May 16, 2011
Property Rights Missing From Election Debate
National prosperity linked to property rights
Another federal election has come and gone with nothing mentioned about the abysmal state of property rights in Canada.
Although property rights are under provincial jurisdiction in Canada, there are ways to protect the rights of individual property owners at the national level.
Here are some examples how property rights are unprotected.
Recently, Alberta proposed new conservation rules that would revoke a number of oilsands leases, including many with active projects.
The government may set aside 20 per cent of Alberta’s oilsands region in order to protect sensitive habitat and wildlife.
The problem is the proposed conservation area already has 14 energy and 10 mineral companies operating in the area.
The move prompted one executive to compare the Alberta government to that of a Latin American despot.
Although the proposed move would involve compensation, many believe the proposal itself influences the investment climate as investors are uncertain of what the government will do.
The other example involves a municipality in southern Ontario attempting to prevent the organizers of the Liberty Summer Seminar – an educational event dedicated to the study of freedom – from holding their annual event because they claimed the organizers were operating a “commercial conference centre” on land designated as residential.
Although the organizers did collect a minor fee to recover costs, it was obvious the venture was educational and not commercial.
The prevalent danger is that property rights are often at the mercy of politicians.
Provinces like Manitoba allow municipalities to expropriate explicitly for purposes of economic development, while others, such as Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick allow it for vaguely defined public purposes. However, often their statutes broadly define ‘economic development’ and allow for politicians to abuse the process.
One example is the Rural Municipality of Ellice in Manitoba. Ellice tried to expropriate large tracts of land from a large landowner because his property contained an historic site. When he resisted negotiations, the municipality tried to expropriate.
Across this country, property rights are in peril. Landowners face the prospect of having their lands taken away or diminished in value due to government action.
This is why a movement began to revisit the issue of entrenching property rights in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 7 of our Charter – often called the ‘due process’ clause –included a right to property in initial drafts. Excluding property rights, however, leaves individuals and companies vulnerable. Peter Hogg, a Canadian constitutional expert, put it this way: “The omission of property rights from Section 7 [of the Charter] greatly reduces its scope. It means that section 7 affords no guarantee of compensation or even a fair procedure for the taking of property by the government. It means that section 7 affords no guarantee of fair treatment by courts, tribunals or officials with power over purely economic interests of individuals or corporations.”
Recently, federal Conservative M.P. Scott Reid and Ontario Tory M.P.P. Randy Hillier proposed private members’ bill in their respective legislative settings that would insert property rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
However, instead of a full constitutional amendment (which necessitates the consent of seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population of all provinces), they are using a part of the Canada Act requiring the approval of a province and the federal Parliament, affecting only Ontario for now.
This bold move was not mentioned during the English or French-language election debates, or on the campaign trail.
But, the issue is critical. Strong property rights protect individual landowners from abuse and reduced income. Our economic prosperity as a country is dependent on strong property rights.
Since 2007, the Washington-based Property Rights Alliance has been releasing its annual International Property Rights Index (IPRI). The first Index measured the physical and intellectual property of 70 countries. Now, it examines property rights protections in 129 countries. The Index demonstrates that countries with stronger property rights protection have higher per capita incomes, GDP per capita, and foreign direct investment inflows than countries that have weak property rights. In fact, even a one percent increase in the IPRI score predicts a $8,960 increase in GDP per capita, which measures overall economic well-being.
Thus, both at a national level and at provincial levels, Canadians should be deeply concerned about the state of property rights. As property rights go, so goes our economy well-being.
That certainly should have been a top election issue.
is a policy analyst at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy who focuses on aboriginal matters and property rights. Based in Lethbridge, Alberta, he is from the Sudbury region of Northern Ontario, and has Metis ancestry from Quebec. He graduated from McGill University in 2001, majoring in political science and history. He specialized in Canadian and American politics, with an emphasis on constitutional law. He is completing a master of journalism degree at Carleton University, where he is specializing in political reporting. For two years, he covered House standing committees, as well as Senate committees. His career in journalism includes several stints at community newspapers in Northern Ontario, including Sudbury and Espanola. He also completed internships at CFRA 580 AM, a talk radio station in Ottawa and the Cable Public Affairs Channel. He writes a weekly column in the Winnipeg Sun and contributes to the Taxpayer, the flagship publication of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Quesnel's policy commentaries have appeared in the Lethbridge Herald, Vancouver Sun, Globe and Mail, Financial Post, and the National Post, among others.