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In The Media

Expediting trade focus of PNWER conference

by Colin Robertson

The Star Phoenix
July 16, 2012

Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and is senior strategic adviser to McKenna, Long and Aldridge, LLP. He's vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

When it comes to foreign affairs and relationships between nations, the tendency is to frame issues in terms of the personalities of our respective leaders.

This is natural as the tough decisions, especially those around war and peace, are made at the top.

For big initiatives such as the current border and regulatory framework agreement with the United States, or participation in the trans-Pacific Partnership, the prime minister and the president need to be working from the same page. They must provide the political leadership in Parliament and Congress as well as drive the bureaucratic engine that sets in place the new rules of the road.

Canada and the U.S. are federations. In the case of trade and commerce, authorities are shared among levels of government. But when it comes to the rubber hitting the road or enforcing the practical side of work in an office, factory or farm - all of which affect issues of cross-border flow of people, goods and services - those authorities involve the provincial or state governments.

Nurtured without partisanship and quietly cultivated over the years by our premiers and governors as well as our legislators, these relationships are like the hidden wiring in our shared condominium. But the hidden wiring works best when there is a level of practical co-ordination to set an agenda and to achieve practical results.

For nearly a quarter of a century, the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER) has done this better than any other cross-border association. Membership consists of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Yukon, Northwest Territories as well as Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska.

This week PNWER legislators and business representatives meet in Saskatoon. Their agenda includes energy, agriculture and transportation, set against the backdrop of ongoing work on the border and regulatory reform. Once again, PNWER will bring together the minders and users of our shared border, with the aim of making it work better.

PNWER has had great success in developing pilot projects and showcasing excellence. It also uses its moral authority to push an idea or an initiative. The critical piece in the PNWER formula, missing from other cross-border associations, is its secretariat.

Based in Seattle, the secretariat keeps the ball rolling. Its U.S. location gives it legitimacy as a domestic player in the kaleidoscope of interests that constitute the often confusing American polity.

PNWER is results oriented. Take the smart driver's licence, devised as a proactive alternative to the passport for travellers to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Championed by PNWER, it won approval from the Department of Homeland Security, and is now used by most state and provincial governments.

That focus on results is the attraction of PNWER to business. The region currently is addressing how our West Coast ports would deal with a natural or manmade disaster. Mindful of the labour shortages in the oilsands, it is also working with Alberta to recruit talent in Washington and Oregon state, including veterans.

The Saskatoon meeting also will explore options to make cattle exports easier and less costly through electronic certification documents.

A bigger project, and vital to Saskatchewan interests, is managing the approval process that sends products such as pulse crops (which represent half of Canada's trade with India) and potash by rail to Lewiston, Idaho, and then by barge down the Snake and Columbia rivers to ocean-bound containers in Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Wash. Large equipment shipments come in through the same route bound for the oilsands.

This commerce underlines the integrated nature of our West Coast ports and makes a mockery of American protectionists who claim Canadian ports are stealing American business.

Expediting trade is central to PNWER's mandate. Last week, the United States Trade Representative announced to Congress that it would begin a 90-day consultation on Canadian (and Mexican) inclusion in the trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is important on a couple of levels.

It offers an opportunity to place both Canada and the U.S. into an association of Pacific nations with even greater economic weight than the European Union, with whom we are months away from a freer trade agreement. It is especially important to PNWER members, given our shared Pacific orientation and our growing trade and investment.

TPP is also another vehicle to improve the vital continental supply chains that have developed since the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and the subsequent NAFTA that brought Mexico into the tent.

Despite its association in U.S. eyes with outsourcing and job losses, NAFTA has worked well for all three partners over nearly 20 years. It now needs updating. The TPP offers an elegant way to achieve that while at the same time complement our ongoing work on the border and regulatory initiative.

PNWER this week will once again move the ball forward through informed discussion and practical problem-solving.

A useful outcome would be a strong endorsement of a TPP that includes Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. It would signal solidarity within PNWER and underline the voice and value of the relationships at the state and province level - our essential hidden wiring.

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