Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canadian policy and economic leadership shifting west

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Some of the most interesting action in well-written plays takes place out of the spotlight. This is increasingly the case on Canada's political stage.

A good example happened last week when all the focus was on election fever in Ottawa. Story after story was filled with speculation as to whether the Liberals would pull the plug on the minority Conservative government and, if they did, whether the NDP or Bloc would shove it back in. Commentators stormed to the microphone to predict who might win or lose. Nobody outside Ottawa wants an election; voters are riding out the recession.

Meanwhile, on stage west and out of the spotlight, something of potentially great long-term significance was taking place. Meeting in Calgary, the premiers of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan signed the Western Economic Partnership. This interprovincial trade agreement will create the largest barrier-free trade and investment market in Canada.

Nor did the premiers stop with this milestone. They went on to address pension reform, gang violence and the Canadian production of medical isotopes. They also signed a memorandum of understanding on carbon capture and storage technology and policy. These developments are important because they mark the further westward drift of the national economy and Canadian policy leadership. Unencumbered by the national policy paralysis induced by minority governments, the western premiers are determined to make their regional economy work.

The developments mark a huge evolutionary change in the tone and character of intergovernmental relations. In the not-too-distant past, the western premiers met annually to play golf, get to know one another, and draw up a list of grievances against Ottawa. Now the meetings are intensive discussions focusing on what the premiers and their governments can accomplish together.

Although the premiers are vigilant in pointing out how federal policy might be improved, Ottawa bashing is a thing of the past as premiers focus on better things to do. Ottawa is the target only when it comes to policy initiatives that might engage the federal government.

The interprovincial trade agreement marks the de facto extension of the earlier B.C.-Alberta agreement -- The Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) -- to include Saskatchewan. Premier Brad Wall of Saskatchewan had promised in the election that brought him to power that he would not sign the existing TILMA. Last week he signed a similar agreement and the son of TILMA marches east; the regional economy will be better for it.

TILMA, it should be noted, was the first successful initiative to reduce interprovincial barriers to trade. The premiers of B.C. and Alberta were able to go where their provincial counterparts were unable to go, and where Ottawa showed no interest in going, and now Saskatchewan is on the same path. Meanwhile, the rest of the provinces wrestle with economic barriers designed for the 19th century.

Now some might argue that the Western Economic Partnership is incomplete because Manitoba is not on board. Manitoba's exclusion was more by circumstance than by design. The meeting took place just after the announcement that Premier Gary Doer would shortly become Canada's new ambassador in Washington, and thus he was in no position to engage his government in regional initiatives. The doors and windows have been flung open, and the welcome mat is in place for when a new premier and cabinet are in place in Winnipeg.

So, while the national political system struggles with an increasingly dysfunctional Parliament and minority government, the policy initiative shifts west. The western premiers are no longer criticizing from stage west, they are leading the national debate.

Roger Gibbins is the president and CEO

of the Canada West Foundation.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 1, 2009 A11

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