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Kingston event on CETA warns not to give away our local food, health care, jobs

Last night at a National Farmers Union- and Council of Canadians- sponsored event in Kingston, Ontario over 100 people came out to hear about the Canada-EU free trade talks. I presented alongside Terry Boehm, national president of the NFU from Allan, Saskatchewan, and Colleen Ross, national vice-president (policy) with the NFU from Ottawa. In attendance were Ted Hsu, Liberal Member of Parliament for Kingston and the Islands, and representatives from the NDP and Green parties.

It was a timely event for a number of reasons. Kingston’s part way to becoming a Blue Community by formally recognizing the human right to water at City Hall last November. City Council also recently passed a motion on CETA asking “that an open and transparent public process be adopted by the Government of Canada so that Canadians may be better informed and better heard on this important decision.”

As a few people commented last night, “open and transparent public process” and “Conservative government” are probably mutually exclusive concepts.

Luckily, Terry has read leaked copies of the CETA text from back to front and back again and could describe the likely effects of the agreement in great detail. In particular, he focused on how intellectual property rules proposed by the EU would shift power away from farmers and to large seed and agricultural companies while creating a “culture of fear” among farmers related to the spread of genetically modified crops in Canada.

In my presentation I took a general look at the Harper trade agenda, where it fails and where it unfortunately succeeds (in limiting the economic options of communities big and small), and why Canadian civil society groups continue to oppose deals like CETA. It’s not, as Harperites claim, because we are anti-trade or ideologically opposed to open markets. We are simply critical of the results of globalization where our governments seem willfully blind.

Why, for example, didn’t the wealth created by increased trade over the past 30 years trickle down? Because enormous wealth has been created – more money than the world has ever seen. It’s just not distributed very evenly. Inequality is severe in both rich and poor countries, and worsening in Canada and the United States. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which monitors this trend in Canada, has shown that in 1998 the highest paid 100 CEOs made 105 times the average wage of about $45,000. Today these elite CEOs make 189 times the average family income, which is stagnant over this free trade era.

So who is more ideological: the person who says free trade is better under all circumstances, as former trade minister Peter Van Loan did in 2010, or the person who points out where it is not working and suggests we do some things differently?

I talked about the WTO’s struggle to hold onto any legitimacy and how recent decisions against public health measures in the United States aren’t helping sell the WTO vision of how the world should work. For example, two weeks ago, the WTO Appellate Body – the final deciding body that either upholds or overturns World Trade Organization dispute panel rulings – upheld a ruling against a U.S. ban on flavoured cigarettes.

Todd Tucker at Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch campaign has thoroughly ripped the WTO decision to pieces in several posts. Partly the decision came down to the fact that U.S. lawmakers and regulators banned clove (and Coca Cola, strawberry, etc) flavoured cigarettes but not menthol because their science found that too many American adults smoked menthol and would be hurt by an immediate ban whereas children were much more likely to graduate from clove or Coke cigs to the regular brands. This discrimination, which the legislation would have corrected eventually, was found to violate National Treatment requirements in the Technical Barriers to Trade agreement at the WTO.

Instead of admitting that regulations aren’t perfect, or that the goal of defeating cancer was possibly more important than barriers to Indonesian clove cigarette makers, the WTO declared a U.S. public health measure illegal under international law.

If this is what we paid for when we signed up to the WTO it might be time for a refund. CETA would only complicate regulations further with even stricter limits on government policy space related to health, food, environmental and other standards. There’s even a regulatory cooperation chapter that give Canadian and European firms further avenues to frustrate policy making on both continents.

Following the presentations last night, Hsu updated the audience on the parliamentary process on CETA. He pointed out that the opposition opinions on the negotiations were much different from the official report and he read from the recommendations of Liberal trade critic Wayne Easter. For those and the NDP recommendations, see my earlier post on the trade committee report.

This far into the CETA negotiations, it’s clear from last night’s presentation that the public is still puzzling over what’s going on. The federal and provincial governments have shown neglect bordering on contempt in this regard. Almost everything we know about the deal has come from leaked copies of the text and civil society briefings from negotiators, which we pass on as information to the public.

Official statements just repeat two or three dubious claims about CETA’s potential economic benefits. Recent statements that the CETA talks have been the most transparent ever are just plain ridiculous. If you haven’t yet, I strongly encourage you to use and share our action alert aimed at the provinces which demands a real say in the CETA negotiations before a deal is signed.

And speaking of briefings from CETA negotiators, the next one is on May 3. As usual, I’ll post what we find out here in this space.