OTTAWA - The federal government's new perimeter security deal with the United States will create jobs and stimulate growth in both countries, says a leading business voice and one-time Liberal cabinet minister.
Former foreign minister John Manley, head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, says the estimated $1-billion cost of the pact will be money well spent that pays dividends over time.
"Some of that expenditure is going to have to be made, to make things work. But to the extent that you facilitate the supply chain across the Canada-U.S. border, you're going to create jobs on both sides," Manley said Thursday in an interview.
"It's one of those areas where you can say actually there's going to be payback over time. The fact that the number is that big probably suggests that some of this is long overdue."
The deal, as described to The Canadian Press by several sources, includes significant spending on border-post infrastructure and information-sharing programs to bring Canada more closely in line with the U.S.
The Beyond the Border action plan will bolster common identification of security threats, better align the countries' food and auto industries, and reduce red tape for cross-border shippers and travellers, said sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because the deal has not been publicly announced.
It will also create a "one-stop shopping" window for importers, slash customs-duty paperwork for companies, and beef up frequent-traveller and trusted-shipper programs.
A federal press release on the agreement has been drafted, but the Conservative government is still trying to arrange a high-profile binational launch.
In the House of Commons this week, opposition MPs accused the government of giving away too much to the Americans in secretive talks.
The deal represents the best progress to date in unravelling the post-9-11 bureaucracy that impedes the flow of good and services across the 49th parallel, said Manley, whose group has worked closely with the Tory government on border issues.
The council of chief executives and other business lobbies have worked over the years to reverse the so-called thickening of the Canada-U.S. border due to stepped-up security in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
The perimeter security arrangement is modelled along the lines of the Canada-U.S. Smart Border Declaration that Manley spearheaded while a member of the Liberal cabinet of former prime minister Jean Chretien. The list of 30 initiatives announced in late 2001 was aimed at keeping the border open to trade following the attacks.
Manley called the latest plans to pump money into border infrastructure part of a "pro-growth agenda."
The physical facilities at border crossings have not kept pace with elements of the original smart border accord, such as the NEXUS and FAST programs that were designed to allow pre-screened travellers and cargo to more easily cross the border, Manley said.
"You would have trucks that were in the FAST program but they couldn't get into a dedicated lane so they were in the line-up with everybody else."
Manley cautioned that although he's encouraged by the perimeter deal between the two governments, "the devil is always in the implementation of these things."
That's why he sees merit in Stephen Harper's desire to have U.S. President Barack Obama on hand for a ceremony to announce the new deal.
"I think it would be great if the president were to be part of the announcement because that would give me more confidence that, when implementing it, it wouldn't just get shuffled off by agencies of the U.S. government," Manley said.
Harper's office has not been able to persuade the White House to make Obama available because the U.S. sees the deal as more of an incremental development than a landmark agreement.
The plan is more modest than the sweeping vision to create a security ribbon around the continent that was announced eight months ago, dropping thorny ideas about harmonizing Canadian and U.S. immigration systems along the lines of the European Union.
"It's not as though the border's going to disappear," said Manley. "But there's a lot that can be done to make it better and I think they've got a pretty good scope on that, both for trade and for individuals."
Manley said the Buy American provision in Obama's new jobs bill won't undermine the new border deal, as the opposition Liberals have suggested. But he still finds the protectionist measure troubling.
"I think that the prime minister would probably be intent on discussing with his counterpart, President Obama, the optics of putting that kind of provision in ... when they're trying to achieve something else."