Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Mulcair's NDP Shouldn't Let Partisan Gain Trump Canada's Interests on The Canada-Europe CETA

As a Green partisan, I find myself salivating at the notion that the NDP will embrace the Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) heading into the next election in 2015. If the NDP wants to cede ground on opposition to CETA to the Green Party of Canada, in pursuit of what the NDP’s believes is a successful electoral strategy, so be it. Another way of putting it is if the NDP wants to abandon its values, its principles and its base because they think that more voters will cast their ballot for a CETA-embracing NDP, more power to them – at least from a partisan Green point of view.

Already, the NDP’s lack of position on CETA (Leader Tom Mulcair insists that he wants to wait to see the details of the document before taking a position) is starting to fracture the NDP caucus – and rightly so. The Globe and Mail reports today that although Mulcair is insisting that his Party is neutral on CETA, Newfoundland and Labrador NDP MP Ryan Cleary is expressing concern that CETA will be a bad deal for his province – and Cleary is right (see: “Mulcair keeps options open on EU deal”, the Globe and Mail, November 5 2013). The Globe and Mail reports that Cleary’s concerns have to do with provisions of CETA which will end provincial minimum fish processing requirements, and thus disadvantage a major Newfoundland and Labrador industry.

On CETA, NDP Must Put the Good of Canada Ahead of Partisan Games

But even I, the most rabid Green patisan, can’t fully applaud the notion that the NDP might come out in favour of CETA. There’s an awful lot of game-playing in politics, and the NDP is notorious for playing partisan political games. But in the case of CETA, the stakes are simply too high for Canada. What Canada needs now is a New Democratic Party which will show leadership on this issue, rather than abdicating it.

And it’s not just me that is concerned about the NDP’s potential values-free position on CETA. Council of Canadians President Maude Barlow worries that the NDP is placing electoral politics above the values and principles which the NDP claims to champion. As quoted in the Globe article (above), Barlow says: “We don’t need the NDP worrying about optics, for heaven’s sake. We need them standing up for the core values that they’ve always stood for.” With Mulcair at the helm of the new NDP, however, all indicators suggest that principles and values will play a marginal role in the NDP’s electoral success strategy.

Look, I understand that public opinion polls indicate that Canadian voters are generally in favour of CETA. All of the mainstream media, its commentators and pundits, have been telling Canadians that we need CETA, that CETA will create jobs, that economic growth and prosperity require more free trade. It’s difficult to subscribe to a different narrative on free trade in the face of the overwhelming neoliberal view promulgated through the mainstream media, and repeated around water coolers and donut counters throughout the nation.

"Free Trade" - What Freedom?

But CETA, a so-called “free trade” agreement, isn’t really about either – not freedom, nor trade; at least not in the way that most people would think of either. Rather, it’s about the freedom of money to move between jurisdictions without impediment, and without benefit to the vast majority of citizens. Its investor-state provisions are a threat to the democratic freedoms of citizens – and to the very sovereignty of our nation. “Freedom”, as defined by CETA, is simply the freedom from regulation and the democratic will of voters.

If CETA was simply an agreement to remove trade barriers like national tariffs on goods and services, there might be some merit to it. But the fact is, Canada and Europe have long had very low tariffs on one another’s goods and services – so clearly, this deal, years in the works, must be about something more than just removing little tariffs. We’ve been so conditioned to believe that “free trade” is good and essential for our economic health, that we’ve stopped questioning what, exactly, “free trade” really is.

CETA, more than just a trade deal, strikes at the fundamental heart of our democratic institutions – and will erode Canadian sovereignty. Through investor-state dispute resolution provisions, multinational corporations will have the ability to challenge Canadian laws – not in public courts, mind you – but through secretive arbitration processes, presided over by trade lawyers. If a Canadian government (federal/provincial/municipal) passes a law which might damage a European company’s ability to maximize its profits (not just to profit, mind you, but to profit as much as possible), a closed-door trade panel might conclude that compensation (read: Canadian tax dollars) is owed to the multinational. Nevermind that the government might have been trying to protect the democratic interests (read: health, social welfare and environment) of Canadian citizens. In the world of trade, the threat to profits will prevail, and Canadians will be on the hook to pay up.

What's at Stake

Sounds a little out there, doesn’t it? If this were so, why isn’t the mainstream media reporting this very shady side of the free trade deal? Well, besides running counter to the neoliberal narrative, there are actually those on the right-wing of the political spectrum who believe that these sorts of democratic restrictions will lead to more positive outcomes for Canadians – more “freedom”. And indeed, they very well may be correct – but only insofar as a very tiny minority of super-rich elites are concerned. But the super-rich seem to call a lot of the shots around here, so it really should come as no surprise that a counter narrative about “free trade” continues to be largely suppressed.

