with Europe (Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement or CETA) may just tip things in favour of harmonized regulations and standards.
"I think there is some movement there," Reuss says. "I never started this with the expectation that in six months somebody is going to change the law. No. This is a marathon, not a sprint."
In the run to good sense, I am breathlessly waiting for Ottawa's bureaucrats to recognize that Europe is as developed and modern as Canada and the United States – and our approach to standards and regulations should reflect that. Thanks for the lesson, Mexico.
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