B.C. Premier Christy Clark listens to fellow premiers answer questions during a press conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, July 27, 2012.
Credits: REUTERS/ADAM SCOTTI
Even for a desperate politician, B.C. Premier Christy Clark's attack on the Northern Gateway pipeline was exceptionally mean and stupid. It's no accident Canadian provinces are not allowed to behave like highwaymen. But it is astounding that Clark doesn't know it.
There's nothing wrong with her insistence that a pipeline meet relevant environmental standards. But her demand that Alberta pay, in effect, a ransom or their pipeline gets it is morally outrageous, economically ignorant and legally preposterous. Besides, is she saying she's willing to disregard environmental risks for enough money?
Her position is legally preposterous because it flies in the face of the text and purpose of our Constitution. Despite occasional claims that Canada defies the normal laws of political economy, we are a federation in the same way and for the same reasons that other nations are: to keep government as small and local as possible without rendering it ineffective.
Certain functions must be delegated to the central government because otherwise they cannot be performed at all, including national defence and serious criminal justice; crossing a provincial border cannot get a man out of a murder charge or no community exists. And the feds must also have the power to stop local communities from trying to extort wealth from their neighbours instead of earning it themselves.
It is essential to prosperity that protectionism should not flourish within the national borders. But that's not all. A meaningful sense of nationhood requires shared historical triumphs like Vimy Ridge. And citizens must feel that, in the more mundane but also far more common challenges we face in everyday life, we are working together to create wealth, not fighting one another to expropriate it.
Canada's founders understood this point clearly. They explicitly argued that Confederation would give us not just greater military security but also the economic and political blessings of a vast internal free trade zone. In a magnificent speech on Feb. 8, 1865, George Brown denounced the petty protectionism of the current colonies and said creating Canada would "throw down all barriers between the provinces - to make a citizen of one, citizen of the whole." (That phrase furnished the title of a riveting paper I co-authored for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute with Brian Lee Crowley and Robert Knox.)
As Section 91 of the British North America Act (now the Constitution Act, 1867) makes clear, our founders deliberately gave Canada's central government every power the American one had and more. They certainly didn't forget George Washington's much-admired power to strike down state-level protectionism. Indeed in the Confederation debates speakers expressly cited American prosperity as proof of the merits of the free internal trade union would bring.
Of course our founders knew valid exercises of provincial jurisdiction over things like health or charity might incidentally restrict the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour within Canada. But under our Constitution, provincial powers could not be used as an excuse to enact measures whose main purpose was protectionist, nor could they be used, even for valid purposes, in unnecessarily restrictive ways.
Clearly our federal government has not been vigorous enough in using its power to sweep aside petty, vindictive provincial protectionism like differently sized single-dose restaurant coffee creamers or conflicting bus brake standards. But equally clearly, it can and must stop provinces from taking pipelines hostage.
Ms. Clark's economic views are as wacky as her legal ones. She says she wants to be sure British Columbians will get their "fair share" of pipeline revenues and economic benefits. But the whole point of internal free trade is to ensure that prosperity spreads broadly instead of being hemmed in and suffocated.
People who are doing well buy more from their neighbours, sell more to their neighbours and hire more of their neighbours as a matter of course. You don't need specific restrictions to make it happen; you need to avoid them. Imagine Alberta demanding its "fair share" of revenue from B.C. products driven across its roads, or Quebec erecting tolls on the St. Lawrence, to see the destructive protectionist spiral into poverty such an approach would trigger.
Ms. Clark may be politically desperate. But she doesn't have to be mean and stupid as well, does she?