But the facts speak for themselves. For example, if a provincial government passes a law to ban fracking out of concern for environmental and public health and safety reasons, might a multinational company with an interest in gas development be able to take the Government of Canada (on behalf of the provincial government) to one of these star-chamber review panels, demanding compensation? Under CETA, the answer is clearly “yes” – but it’s not just CETA which should be of concern. In fact, that very scenario is playing itself out right now under the investor-state provisions of NAFTA, with a U.S. company, Lone Pine Investments, challenging the Province of Quebec’s laws on fracking. Lone Pines is seeking $250 million of Canadian taxpayer’s money because Quebec’s water protection law will reduce expected profits (see: “U.S. firm to launch NAFTA challenge to Quebec fracking ban”, the Globe & Mail, November 15, 2012).

Laws, passed in good faith by elected legislators, based on the best available evidence, to protect the public interest, can be challenged by multinational corporations under investor-state provisions, leaving taxpayers on the hook to foot the bill for loss of profit. Really, what good then are our laws? If the democratic will of electors, as carried out by legislators, leads to costs being paid to multinational firms because of a loss of corporate profit, what does that say about our democracy? To me it speaks loudly that the profit of multinational corporations is of more economic value than the health and welfare of citizens – and of the public officials citizens elect to look after their interest.

And that’s what Newfoundland and Labrador MP Cleary is concerned about when he raises the issue of provincial fish processing laws being abandoned in the name of this trade deal. Why shouldn’t Newfoundland and Labrador pass laws pertaining to a Canadian natural resource which they believe are in the public interest? These laws have assisted with creating local jobs and keeping local people employed. Why are they now to be put at risk? I can’t help but wonder that if Mr. Cleary’s NDP decides to support CETA, whether Mr. Cleary’s own job might be the first one lost in Newfoundland and Labrador in the name of “free trade” with the European Union.

Investor-State Dispute Resolution - Freedom from Regulation and Transparency - and the Democratic Will of Citizens

No, these investor-state provisions aren’t “free trade” in any sense recognizable to Canadians. What they offer, instead, is the freedom from regulation for multinational corporations in pursuit of profit. It used to be that the NDP understood that the rights of citizens should take precedence over the rights of corporations – certainly, many people in the past voted for the NDP because they shared this value. I can’t help but wonder if those voters will continue to support the NDP should Tom Mulcair decide that his party’s electoral interests are in repudiating the long-held belief that corporate rights shouldn’t trump the democratic rights of citizens.

CETA, more than just a trade deal, is also an assault on public sector workers and local economies. By opening up governmental (including municipal) procurement provisions, well-paying local public sector employees, many of whom belong to unions, will be put at risk. The hands of decision-makers will be tied by provisions which end “buy local” preferences, in the name of unfettered competition. Some say that competition is a good thing for taxpayers – but lower prices offered by outside firms can have an overall detrimental impact on local economies, as dollars which otherwise would have stayed in circulation in local areas are shipped out of the community, overseas. Low price points can never tell the whole story of the true nature of the economic impact of procurement decisions.

As a result, CETA will tip the balance of local procurement away from local businesses and enterprises and towards multinational corporations. Canada’s small and medium enterprises, particularly those which cater to public authority contracts, may quickly find themselves disadvantaged by European multinationals which can undercut contracts. Again, while this may save taxpayers a few dollars in the short term, in the long term we’ve seen this play out already in other sectors, to the detriment of Canadian businesses.

While I agree that municipal governments should be looking to save taxpayers money, CETA creates a very real threat to the provision of public services, especially sewer, water, municipal telecommunications services. The creeping privatization of municipal water supplies is something which Canadians should be concerned about – and something which will likely be exacerbated by CETA, given that many of the multinational private water distributing firms who are global players in the private water industry are headquatered in Europe. Around the world, what used to be a public service – the delivery of safe, clean drinking water through municipal pipes and infrastructure – has already been removed from the public realm, taken over by for-profit water distributors with the end result being less access to drinking water, especially to the poor. Some believe safe, accessible drinking water should be considered a human right. Many of those who believe this have voted for the NDP in the past. I can’t help but wonder if they will continue to do so should the NDP come out in favour of CETA.

