Tom Mulcair plays a terrible hand on trade

Thomas Mulcair has boxed himself in by saying he supports NAFTA. Many NDP activists who had been looking forward to his entry into the leadership race are going to be disappointed. Taking a pro-NAFTA policy stance will force many NDP members to rethink voting for the capable, charismatic Quebec M.P. to become the next party leader.

In an interview with iPolitics, Mulcair responded to concerns about NAFTA by noting that the trilateral agreement covered the environment, that he, Mulcair, had drafted some of those articles, and that when it came to NAFTA, people had to understand, you could not throw the baby out with the bath water: NAFTA deserved support.

As the deputy party leader, a Quebec stalwart, and a powerful parliamentary performer, Mulcair looked better placed than any other candidate to win the support from delegates across Canada. With 60 per cent of the caucus from Quebec, New Democrats are near unanimous in their desire to secure the new party base in Quebec.

Having a Quebec MP as leader is a kind of a dream scenario. With Mulcair, the only one of 59 Quebec members of parliament elected on May 2 with parliamentary experience as a NDP member from Quebec prior to election day, he was not just the best choice, he appeared to be the only possible choice from Quebec.

Unfortunately, his policy pronouncement supporting NAFTA goes against what many party members know about the impact of NAFTA on Canadian workers, and on the environment.

People not paying attention might fall for his rhetorical approach: if you like the environment, you do not question NAFTA. People paying attention, that would be many active party members, remember all too well the jobs lost, the promises broken, the inequality created, and the loss of standing in the world that followed the approval of the first Canada-U.S. trade agreement, and its successor, NAFTA.

Few agree with Mulcair that NAFTA is strong enough to protect the environment through its sidebar environmental agreement. For over 20 years the Canadian Environmental Law Association has been showing how trade agreements starting with the 1988 Canada-U.S. deal, and then NAFTA expand environmental destruction. For instance, NAFTA, like the 1988 Canada-U.S. (CUFTA) deal, banned the use of export taxes, the single best way of slowing out-of-control natural resource exploitation like that occurring in the tar sands. Exporting raw materials, not protecting the environment is what NAFTA is about. The NAFTA sidebar has not stopped from receiving a D grade for increases in green house gas emissions from the Conference Board of Canada.

The business inspired continental trade deals done by Mulroney (CUFTA and NAFTA) and approved by Chrétien (NAFTA), limited severely the policy autonomy of the Canadian government to decide how to regulate the environment or anything else. Indeed that was their purpose. Business would decide what got produced, where, how, and by whom, and government's job was to enforce the new business-friendly rules. 

These rules included forcing governments to compensate any investor who stood to lose a commercial advantage should a government decide to create a publicly owned company such as a crown corporation.

To create the CBC today, the Canadian government would have to make serious payments to every television network already in existence before spending a dime on putting the new CBC on the air.

CUFTA and NAFTA created huge new intellectual property rights for drug companies. Just dumping those provisions of the deal would help pay for a public drug care plan with wide coverage. Except of course that under NAFTA public auto insurance, government drug plans, public child care facilities, long-term care residences, seniors homes, all would face NAFTA challenges from private producers of similar products and services.

An NDP leader can have a big personality, and not just get away with it, become loved for it. But issuing policy pronouncements at the outset of a leadership race and hoping people are going to buy into whatever is being offered in their eagerness to support the candidate is not going to work for Tom Mulcair.

Attractive as he may be for those NDP members who want to see someone with the ability to project onto the national stage in both linguistic communities with great charm, and aplomb, Mulcair, in a short space of time, has created serious doubts about his suitability as a leader.

Just about his first comment on leadership was to the effect that if the date for the leadership convention was not pushed back from January to March, he would not run as a candidate. In other words, he prefaced his leadership bid by issuing an ultimatum. Tom was on solid ground on the issue. New Democrats wants to see as many new Quebec members as possible, and March obviously worked better than January for building party strength. But in democratic politics, as in life, not only doing the right thing, for the right reasons matters. You also have to do things the right way.

In order to sort out who nailing down the truth, and who is spinning, we need some benchmarks. The policy statements of the contestants help us up make up our minds. 

Tom Mulcair created a serious problem for his candidacy, on the very day he launched his bid for the leadership, by supporting a discredited NAFTA regime, rejected by many New Democrats for good reasons, including past NDP trade critics from Stephen Langdon to Peter Julian.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

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