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NDP opposition and trade agreements: A new battleground on the streets and in the House of Commons?

It didn’t come up much during the election campaign but trade and trade agreements were an important plank of the Conservative platform. The Harper government believes if you starve government through lower taxes, drop foreign ownership limits on strategic commodities, deregulate and sign enough free trade deals you will create a perfect society… for politically powerful big business. Investment will flow inwards and resources outwards with as few impediments as possible within and outside Canada. The environment, public health (the public realm in general) and democracy all suffer under this vision which Harper calls “Enlightened Sovereignty.”

Will it be easier for Harper to pass corporate trade deals in a polarized House of Commons? I don’t think so. Unfair trade agreements are fought and defeated outside Parliament. Look at the Multilateral Agreement on Investment and Free Trade Area of the Americas. Both collapsed under a Liberal majority in Canada because of local resistance tied to international social movements. The last five years of minority government saw the Liberal opposition side with the Conservatives to pass some of Canada’s most useless and socially backwards trade agreements with corrupt and criminal regimes in Colombia and Peru. What point is an opposition party that doesn’t, well, oppose something from time to time?

We now have an official opposition in Parliament with a very different vision for how the economy and trade agreements should work. Of all Canada’s opposition parties, the NDP were by far the most critical of trade-liberalization-as-economic-policy. We can expect, as Harper promised, the government to continue trade negotiations with the European Union, India and the coup regime in Honduras. Conservatives will quickly re-introduce the Canada-Panama FTA so hated by the Bloc Quebecois that former leader Gilles Duceppe condemned it during the English and French leaders debates. The chances of defeating these deals are as good or bad now as they were during the last minority government.

The added bonus of an NDP opposition is the potential for a real public debate on this anti-democratic trade agenda. Public statements matter, and for better or worse the media like to report the controversy of competing viewpoints. Take the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, for example. CETA is already becoming publicly controversial. Now there’s an opposition party which shares many of the same concerns being expressed about the EU deal.

When asked by the Trade Justice Network and Quebec Network on Continental Integration (RQIC) before the election what the benefits and drawbacks of CETA were for Canada, the NDP responded:

…At present, the current version of the Canada-EU Economic Trade Agreement needs significant improvement if the interests of Canadians are to be protected. For starters the negotiations should be much more transparent, and Canadians should have an opportunity to express themselves with regard to what is on the table and the implications for their lives

Trade agreements “should not be allowed to prove an impediment to progressive change here or abroad,” said the party in its responses, denouncing the investor-state dispute process as “an inequitable element in trade agreements that privilege corporations in a way that conflicts with the public interest.” The context of the question was last year’s $130-million settlement with AbitibiBowater, which claimed its water and timber rights, as well as its physical property, had been unfairly expropriated by the Newfoundland government. (The Canadian firm used its U.S. registration to take Canada to trade court under NAFTA investor-state rules. Harper’s settlement likely set a National Treatment precedent for future claims to Canada’s water and other natural resources, which are owned as a public trust by the provinces.)

On procurement, the NDP wrote: “We believe that it is a right and responsibility of municipal, provincial/territorial and federal governments to make procurement and regulatory decisions in the best interests of their residents without looking over their shoulder at trade provisions negotiated without their involvement.” The party added these levels of government should be able to apply “Buy Canadian” conditions to public tenders. If their MPs express this view in the House of Commons it may embolden provinces or municipalities to resist some or all of the EU’s procurement demands.

On access to medicines, and the likelihood that CETA would increase drug costs in Canada by $2.8 billion at least, the NDP said:

…Canada already accords too much status to brand-name drug patents. Tying Canada further into arrangements that protect the patent drug industry is not in the interests of a country that must reassess its entire approach to pharmaceutical therapy in our public health care system. Canada needs to avoid such an outcome.

Quebec and Alberta were the two provinces supporting the EU demands for increased patent and data protection in CETA’s intellectual property chapter. With an orange wave having swept Quebec, the influence of the international brand name drug lobby on Canadian domestic and trade policy could be seriously undermined.

I’m not crazy. I realize with a majority the Conservatives can waive all these concerns and sign a bad deal anyway. But they did this anyway in a minority last February when they signed, with Liberal support, a completely imbalanced procurement agreement with the United States. The upside is it may become difficult for Harper to sell his vision to Canadians with this new opposition in place. We’ll have our first test case very soon according to some reports.

Harper will want to move quickly on the controversial perimeter security deal before CETA comes up in a serious way. Here the public is already skeptical of or downright hostile to security and regulatory harmonization with the United States. The NDP was very critical of previous “deep integration” projects such as the Security and Prosperity Partnership, though border MPs in B.C., Ontario and Quebec reasonably worry about new U.S. restrictions to cross-border trade and tourism. But a greater role in the House of Commons offers NDP critics more opportunities to challenge the Harper-Obama “Beyond the Border” vision, keeping it and the opposition to the plan in clear public view. Public opposition and political dueling can play off each other.

A lot of this is silver lining thinking. Admittedly I’m focusing entirely on trade while other areas of public policy will suffer under spiteful Conservative cutbacks over the next four years. But we’re not going to take these attacks sitting down. As Duncan Cameron, president of Rabble.ca, wrote today, “The results [of the election] must spur a new wave of democratic action by social movements,” with a special role for the public sector. “The trade union fight back has to begin with creating broad alliances across society with youth, senior, and women’s groups,” he said. “Arts and culture are on the block. Big banks, big oil, and big business can write their own cheque.” Part of that fightback will include demands to stop signing trade deals that undermine workers, the environment, public services and democracy at home and abroad.

As popular Quebec commentator Chantal Hebert wrote today, “Canadians turned their backs on more than a century of centrist elite accommodation on Monday and selected a Parliament where the populist right and the populist left will be going head to head for the first time.” Far from throw our towel in, now’s the time to seize new political opportunities, turn up the heat publicly, and watch the volume rise in the House of Commons.