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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

The NDP fails its free-trade litmus test Add to ...

At least the New Democrats are consistent, even if it’s consistently wrong.

As soon as the first reports about a Canada-European Union free-trade and investment deal were published – and before details were fully known – the NDP leaped to condemn the agreement.

That kept the party’s perfect record intact: The NDP has never supported a free-trade deal. Rhetorically, the New Democrats always says they favour “freer” trade, whatever that means, but they always find some reason to oppose free trade.

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There were some hints in recent months that they might be thinking about modernizing their knee-jerk opposition to free trade. After all, the EU agreement could hardly be opposed on the basis of some of the NDP’s usual objections: lack of proper labour and environmental standards in the trade-partner country or countries.

The European Union has high labour standards and a record for fighting greenhouse gas emissions that the NDP often cites as a model for Canada. In addition, EU countries are democracies with industrial economies, strong respect for human rights and high standards of living by world standards. Socialist or social democratic parties have formed governments in some major European countries, including Sweden, Finland, Germany, Britain, France and Spain. So the NDP couldn’t complain about these aspects of partnering with the EU.

Deprived of the traditional arguments, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair settled for Canadian dairy producers being sold out. Why? Because the Europeans will get to increase their quota of cheese exports to Canada.

Let’s get serious, please. The dairy farmers will still be protected by stratospheric tariffs. Even after the expanded European quota for cheese, domestic producers will have the lion’s share of the protected Canadian market all for themselves. They will still be charging consumers excessively high prices for milk and its byproducts.

But because the NDP fundamentally doesn’t like free trade, and because it unexpectedly won a bunch of seats in rural Quebec in the most recent election, the party will die on the free-trade hill to fight for continued and unaltered protection for dairy farmers. No thought will apparently be given to the food-processing industry (some of which is unionized), which dislikes supply management because it drives up important input costs for its products.

Nor will the NDP think of consumers, especially low-income ones, who spend more of their income on food and are hit with unnecessarily higher prices for basic commodities, including dairy products. Nor will the NDP applaud greater market access for Canadian beef and pork to the EU market, because it has no seats in rural Western Canada.

This automatic opposition to free trade goes way back in the NDP and runs very deep. It bespeaks a philosophical distrust of free-market economics and globalized trade, and a desire to see trade “managed” by governments. It also reflects a strong dislike of anything fettering government’s ability to interfere in markets.

The notion that freeing up purchasing might help Canadian companies win contracts in Europe – as Bombardier did with the Paris Métro – doesn’t strike New Democrats as a fair trade-off for losing Canadian government ability to steer contracts wherever desired. It is, in short, a very dirigiste model of running an economy, of the kind that even most social democratic parties in Europe have abandoned.

This Canada-EU agreement, which Stephen Harper’s Conservatives methodically pursued and deserve credit for achieving, was a litmus test for whether the NDP had really searched within itself and emerged with a more global vision for the Canadian economy. The NDP flunked the test.

The world has changed; the global economy has changed; the rules of world trade have changed. But the NDP has not. This could have been – should have been – a major intellectual turning point for the party. Instead, it remains wedded to the past, justifying its embrace by the defence of dairy farmers who are protected as no other industry in Canada, and will remain so even after this agreement enters into force.

Clarification: The NDP will wait until the full text of CETA (the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement) is released "to determine if the deal is, on balance, a good deal for Canada." This information was not included in earlier online editions or the original print column published Saturday due to production deadlines.

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