Legislation is just plain weird

The Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement has little to do with trade

It may be one of the strangest cases of backroom dealing, silent deregulation, legislation by stealth, and contempt for the legislature in British Columbia’s history. It may be a brilliant move that will add $4.8 billion and 78,000 jobs to the B.C. economy.

It could just as well be an April Fools’ Day joke: it’s the B.C.–Alberta Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA). It was signed last April, and it’s supposed to come into effect this April 1. It has never been put before the B.C. legislature. Not even for review.

If it were a single piece of legislation, it would probably require an omnibus bill that you’d have trouble fitting into the back of a pickup truck. It will take at least two years to fully implement.

Despite its name, it actually has got practically nothing to do with trade.

That’s how weird it is.

In the advertising-agency language the B.C. and Alberta governments use to talk about the deal they cut, TILMA will create the second-largest economic region in Canada and provide workers and companies in both provinces with “seamless opportunities” in energy, transportation, labour mobility, business registration, and government procurement.

TILMA also appears to open up both provincial governments (and any government agency, including municipal governments and school boards) to corporate lawsuits over any regulation found to be “harmful” to investment.

Local government leaders across the province are scratching their heads in disbelief. The Council of Canadians is in such a twist it’s calling TILMA a tighter pair of handcuffs than the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Alberta’s then–minister of international and intergovernmental relations, Gary Mar, said during a speech in Richmond last June that the deal’s dispute-resolution mechanism granted “everything Canadian business asked for”. But the B.C. Federation of Labour, with perhaps tens of thousands of union members directly affected, didn’t get a chance to ask for anything. It didn’t even get a chance to look at the deal.

The funhouse-mirror effect the confusion has created has got B.C.’s minister of economic development, Colin Hansen, furiously writing letters to weekly newspapers across the province, trying to calm people down. Hansen’s usual routine is to say no, there are no weird black helicopters involved (or words to that effect), and that TILMA is a great thing, because the Conference Board of Canada says so.

It took nearly two years for the B.C. government to release an impact assessment of the deal. Just to make matters more opaque, the impact assessment is the same as the Conference Board report Hansen keeps referring to.

In other words, the work of assessing TILMA’s impact on the public interest in B.C. was subcontracted to the Conference Board, which is Canada’s national big-business lobby.

As for the claim of a $4.8-billion boost to B.C.’s gross domestic product and 78,000 new TILMA-created jobs, you’d be right if you guessed it came from the Conference Board report. But if you actually read the report, you’d still be guessing where they got those numbers.

The 46-page report is so outrageously verbose it’s funny, and it’s almost entirely speculative. The words It is expected that appear seven times in key sections, and to all appearances, TILMA’s precisely calculated anticipated windfall is just a thumbnail tally of the costs of “red tape” that a handful of corporate vice presidents complained about over a series of lunches down on Howe Street.

You could fairly say the report is one unsubstantiated claim after another, and it’s obvious that not even B.C.’s corporate sector took the Conference Board exercise seriously. The report is based on a mere two dozen surveys the board sent out: 13 to industry organizations and 11 to government ministries. And it only got 10 back. Industry groups filled out four surveys. Six came from government officials.

The industry responses were “very positive”. The government officials’ responses were “varied”, which seems to be Conference Board lingo for “scathing”. A snapshot of their responses: there are actually legitimate reasons for differences in standards and regulations between B.C. and Alberta; even industry isn’t convinced it’s a good deal; local businesses on the B.C.–Alberta border “may suffer losses”; the deal’s benefits “may not outweigh the costs”, even.

The Conference Board writes off these glum jims as mere bureaucrats who “harboured misperceptions that conflicted with other reliable data”. What is this other data? The report doesn’t say, unless what it’s referring to is the claim that TILMA will “provide more labour mobility between B.C. and Alberta after it is fully implemented”.

But what does this mean? The economic engine kicked into gear by B.C. workers rushing back and forth across the Rockies, trying to dodge drops in take-home pay from minimum-wage adjustments made to “reconcile” one province’s labour standards with the other’s?

Wait a minute. Here’s a massive problem TILMA will solve: Alberta requires energy companies doing business in the province to maintain offices and management staff there. This has “severely restricted the development of an oil and gas industry in B.C.”.

Swear to God. That’s what it says.

The New Democratic Party’s finance critic, Jenny Kwan, is forthright and refreshingly honest when you ask her questions about TILMA. She will tell you she doesn’t really know the answers.

“They signed this agreement behind closed doors,” Kwan told me the other day. “We were simply told the agreement had been signed and that it would come into effect within a year.”

Will TILMA kill local-hiring rules and ethical-purchasing policies? Will B.C. be permitted to keep its requirement that social workers have university degrees? Will the “investor clause” really allow businesses to sue governments—at the taxpayers’ expense—for regulations they don’t like? I could go on like this for hours.

“Colin Hansen should bring it to the legislature for a full debate,” Kwan said.

Indeed he should.

The Chronicles blog can be found at transmontanus.blogspot.com .