EDMONTON - Canada's three westernmost provinces signed a wide-ranging deal Friday that will apply to everything from trade, investment and labour mobility to international marketing.
The New West Partnership creates a powerful $550-billion trading block with roughly nine million people that the governments say will save money and allow them to better exploit Asian markets.
"We've just gone through a huge global economic shift," Premier Ed Stelmach said from Regina. "There's going to be a tremendous competition for labour, for investment. And investment will naturally navigate to those areas that have the same regulations, larger base populations."
The agreement between B.C., Saskatchewan and Alberta builds on the trade, investment and labour mobility agreement, or TILMA, that Alberta and B.C. signed in 2006.
But officials say this agreement is more far-reaching, since it is coupled with an international marketing push and puts an emphasis on procurement and innovation.
The agreement seeks to co-ordinate virtually all government regulation and professional standards. Teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers and members of any other regulated profession will be able to move freely between the provinces.
The premiers say their provinces could save money under the deal by pooling their purchases for things like machinery and medical supplies.
In particular, Wall said they are looking at bulk drug buying. "Of the $8 billion in procurement that each province is making, a lot of that money is going toward health care."
Governments will still be able to enforce their own regulations for "legitimate objectives," such as public health and safety, environmental protection and worker safety.
The deal also offers protection for Crown corporations through a separate agreement of the provinces' trade ministers.
The TILMA agreement has faced opposition, particularly from labour groups who fear it will create a regulatory race to the bottom.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said the new deal passes too much power from elected officials to companies who have their own interests at heart.
He was skeptical of claims that governments will be able to protect the public interest once the deal is fully implemented in 2013.
"Governments shouldn't have to spend millions of dollars trying to protect their right to regulate in the public interest. They should just be able to do it," McGowan said.
Liberal Leader David Swann said the deal should be debated in the legislature so Albertans can have concerns like McGowan's addressed. But overall, he said it makes sense to knock down trade barriers between the provinces.
"If we're going to have free trade south of the border, surely we should have it across our own borders here," Swann said.
The three premiers will all be part of a trade mission to Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo from May 14 to 22.
Edmonton Journal, Sat May 1 2010
Byline: Archie McLean