Free Trade, U.S. Style

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support today for as little as $1 per month!

Should New Zealand embrace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)? If you listen to Brian Mulroney - the most unpopular prime minister in Canadian history - you would jump at the chance. But if you examine Canada's sobering experience, you might have second thoughts.

The main purpose of signing the agreement, according to Mulroney, was to get a measure of protection from American trade remedy law. In return, Canada agreed to give up, among other things, control of its energy resources.

But then Mulroney, forced by popular opposition to free trade, called an election. He was committed to it and the United States, shrewd and ruthless negotiators, knew it. They refused to give up their trade remedy laws. Canada signed anyway.

Just recently, the U.S., for the third time, challenged Canada's lumber exports, slapping an 80 per cent duty on softwood timber.

The U.S. has lost two identical challenges, but it doesn't stop them. This is harassment, and it is not the only case.

Canada has suffered a U.S. cap on its wheat exports, repeated attacks on its dairy products, a ban on its potatoes and threats of heavy retaliation for its cultural policies.

Before free trade, we had a made-in-Canada energy policy that included the authority to set a domestic price for natural gas while allowing the market to determine the export price. Free trade eliminated that authority and the competitive advantage it provided the country's manufacturers.

Now the enormous demand for gas in the U.S. determines the Canadian price - which has skyrocketed in the past year.

Promoters point to the vast increase in trade with the U.S. in the 1990s and declare that free trade was the reason. But there is scant evidence.

A report last month by Industry Canada, a federal government agency, revealed that only 9 per cent of the increased trade between Canada and the U.S. resulted from the original free trade deal and NAFTA. The remaining 91 per cent came from the booming U.S. economy and the weak Canadian dollar.

While exports to the U.S. have nearly doubled during the 1990s, so have imports. The promise of more and better jobs made by free trade supporters has not happened.

A recent study, NAFTA at Seven, reveals that between 1989 and 1997, 870,700 export jobs were created, but during the same period 1,147,100 jobs were destroyed by imports - a net destruction of 276,000 jobs. Self-employment and part-time employment skyrocketed during this period, accounting for 43 per cent and 37 per cent of new job creation respectively.

Average income a head fell for seven years and recovered to 1989 levels only in 1999, while incomes in the U.S. increased 14 per cent.

The free trade agreements were also supposed to vault Canada ahead in the so-called new economy. But in terms of performance, it has been the old economy that has done most of the heavy work.

Canada's overall trade surplus in goods in 1999 was $34-billion, but the car-making industry accounted for $20.24-billion. Productivity in that sector increased 80 per cent between 1991 and 1998, compared with 9 per cent overall. Ironically, the car-making industry was created by a managed trade agreement, not free trade. The Auto Pact, signed in the 1970s, guaranteed that for every Big Three car sold in Canada, one was manufactured here.

A World Trade Organization ruling declared the Auto Pact in violation of WTO rules and it has been repealed.

NAFTA was also supposed to attract a flood of new, productive investment and economic growth. In both these measures, the 1990s have been a huge disappointment.

Economic growth and unemployment were the worst since the 1930s. The productivity gap with the U.S. has widened. As for investment, in 1997 - a record year until then - Canada attracted $CDN21.2-billion in foreign investment. But fully 97.5 per cent of that went for acquisitions of Canadian assets.

But there is another area of public policy that New Zealanders should be extremely concerned about. That is Chapter 11 of NAFTA, the investment chapter, and it highlights a fact about these deals largely hidden from the public: they are not mainly about trade at all, but about freeing American capital from the constraints of democratic governance.

Chapter 11 allows foreign corporations to sue governments directly for measures that expropriate their property. But the definition of expropriation is extremely broad. Under NAFTA, the concept of regulatory taking prevails, meaning that any new government regulation that reduces a company's profits or its commercial value can be deemed expropriation.

There have been at least fifteen cases under Chapter 11, five against Canada. The first was Ethyl Corporation's $US300-million suit against Canada for its ban on MMT, Ethyl's petrol additive, which Canada suspected of being a neurotoxin. Ethyl sued under NAFTA, and during the tribunal's hearings, Canada threw in the towel. It paid Ethyl $US13-million, publicly apologized for impugning MMT and repealed the ban.

In part because of these cases, support for free trade is dropping here, though a majority still support it. A recent poll revealed who Canadians think have benefited from free trade: 41 per cent said business, 32 per cent said governments, 11 per cent said consumers and 2 per cent said workers.

There is only one certainty if New Zealand signs NAFTA: the U.S. will get everything it wants because it refuses to sign deals if it doesn't.

Canada's economy is one-tenth the size of its southern neighbour: New Zealand's one-hundredth. The U.S. doesn't need New Zealand. It will only allow the country into NAFTA on its own punishing terms.

New Zealand will thus be open to harassment from American trade-remedy laws, and U.S. corporations will have the powerful Chapter 11 tool to challenge any law or regulation intended to strengthen the New Zealand economy or environment. Any new American investment will likely be in the form of acquisitions. The domestic economy will suffer, as Canada's did, as New Zealand tries to compete with the American colossus.

An old adage applies: be careful what you wish for.

This piece originally ran July 13 in The New Zealand Herald. Posted on with permission.

"everyone's a critic" is a rabble news feature providing commentary by various writers on, well, anything.

Further Reading

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.