Devotees of slapstick political humour will be disappointed to learn Saskatchewan’s Monty Pythonesque Licence Plate War on Alberta ended yesterday with an embarrassing climb-down by the province’s Saskatchewan Party government.
Amity again reigns on the peaceful Canadian Prairies. You can leave your Alberta plates on your pickup truck when you work on that Government of Saskatchewan highway improvement site before you head back to your Lloydminister bungalow on the Alberta side at 5 o’clock.
The last act in office of Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall — beneficiary of a long and determined campaign of nauseating hagiography characterizing him as the brilliant and beloved Mr. Congeniality of Confederation — was to be hoist with his own petard.
As a result, when he shuffles off into political history on Saturday, Wall will be remembered by most Canadians as the petty and petulant right-wing premier whose last official act was to let a personal temper tantrum at Alberta’s NDP nearly escalate into an interprovincial trade war that had the potential to cost his economically beleaguered province’s taxpayers a $5-million fine under the terms of the New West Partnership Trade Agreement.
Indeed, Saskatchewan dropped its claim it was retaliating against Alberta for doing the same sort of thing at the last possible moment — less than 12 hours before the provinces would have been locked into the intramural trade agreement’s dispute arbitration process.
The general consensus hereabouts was that since there was no evidence whatsoever to support Saskatchewan’s claims, a ruling in Alberta’s favour was a slam-dunk. As Alberta Trade Minister Deron Bilous told news reporters yesterday, Saskatchewan’s abject 11th hour surrender came because “they knew they were going to lose.”
Saskatchewan Trade Minister Steven Bonk told media that the people with the evidence declined to share it because they were afraid they would face repercussions in Alberta — typical of a case that was always long on claims and short on verifiable facts.
As did Bonk, Premier Wall claimed there was a certain reciprocity in his province “blinking first,” as media reports insisted on putting it, not entirely accurately since it’s hard to see how Alberta could blink, there being no evidence forthcoming on either side of the border for Saskatchewan’s assertions.
“The recent confirmation of AB’s willingness to concede and reverse discriminatory beer pricing policies when confirmed on appeal is what we were hoping to see,” Wall tweeted. “License plate policy is therefore suspended.”
That’s a bit of a reach. It misrepresents what Bilous said — to wit, only that Alberta would abide by an appeal panel’s decision in the unrelated dispute if it upholds an earlier panel ruling that Alberta’s program of beer markups and rebates designed to help local craft breweries break the trade agreement’s rules. But you have to let the guy try to save his pride by saying he took something home for his not-very-effective efforts.
Mainstream media tried from the get-go to portray this dispute as a he-said/she-said spat between Wall and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. As the National Post put it, the two premiers “have been bickering since Notley was elected in 2015, and seem to loathe each other.”
In truth, it’s been more of a he said/he said affair, with Wall doing most of the bickering and Notley making the occasional joke at his expense, which no doubt infuriated him even more. The loathing was strictly one way.
As the Edmonton Journal’s Graham Thomson observed: “This whole fiasco seems to have been generated by Wall’s intense, if not irrational, dislike of an NDP government next door.”
We get it, though. Notwithstanding Wall’s conservative ideology and his party’s instinct to impose austerity on his province’s citizens now that oil prices have gone south and look to stay there, Alberta’s economy is doing better under the kinder, gentler NDP.
Even Saskatchewan’s six-per-cent sales tax doesn’t seem to help that province’s bottom line enough to keep it out of deficit — whereas, if Alberta were to adopt the same sensible measure, it could almost eliminate its controversial annual deficits with a vote of the legislature.
If it’s any comfort to Wall, this makes conservatives on this side of the interprovincial boundary just as angry as the Saskatchewan premier, whom Alberta Opposition Leader Jason Kenney used to refer to as “the real leader of Western Canada.” We don’t hear that from Kenney any more, although it’s not clear if that’s because Wall has gone down in his estimation or because he aspires to the title himself.
Regardless, there is also a certain irony in the Alberta NDP’s use of a trade agreement like the New West Partnership to put an end to Wall’s extended tantrum, because such so-called “free-trade” deals have not, historically, been supported by New Democrats, and for good reason.
The bitter truth is free trade deals and free trade rhetoric are normally about corporate rights but not citizen rights, and typically have the effect of trading away democracy and the environment to help make the largest corporate players more profitable.
As the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives pointed out last year, Canada’s international free trade deals are probably incompatible with both Indigenous reconciliation and effective climate action.
Internal trade deals like the New West Partnership are not all that much different in that they are designed to privilege corporate rights over citizen rights, including the right for local governments to develop environmentally sound policies or provinces to encourage the development of a craft beer industry if it cuts into the sales of watery corporate brew from Saskatoon.
Still, the New West Partnership is not without some merit, obviously. At least it has managed to silence Wall — who has become Canada’s answer to Basil Fawlty — for a few blessed moments.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
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