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Yes we can hope for change... to NAFTA

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I'm recently back to Canada after a couple of months in Asia. One thing that's striking here at home, compared to elsewhere in the world, is how reluctant our governments and corporate media are to think differently in the face of the global economic collapse.

The non-stop drumbeat from the Harper government and their media echoes about the evils of "Buy America" is but one example. The fact that Buy America provisions have been part of U.S. legislation for decades and that local procurement provisions for public expenditures need not in fact violate NAFTA or the WTO are ignored in the face of panic over the horrors of protectionism. Heaven forbid we might ourselves consider the option of insisting that Canadian jobs be created when Canadian tax dollars are invested.

While in Hong Kong in December, I noted the steps by the Chinese government to use good old import substitution to keep their manufacturing industries alive in the face of a sharp drops in exports. They are going to invest in subsidies to help farmers and other rural Chinese purchase an estimated 480 million appliances that are "Made in China". Can you imagine the howls of outrage from the Canadian media if any of our governments ever took a step like that in support of Canadian manufacturing?

The truth is that the ideology of free trade, just like deregulation and privatisation, is part of the right wing package that got us into this mess. I wonder when our governments will have the courage to realise and revisit any of that.

A good first opportunity will be when U.S. President Barrack Obama visits Canada next week. Last spring, during the contest for the Democratic Party nomination, both Obama and Hilary Clinton promised to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Of course, NAFTA has been disasterous for manufacturing in both Canada and the U.S. Beyond that, it has severely restricted the ability of elected governments to act in the interests of their citizens, has left governments open to being sued under Chapter 11 of the agreement and through the proportionality clause has severely constrained our ability to control energy exports. In Mexico, NAFTA has decimated the agricultural economy, encouraged massive migration to the U.S. and put pressure on for the privatisation of state oil company Pemex.

Especially in light of the current economic crisis, we need to empower elected governments to act creatively in the interests of citizens rather than handcuffing them in the interests of corporations as trade agreements like NAFTA do.

It's long past time that NAFTA was at least renegotiated and its spawn, the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), scrapped. That's why a large group of Canadian civil society organisations last week released an open letter to Obama and Canadian P.M. Stephen Harper calling for the immediate renegotiation of NAFTA and the ending of the corporate driven SPP process.

We know Harper will ignore that request, but there's still a chance Barrack Obama will honour his election campaign promise by opening up NAFTA. Canadian progressives need to work closely with U.S. and Mexican friends to try to make that happen.

But isn't it kind of ridiculous that Canadians have to look to a U.S. President to potentially save us from NAFTA and ourselves?

Yes we can hope for change of NAFTA. But we'll need to work to make it a reality.

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