CETA and the NDP's Electoral Game Plan

But right now, I’ve got to give the NDP some credit. Tom Mulcair has insisted since day one that he wants to wait for the details of CETA to become public before giving his party’s nod of approval (unlike Justin Trudeau's Libearls, who have roundly embraced CETA). And indeed, it makes some sense not to rush to judgment on CETA based on what little is known about it. But we do know that these investor-state provisions are going to be included in this trade deal – just as they are included with the Canada-China FIPPA. We also know that, unlike with the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, the Conservative Party of Canada has no intention on going to the electorate for its approval on the deal. Where Brian Mulroney called an election on the Canada-U.S. deal, Stephen Harper’s goal is to have CETA wrapped up nicely with a bow by the time the 2015 federal election rolls around.

Harper’s plans for CETA might shed some light on how the NDP could play its game, though. On the one hand, the NDP’s support of CETA risks offending its own base, which largely includes the labour movement and those concerned about social justice and wealth distribution. On the other hand, pundits would have Mulcair believe that opposition to CETA won’t sit well with “mainstream” Canadians – and in this case, the polls clearly suggest that a majority of Canadians support CETA. However, if CETA itself isn’t going to be an election issue, Mulcair and the NDP might be afforded a degree of cover, and take a middle of the road position – support the removal of tariffs and trade barriers, but oppose provisions which impact Canada’s democratic sovereignty.

Of course, such a position is surely to be harpooned by the Conservatives and Liberals, who will do all that they can to muddy the waters and portray the NDP as anti-trade – even though they’re not. But in politics, it’s perception which often counts (see Stephen Harper’s comments to Mike Duffy re: housing expenses). In this political reality, it’s not at all clear that a nuanced position on CETA will cut it for Mulcair. Yet, to remain true to the NDP’s values and principles, a nuanced position, at the very least, is what’s required.
Better yet, based on the NDP’s values, the NDP should take a principled stand against CETA, and damn the consequences, because it’s the right thing to do. And also because Tom Mulcair’s NDP risks alienating parts of its own base on this issue. In the past, that wasn’t such a big deal – where else would left-wingers like public-sector union supporters or democratic rights advocates park their ballots? In 2015, though, there will be another party snapping at the NDP’s heels – a political party which isn’t afraid to make policy decisions based on values, rather than on the perception of electoral success. Of course, I’m talking about the Green Party.

The Green Party and Fair Trade

The Green Party wasted no time getting out in front of CETA. On the day that CETA was announced in Brussells, the Green Party posted this media release: “Green Party Opposes Anti-Democratic Elements of Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement” (October 18, 2013). In the release, the Party made it very clear that investor-state dispute resolution settlement provisions of CETA will prove detrimental to Canada. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May left no doubt about her opinion on those elements of CETA being made public: "While critical details of this Agreement are still being kept from the public, I am profoundly concerned with some of the core measures that have already been announced.”

I think it’s fair to say that a majority of Green Party members agree with May’s sentiment, even though the membership has not adopted a specific policy related to CETA. That being said, grassroots members of the Green Party of Canada have spoken up very clearly on the notion of fair and equitable trade, rather than the so-called “free trade” which has brought us Chapter 11 of NAFTA and investor-state provisions in CETA and the Canada-China FIPPA. This doesn’t mean that the Green Party opposes trade – on the contrary, the Green Party embraces trade under optimal circumstances. If you’re interested in the Green Party’s position on trade, it may be worthwhile to visit Section 5.17, Trade and Sovereignty, of Vision Green. Vision Green is a unique document published by the Green Party between elections – unique because it encapsulates member-approved policies in a narrative and easily-understood manner. And unique because the Green Party of Canada is the only federal political party to make public its comprehensive policy document at all times. It’s available for the public to read – and of course for the partisans of other parties to critique. What shocks me most of all, however, is that partisans from other political parties are more likely to claim that the Green Party is being “secretive” by keeping its policies from Canadians far more often than they take issue with a particular policy message found in Vision Green. But I digress.

The Interests of Canada Trump Short-term Partisan Gain

Will Tom Mulcair’s NDP eventually come out in favour of the Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement? We’ll have to wait and see, but there is a lot to suggest that the NDP probably thinks that it’s electoral success requires supporting CETA. And it may be right on that equation. But support of CETA would be fundamentally against the values and principles of a good many of the decent, hard-working people who built the NDP into the Party that is today. Although my own political party might stand to benefit from our stance on CETA by attracting anti-CETA New Democrats should Mulcair decide to support the trade deal, I sincerely hope it doesn’t come to that. Canada needs the NDP on board in opposing CETA. That, to me, is much more important that short-term partisan political gain for the Green Party. This is one issue that I don’t want my party to have exclusive ownership of.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

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