The Alberta-Saskatchewan protectionist clash

For those who missed the recent mid-Prairie dust-up, Alberta and Saskatchewan politicians have been sparring over whose government is more protectionist.

Last week, retiring Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall urged Albertans to press their government MLAs to stop enacting "protectionist measures." The reference, a defence really of the Wall government's own protectionism, was to Saskatchewan's new requirement that Alberta companies bidding on Saskatchewan highway construction contracts register their vehicles there.

That was Saskatchewan tit-for-ostensible-Alberta-protectionist-tat; this after Saskatchewan contractors told government officials their vehicles were unwelcome on government of Alberta construction sites. They are also increasingly unable to bid on the same, according to Mr. Wall and the Saskatchewan Heavy Construction Association.

In response, on Thursday, Alberta's NDP government announced the province would file a trade injunction under the New West Partnership, the free-trade agreement among the Western provinces. Let's step back, however, from that dispute to the larger question of provincial preferences, as this is not the first time Saskatchewan and Alberta politicians have drawn their rhetorical guns.

The two provinces also clashed over Alberta's 2016 policy to subsidize craft breweries. After the Saskatchewan Premier complained, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said it was another "political drive-by" from the Saskatchewan Premier. She defended the beer-subsidy measure as necessary for local brewers.

Problem: As much as Mr. Wall is correct on Alberta's occasional protectionism, in the past, he has also come out with his own protectionist guns blazing.

His government did so in 2010 against the then-proposed Australian-based BHP Billiton Ltd.'s takeover of the Saskatchewan-based Potash Corp. Late that year, that protectionist ploy was officially endorsed by the federal Conservative government when it blocked the BHP takeover.

In another protectionist move, this time in 2015, the Wall government added more restrictions on who could purchase and own Saskatchewan farmland. Answer: Not pension plans, pension administrators, trusts or non-Canadians, including any publicly traded company. The move was not exactly free-trade-friendly, i.e., where the open selling and buying of land by any entity or person is allowed.

But protectionist Alberta and Saskatchewan politicians are hardly alone. Canada has no consistent free-trade-promoting parties, their rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding.

Federally, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer gained his position this past spring by promising to protect the protectionist dairy and poultry farmers across Canada. Ever since, high-profile Tory members of Parliament, including Ed Fast, the Harper-era international affairs minister, and John Nater, the current Conservative critic for interprovincial trade, have both twisted themselves into verbal knots trying to claim they are free traders.

Right. Except for chicken, turkey, cheese, milk and any business in another Commonwealth country that may wish to purchase a Saskatchewan company or farmland.

The Liberals are little better. Despite their 1990s-era Saul-to-Damascus conversion to free trade, today's federal Liberals are less free traders and more micromanaging "fair" traders.

Recall that just this week, the federal government added an "economic interests" clause to any government tendering project. It was in response to Boeing and its trade complaint against Bombardier, perennial political favourite of federal politicians since the 1960s.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his colleagues have also loaded up potential free-trade agreements with multiple side issues: gender, labour, environment and special-interest carve-outs (again, for cheese, milk and barnyard fowl). In 2017, Liberal government policy more closely resembles anti-free-trade New Democrats, whose trade "policy" has always been more about social engineering than what makes economic sense.

These days, the anti-free-trade bleatings in all three federal parties are more likely to mimic the American protectionists, President Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, than Canada's greatest free-trade promoters and prime ministers, including Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

The core problem in all this is how the benefits of free trade are no longer championed by most Canadian politicians. Three examples:

Choice: If Albertans want to drink Alberta-made beer, they will. They don't need to see their taxes paid to "support" local brewers, taxes which could be used for better purposes or not collected.

Foreign investment: When the Wall and Harper governments killed the Potash Corp. deal they treated $38-billion (U.S.) as if such cash offers appear every day – and as if an Australian company was akin to a corrupt state-owned enterprise from a banana republic.

Expanded markets: When dairy and poultry farmers consistently oppose breaking up their government-sanctioned cartel, they and their political accomplices ignore opportunities: The wider world market for great-quality Canadian dairy products, where doors are now shut because of short-sighted, self-imposed, self-limiting protectionism.

Canada needs some consistent free-trade political parties. Right now, from the provincial legislatures to the federal parties, it has zero.

Mark Milke, The Globe and Mail, B4, December 16, 2017

Mark Milke