Put this on the platform

Stephen Harper should win the provinces over to a national securities regulator.

With the possible exception of Sir John Thompson, who was briefly premier of Nova Scotia in 1882 prior to becoming prime minister in 1892, no national leader has ever arrived in Ottawa more closely identified with the views of the provinces than Stephen Harper. From his signature on the famous “Alberta Firewall” letter of 2001 to his campaign promise to redress the fiscal imbalance between federal and provincial governments, Harper clearly has sympathy for the complaints of the premiers regarding the state of Canadian federalism.

There is much to applaud in his view that policy obligations and taxing powers should be distributed appropriately. Respect for the Constitution means recognizing that powers given to the provinces should be administered by the provinces. But just as only Nixon could go to China, so too, perhaps, only Harper can get the provinces to agree on new and necessary federal institutions. We refer most pressingly to the need for a national securities regulator.

This magazine has long supported the concept of a single, unified system of securities regulation. Why should Harper make this a priority now, given that it was not even part of his campaign platform?

First, it makes enormous sense. Combining 13 disparate provincial and territorial securities bodies into one national organization will save an estimated $47 million per year in operational costs alone. A single regulator will reduce compliance costs and smooth the transition for smaller firms wishing to go public. More importantly, a federal securities code will improve enforcement and policy development across the country. Consistent, effective regulation is necessary to improve the international reputation of Canada's capital markets.

Second, it can be rolled into Harper's existing platform at minimal political cost. His plan to address the fiscal imbalance through tax room or increased federal transfers for the provinces is sure to put the premiers in a generous mood over the next year. Now is the time to get them on board.

Third, it represents an effective rebalancing of federal/provincial powers and a counterweight to complaints that Harper is presiding over a dramatic decentralization of the country. Giving the provinces responsibilities that are properly provincial in nature makes sense. But so does turning securities regulation into a national responsibility. Canada will be a stronger, more prosperous country for these moves. We trust Harper will come to the same conclusion sooner rather than later.

It was a big day for big-box stores. On Friday, Feb. 3, B.C. Small Business and Revenue Minister Rick Thorpe finally admitted what everyone else had known from the start: his plan to force Costco to track down B.C. residents who hadn't paid their provincial sales taxes by shopping in Alberta stores was stupid, illegitimate and doomed to failure.

While Thorpe still claims his plan was legal, he's dropped it due to privacy concerns. But no one would think of forcing smaller firms to provide this sort of information. The proposed government manoeuvre was possible only with a membership-style store such as Costco, where purchasers must show a card regardless of whether they are paying by cash or credit. As such, it was a deliberate attack on a particular form of retail.

Across the country on the same day, work finally began on building the first Wal-Mart in Guelph, Ont. The long fight against the Guelph Wal-Mart was yet another assault on a particular type of store disguised as a point of law.

Wal-Mart has planned for a decade to build a store on an empty plot of land in the north end of Guelph. The land has been zoned industrial and commercial, and its neighbours already include a Canadian Tire and Staples. Despite all this, some locals objected to Wal-Mart's plan. Unable to win on conventional arguments at city council or the Ontario Municipal Board, the group Residents for Sustainable Development got creative. They argued that the Wal-Mart would deprive Jesuits at a nearby spiritual retreat of their ability to practise their religion: “Wal-Mart's mastery of consumers and their wants…threaten the spiritual activities of the Jesuit Centre.” The very existence of a store that offers everyday low prices was thus a charter issue.

Last March, the Ontario Superior Court surprisingly opened the door for this unusual legal gambit by permitting an appeal of the municipal board ruling. But consider the chaos such an argument would wreak: religious organizations would be free to block any developments they found inconsistent with their teachings. Thankfully, the appeal was recently rejected, allowing Wal-Mart to begin construction. (Yet another freedom of religion charter challenge has since been launched by another local group.)

The animosity displayed by governments and activists toward stores that have as their only objective to provide low-cost merchandise to eager shoppers has always been a puzzle. That success breeds contempt is the only reasonable explanation. This month, success won a couple.