Harper folds again, this time on 'Buy American'

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In 2007, the Harper government gleefully boasted about how quickly it managed to negotiate the U.S.-Canada Softwood Lumber Agreement. What it failed to mention was the deal's disastrous impact on Canada's forestry sector, one that has cost taxpayers $1 billion and counting, and thousands of Canadian jobs.

Last week Harper and his team were at it again. This time it was the agreement with the U.S. on how to handle the "Buy American" provisions in their stimulus legislation. While the Conservatives have been touting their apparent success in having Canadian companies exempted from such regulations, the reality is that there are grave concerns about what the deal means for job losses in Canada.

Canadian negotiators, along with their staff in Ottawa and Washington, worked around the clock on what is seen by many as the most significant indirect change to the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) since Canada signed the treaty. The results of these negotiations leave Canada even more vulnerable. It is simply unacceptable for the Harper government to proceed without first bringing the deal to the House of Commons for debate and a vote.

After numerous delays, the final draft of the agreement was signed just a few days before the close of bidding for U.S. stimulus funding. That left Canadian companies with next to no time to bid for projects worth up to $5 billion, with no guarantee that they would even win any of that business. Some 98 per cent of the stimulus money had already been committed leaving Canadian companies with largely symbolic potential to bid on a few remaining contracts, and no real mechanism to enforce Canadian access.

In return, Canadian provinces and municipalities are now obliged to provide U.S. companies access to their infrastructure projects for a full 20 months -- until September 2011. Those projects are valued at a staggering $25 billion. Thankfully, in both Manitoba and Nova Scotia, the provincial NDP government in power took steps to protect certain sectors of their economies, as did some other provinces.

Provinces and municipalities rely on these infrastructure projects to create jobs locally and stimulate economic development. Having to turn more and more of them over to American companies risks our ability to pursue effective economic policies.

There is not enough evidence to assess the deal's impact. There are few numbers, no projections on potential job losses, and no evaluation of just what the economic impact will be on Canadian businesses and families.

To give just one example, the agreement does nothing to take into account Quebec's desire to ensure workplaces and businesses can operate in French; the impact of such drastic indirect changes to NAFTA will be felt in Quebec or in other provinces.

These negotiations were supposed to protect Canadian suppliers from the U.S. Buy American Act, and other similar provisions in U.S. legislation. But the final deal provides no such protection, only a weak process for registering Canada's concern over future Buy American initiatives.

And with no Buy Canada Act of our own (such as the one New Democrats have introduced in the House of Commons), our country has been left without the leverage that Americans- and every other industrial economy -- have developed in order to ensure jobs here at home.

Of course, none of these flaws can be adequately debated or resolved because the Harper government has prorogued Parliament. Prime Minister Harper has locked the doors of accountability and transparency, sidestepping the Parliamentary scrutiny he advocated not so long ago.

In 2004, Harper, along with the other opposition leaders, wrote a letter to then-Prime Minister Paul Martin calling on him to be more transparent and open. "This reflects our belief and determination that issues that should be voted on, such as international treaties ... should be submitted to Parliament," Harper said at the time.

Then in the 2006 Speech from the Throne, the Harper government promised that "significant international treaties will be submitted to votes in Parliament." The Conservatives have yet to deliver fully on that promise. This is their chance.

This indirect change to NAFTA deserves such treatment. While it may not technically be a new treaty, it is a significant addition to one and needs to be debated by Canada's elected representatives.

If Parliament were sitting, we could be questioning the government in the House, holding committee hearings and calling expert witnesses to provide answers to many of the questions that municipalities, companies and the public are asking.

But Parliament isn't sitting because Mr. Harper decided he had more pressing matters to attend to, such as completing negotiations, in secret, on a trade deal that could have a profound, damaging and long-term impact on the Canadian economy.

Only time will tell just how much this latest Conservative debacle will cost us.

Peter Julian, MP (Burnaby-New Westminster)
NDP International Trade Critic


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