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Editorial: Baby steps

Trade barrier
Trade barrier

It is not the stuff of unbridled excitement.

There’s no compelling video, no provincial cabinet ministers being dragged kicking and screaming from their seats on aircraft, no federal ministers recording themselves jumping from girder to girder atop unfinished skyscrapers.

But slowly and surely, this country’s provincial and federal governments may be inching towards truly free interprovincial trade — years after other countries have landed free trade deals with the country as a whole.

There’s lots to be done yet — at the moment, there are still over 100 pages of provincial exemptions in the 300-page interprovincial trade deal that was signed last week — but at least the nation’s provincial trade fiefdoms are talking to each other about what should be a simple concept: letting bidders, retailers and other companies have equal access across the whole Canadian marketplace.

In theory, that kind of deal would cut red tape, reduce regulatory burdens and let companies that can deliver goods at a low price succeed, right across the country.

For years, different provincial governments have used their regulatory clout to build a system of preferential access for companies and businesses inside their own provinces; while that process has laid a veneer of competitiveness over uncompetitive local businesses, it has also added a burden of additional cost on taxpayers.

In some instances, the rules have made for different-sized packaging being a requirement in different provinces, something that adds expense for manufacturers.

Not only that, but in some cases, it’s led to making local politics a kind of closed shop: local companies get work, argue that governments’ local preference policies should continue, and the circle gets closed by those same local businesses donating to and supporting the political parties that apply the provincial rules in the first place.

The problem is that with free trade deals like the upcoming Canada-European Union trade deal, companies from the EU might end up having better access to bid on a project in, say, Ontario than a Nova Scotian company would enjoy.

It isn’t all sunshine and flowers; the provinces as a whole are notoriously bad at surrendering the issues that are close to their electorates — so there are still areas where provinces can opt out.

Ontario’s economic development minister, Brad Duguid, chaired the two years of negotiations that led to the current deal. He says the provinces weren’t willing to totally free up their marketplaces.

“Without the off-ramp, we wouldn’t be able to deliver,” Duguid said. “There’s no way that you would be able to have a regulatory process that doesn’t respect the sovereign rights of each of the provinces.”

But maybe, just maybe, we’re a little closer to having the same rules in Newfoundland and Labrador that Albertans have in their province.

And maybe, just maybe, we’ll get the free market access inside this country that we already offer to foreign trading partners.

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