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Alberta’s next premier will play regulation hard-ball

Nothing gets the blood pumping in Alberta quite like the long-running scrap with Ottawa over securities regulation.

Well, okay. Several things do. Still, it is a thorny east-west tussle that has simmered for years, even though both governments are now friendly on most issues. Comments by candidates in the race to become leader of the provincial Progressive Conservatives and, by extension, premier, show the federal quest for a national watchdog is going to get no easier regardless who wins.

It's clear that none of the three wants to be the guy seen as selling out Alberta's energy-related power and jurisdictional rights to Ontario.

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Last week, Finance Minister Joe Oliver trumpeted the entrance of two provinces into a pact announced last year involving Ontario and British Columbia that is aimed at replacing Canada's patchwork of regulators. The onetime investment banker said the single-window approach will lure more capital into the country and deepen ties among the provinces. It's "an act of nation-building," he said.

Downplayed in the hoopla was the fact that the new club members, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, together account for just 2 per cent of the market value of Canadian businesses listed on public exchanges. The two big fish that Mr. Oliver really wants to land, Alberta and Quebec, aren't biting and show no intention of doing so.

Doug Horner, Alberta's finance minister under deposed Premier Alison Redford and still on the job, said Alberta won't be bought or bullied into signing on to a plan that would shift regulatory decision-making to Ontario.

The big worry is the potential loss of jobs and expertise in oil and gas financing when Alberta's energy industry makes up about a quarter of the capitalization of the Canadian capital markets.

Alberta's not dead-set against all national oversight, and has proposed a system that puts the federal minister in charge of watching out for systemic risk, such as a credit crisis, and creates a country-wide enforcement agency. But all involved are quick to point out a 2011 Supreme Court ruling that confirmed provincial jurisdiction over securities regulation.

The front-runner in the leadership race, Jim Prentice, is in a fascinating position. When he was a federal minister in 2008, Mr. Prentice described the patchwork system as a weakness, saying a national regulator would make the country more attractive to investors, according to an Edmonton Journal story at the time.

Now, Mr. Prentice is more closely aligned with the home team. Sure, he's supportive of a national system in principle, just not one that's detrimental to Alberta.

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"I've been very clear that whatever arrangements we have relative to the capital markets have to work for the Alberta economy and have to work for the energy sector in particular, which at this point is the largest driver of capital markets in Canada," Mr. Prentice said in an interview.

In fact, he's not holding out much hope that a deal with Ottawa is imminent.

"It will continue to simmer. We've not been successful in finding a solution. Until we find a solution that works in Quebec and works in Alberta, it's going to be very difficult to have a national system," he said.

His rival, former infrastructure minister Ric McIver, also sticks to the Alberta song sheet. He would be willing to listen to Mr. Oliver, but the federal minister has not proven his case to date.

"No disrespect to anyone else, but we are the economic engine of the country," Mr. McIver said. "In order to maintain that status and to grow it, we need to make sure that the financial expertise stays here and we need to make sure that we make rules and arrangements that provide us with access to capital – and we need to make sure that we row our own boat," he said.

The remaining contestant, Thomas Lukaszuk, who was deputy premier in the Redford administration, couples the issue with Ottawa's new restrictions to the temporary foreign worker program as policies that are harmful to the Alberta economy.

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"The businesses are telling me that the system is working relatively well, that there could be improvements made within the existing system," he said. "I will not be having Ottawa telling Alberta businesses what's best for them, with minimal consultation. This is not the kind of partnership that I will participate in."

Like everyone else, the Harper government won't know until the PC conventions in September who it will be dealing with as Alberta leader. But at least it won't have to agonize over figuring out what the message on securities regulation will be.

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About the Author

Jeffrey Jones is a veteran journalist specializing in energy, finance and environment for The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, based in Calgary. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2013, he was a senior reporter for Reuters, writing news, features and analysis on energy deals, pipelines, politics and general  topics. More

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