Harper's new Global Markets Action Plan: Corporate cronyism on an international scale

It's always an action plan with these guys. Now a new one on expanding global markets for Canadian exporters and small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). It's called the Global Markets Action Plan, it was released this morning by John Baird and Ed Fast in Ottawa, and from one perspective it's a minor edit to the 2007 Global Commerce Strategy (which I can't find anymore).

But as John Ibbitson wrote in the Globe and Mail this morning, in a more important way the Global Markets Action Plan is a complete re-write of the entire foreign service to transform all Canadian diplomacy into a sales pitch for corporate Canada. Probably because it was developed by corporate Canada.

Here are some of the more interesting parts, at least from my perspective:

- Trade promotion efforts in the new strategy could be positive (versus just signing more free trade deals and crossing fingers). The 2013 CCPA Alternative Budget recommended the reversal of cuts to the Trade Commissioner Service, "which assists Canadian businesses to sell their goods and services in international markets." The AFB would also "restore funding to consular offices and services in the U.S., which advise and assist Canadian exporters in our largest foreign market."

- But the Conservative Global Markets Action Plan goes too far in that direction, sucking the air out of other diplomatic tasks and priorities: "Under the plan, all diplomatic assets of the Government of Canada will be marshalled on behalf of the private sector in order to achieve the stated objectives within key foreign markets," says the policy. The private sector is not typically a champion of human rights, public access to water and other public services, rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to address climate change, etc. (nor should we expect it to be our champion). Neither is the Harper government, which is probably why they are comfortable putting CEOs in charge of external relations.

- The Conservatives will also "continue the creation and development of various trade-promotion bodies, including bilateral joint economic commissions, joint CEO forums, business councils and other trade and investment-enhancing tools (e.g. Canada-ASEAN Business Council)." Again, this helps to privatize bilateral diplomacy and international relations generally.

- The makeup of the advisory panel that consulted with Trade Minister Fast skews the new Action Plan in favour energy- and water-intensive agricultural export sectors, multinational business represented by the CCCE, and the energy sector. There was no worker representation on the advisory committee. And the involvement of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business is arguably more of a cover for Harper than a sign that Canada's trade policy is designed to help small- and medium-sized companies the most. The Action Plan says SMEs are the "backbone" of the Canadian economy and yet only 41,000 of 1.09 million companies are engaged in external trade. That is a very domestically oriented backbone.

- This corporate advisory committee will become, under the Action Plan, a permanent "advisory council" that "will include two standing subcommittees, one on emerging markets and the other on established markets. Comprising business and industry leaders, experts in international business and key representatives from the SME community, the subcommittees will bring together the voices of all businesses, big and small. They will provide strategic insight, advice and real-world perspectives on how to keep the market access plans relevant to Canadian business needs." Will the meetings be private, like Minister Flaherty's corporate summer retreats in Wakefield? The advisory council meetings were (see below).

- The government-business merger will work both ways. The Harper government will place "embedded Government of Canada personnel within key industry associations in order to gain better insight into sectoral needs and ensure these are reflected in services provided." Why spend money to hire a lobbyist in Ottawa when you can have the government spending the public's money to attending your meetings?

- The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) will be incorporated into Harper trade agenda but there is no mention at all of the provinces. The words "province" and "provincial" don't show up once in the Action Plan. Is this a prize for the FCM's good behaviour in ongoing Canada-EU negotiations on CETA? The Action Plan creates "a strengthened and renewed structure with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to ensure that communities of all sizes across Canada benefit from, contribute to and work alongside the Government of Canada toward shared objectives."

- Trade and investment agreements are handled nearer the bottom of the document, and if bullet points indicate priorities, then the Action Plan continues the Commerce Strategy's focus on bilateral agreements (signing new ones and "modernizing" older ones) and foreign investment protection agreements (FIPAs). The fifth priority is to "reinforce the multilateral system," but it is not the WTO per se that they want to reinforce but "next-generation agreements (within and outside the WTO), including the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA); and modernize and expand product coverage under the Information Technology Agreement." Secret negotiations in Geneva on the TISA, which includes only a handful of self-styled "really good friends of services" countries, have created enmity among non-involved WTO countries, and the ITA talks are all but dead. Multilateralism was never Harper's style anyway. The Action Plan today just makes it more explicit.

The Council of Canadians is still waiting for the results of an access to information request we made last year for all reports, correspondence and minutes produced in government consultations with the corporate advisory panel. The stuff that produced this new Action Plan. We'll make whatever we get public once we see it.

To end on a positive note, unlike the many legislative changes Harper has made to Canada's environmental policy and public safety regulations in consecutive omnibus budget bills, the general direction of the foreign service should be easy enough to change under a new government. It's also an area where opposition parties should be able to describe a better vision for Canada's engagement with the world that doesn't look like just more corporate cronyism from a corrupt government.