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Supply management, Hydro Quebec big topics at CETA hearing in provincial legislature

Yesterday afternoon former Quebec premier, now the province’s chief negotiator in the Canada-EU trade talks, Pierre Marc Johnson answered questions from government and opposition MLAs for three hours. The marathon session is archived on the Quebec national assembly website for a short time. So is a press conference earlier in the day with MLAs Amir Khadir (Mercier), Louise Beaudoin (Rosemont), Lisette Lapointe (Crémazie) and Pierre Curzi (Borduas), who repeated demands to see Quebec’s offers to the EU.

According to media reports today, questions for Johnson targeted how CETA (the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) would affect sustainable development, public procurement and Quebec’s supply management systems for dairy, poultry and eggs.

Parti québécois international relations critic Alexandre Cloutier commented on an EU briefing note to the EU trade committee which said supply management had “not yet” been broached in the negotiations. Cloutier said he’s worried that despite reassurances from Premier Charest and Prime Minister Harper, milk quotas or tariffs will be changed so that more Alberta beef can enter the European market.

In fact, the decision will be a matter of politics, said Canada’s lead agricultural negotiator in CETA at the end of November. And with Canada now poised to join the Trans-Pacific Partnerhship talks, some playing around with the system of tariffs and quotas seems to be inevitable. Cloutier told the hearing in the legislature yesterday he would prefer if supply management were taken off the table entirely, setting the stage for a possibly bruising battle in Quebec should Harper decide to make concessions on dairy in the CETA talks.

Earlier in the day yesterday, Cloutier and his colleague Nicolas Marceau criticized the opacity of the negotiations, according to accounts in La Presse. He questioned Johnson about procurement also, suggesting municipalities and Hydro Quebec should maintain the right to buy local for sustainability reasons. Other MLAs asked why the province couldn’t require that a certain portion of the minerals extracted from northern Quebec under Charest’s Plan Nord be processed in-province. Quebec’s negotiator said hydro has been excluded from Canada’s initial offers to the EU, but that investment conditions on mineral extraction is impossible under trade agreements, including CETA.

Other concerns raised during the three-hour session included cultural protections which Canada might lose under CETA, and how drug patent changes would affect the cost of drugs in Canada. Khadir, leader of the Québéc Solidaire party, again criticized the choice of Johnson as chief negotiator, saying he could not be considered independent because of his position on the advisory body to the Veolia Institute, a think tank funded entirely by the French environmental services firm.

Outside the legislature building in Quebec City about 200 people rallied against the CETA negotiations alongside a five-foot-tall Trojan Horse. You can see pictures of the action on the RQIC website. The alter-globalization network was represented by spokesperson Pierre-Yves Serinet, Dominique Bernier (ATQ), Catherine Caron (Attac-Qc), Louis Roy (CSN), Régine Laurent (FIQ), Denis Bolduc (SCFP-Québec/FTQ),
Lucie Martineau (SFPQ) and Patrick Albert (SPGQ). The groups expressed their concerns that CETA would open the door to:

– the privatization of public services;
– the privatization of drinking water services;
– the precedence of investor rights such that multinationals could challenge local policies that restrain their profits;
– a rise in drug prices through delays in the introduction of cheaper generic drugs;
– private control of resources to sustain the megalomaniacal dreams of Charest in Plan Nord;
– the privatization of certain branches of Hydro Quebec.

Both events–the protest and Johnson’s appearance before the legislature–sparked enormous media attention on the CETA negotiations. And Quebec’s opposition parties have taken to the issue like nowhere else in Canada. There remains pressure on the Quebec government to release its services, investment and procurement offers to MLAs so they can judge for themselves whether CETA is worth it, as Johnson claimed yesterday, or whether it amounts to a sell-out of the province, as some suggested yesterday.

Here’s a sample of news articles compiled by RQIC:

Libre-échange Canada-UE : Johnson attendu de pied ferme à Québec (Radio Canada)

Accord Canada-UE: la gestion de l’offre s’invite dans les discussions (La Presse)

Accord Canada-UE: Johnson ne peut rassurer l’opposition (La Presse)

Libre-échange Canada-UE: élus et citoyens dénoncent des négociations opaques (AFP)

Négociations Canada-Europe : Johnson se fait rassurant, l’opposition doute (Radio Canada)

Libre-échange Canada-Europe : Québec offre ses marchés à l’Europe (TVA)

Libre-échange: l’opposition est décue (La Presse Canadienne)