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Asking trade committee to take a greater role in CETA negotiations

One of the fundamental goals of the Council of Canadians’ trade campaign is to democratize the creation of trade, investment and economic policy in general in Canada. For over 20 years now, trade agreements have been negotiated by bureaucrats in closed-door meetings under free-market assumptions that barely hold together today given what can be fairly described as a global ecological and economic disaster. Shouldn’t our elected leaders be rethinking the free-trade paradigm given its obvious failures?

That was the basic question I wanted to leave the parliamentary trade committee yesterday as it continues its investigation into the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. It was hard to tell how many in the room take the question seriously. (The audio of the proceedings is available already on the government’s webpage for the CIIT committee.) But I think even the Conservatives on trade committee must have been interested to know they are getting less information about CETA than their European counterparts, who are pushing the European Commission for a greater role in trade policy development, not just trade agreement approval.

Contrary to one account, the Council of Canadians has not changed its view of Canada-EU free trade deal. We want to stop the negotiations. We have very little faith CETA can be improved–or that the Conservative government and EU Commission would want to improve it–so the deal would strengthen democracy and improve cooperation on environmental policy and the delivery of public services such as water and health care. That said, the chances of the trade committee taking the same position are slim, so the Council encouraged MPs to take a more critical look at CETA’s investor protections, the effect the deal might have on public service regulation, and the procurement commitments Canadian municipalities are being asked to take.

In questions after the presentation–I shared a time slot with Ian Lee of Carleton University, who asked committee to immediately eliminate Canada’s supply management regimes and agree, without negotiation, to all of the EU’s demands on intellectual property–NDP members of committee wanted more information about the consultation process for CETA, the effect the agreement might have on public water utilities, and whether First Nations groups have been consulted by the government (they haven’t).

Liberal trade critic Wayne Easter was interested in hearing more about why Australia has refused to negotiate investor-state dispute processes in its trade agreements. I hope the committee agrees to bring in more witnesses on the investor-state problem, as Easter proposed. If they do, I also hope someone mentions “tarsands” again to see how upset this makes Conservative MPs, one of which asked the record to be corrected. It’s “oilsands” not “tarsands” he said. “It used to be tarsands,” I commented. “It used to be but it’s not anymore,” said someone else. Yikes.

The Conservatives are clearly there to fight rather than engage “unfriendly” witnesses. I was asked what I have against jobs or Canadian municipalities, and why the Council has opposed every trade agreement since the CUSFTA. “Show me one that’s really been about trade,” I responded. The strategy on the Conservative side seemed to be to speak for as long as possible, attacking the witness’s credibility and addressing issues not raised in the presentation (ex. our fundraising material), so that time allocation runs out and the witness has no time to respond for the record.

This kind of thing happens all the time at committee so it wasn’t surprising. A little irritating maybe, mostly kind of funny. But the behaviour is fundamentally problematic when you think about how you’d expect a democracy to function. Still, I appreciated the opportunity to go on record with the Council’s concerns about CETA and trade agreements more generally.

The committee will eventually have to take into account the testimony it has heard and develop a report on the CETA negotiations. Most of the witnesses have been from business lobby groups, right-wing think tanks and free-market academic institutions, or else from individual companies with an interest in the negotiations. There have been some CETA critics invited to speak, including the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Canadian Environmental Law Association (presenting November 24), the Canadian Union of Public Employees and possibly others.

Groups who want to appear are encouraged to speak to the committee clerk or one of the sitting MPs.