Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, a former NDP national director and a regular panelist on CBC's Power & Politics.
The two huge trade agreements facing Canadians have left many of us feeling something between overwhelmed and baffled. Opinion is seriously split between the corporate and progressive worlds. What in the world are thoughtful Canadians to believe? What should Canada do?
Many commentators, for example, loved CETA even before it was finalized and public. This is the huge "Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement" between Canada and the European Union. Same with the massive TPP – the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Yet as Prof. Blayne Haggart of Brock University argued in this newspaper recently, these are not just free-trade agreements. They're much more. "Simply put," he wrote, "calling the TPP a free-trade agreement overplays its benefits, plays down its problematic aspects and fundamentally misunderstands what the deal is actually about."
Is CETA a good deal for Canada? Well, to be perfectly honest, I haven't read most of the 1,634-page text, and I doubt many others have, either. Or that we'd understand much of it if we tried. Yet its fans were giving it standing ovations long before the text was even made public.
In any such deal, there are winners and losers. Does Canada benefit more than it loses in CETA and TPP? And if we say Canada mostly benefits, who exactly in Canada, or which Canada, do we mean? Not all Canadians have the same interests, after all. What we have here, dare I use the term, may very well be a class conflict.
A Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report, "Making Sense of the CETA", addresses this central question. It demonstrates how the deal is unbalanced, favouring large multinational corporations at the expense of consumers, the environment, and the greater public interest." Hmmm. Might this explain why business is so gung-ho for the agreement?
"This international study," it continues, "involving experts from Canada and the EU … analyzes some of the CETA's most controversial chapters … They include assessments of the agreement's impacts on intellectual property rights for pharmaceutical products; investment protection, investor-state dispute settlement and financial services regulation; infrastructure procurement and buy-local food policies; public services, and many other areas."
Prof. Haggart agrees: "Agreements such as the TPP are about implementing policies …. that are often designed to lead to higher consumer costs and concentrated corporate power."
The Council of Canadians have jumped in as well. The Council has three similar concerns about the unwieldy 6,000-page TPP. First, their research indicates that it would significantly increase drug costs. Second, it would make it harder to introduce strong policies to combat global warming. And third, it would make it easier for the 12 TPP nations to sue each other's governments when public policies get in the way of corporate profits.
In other words, the Council worries that like so many so-called free-trade deals of recent years, the TPP is yet another corporate bill of rights. What else might we expect from a process where corporations, their associations and lobbyists have direct influence on the negotiators, while trade unions, NGOs and civil society have virtually none?
Typically, as Glenn Greenwald's website The Intercept documented in May, U.S. negotiators have been advised by influential outsiders. These government-appointed trade advisory committees "with the most access to what's going on in the negotiations, are 16 "Industry Trade Advisory Committees, whose members include AT&T, General Electric, Apple, Dow Chemical, Nike, Wal-Mart and the American Petroleum Institute."
An unusual addition to the anti-TPP forces is James Balsillie, he of Blackberry fame aand fortune. Mr. Balsillie has concluded that the deal contains "troubling" rules on intellectual property that threaten to make Canada a "permanent underclass" in the economy of selling ideas. It could, he believes, cost Canada hundreds of billions of dollars. Signing it, he fears, could prove to be "the worst public policy decision" in the country's history.
As he's proved before, Mr. Balsillie is not always right, but he's sure not always wrong. Several other well-known experts in this area agree with Mr. Balsillie, though not all.
Yet when Tom Mulcair took on the TPP in the last weeks of the election campaign, he was widely ridiculed as offering knee-jerk opposition and being a mouthpiece for trade unions and other unworthy special interests. Given a treaty that seems to offer so much to the entire corporate world, not least to giant drug companies, this was a pretty cheeky charge. But it made sure the issue got no traction in the campaign.
It's true that there's a small split among progressives. Writing in Open Canada last week, Josh Scheinert, an international investment and human rights lawyer, wrote: "Within the text's 6,000 pages, chapters on investment, labour, the environment, and development give reason for cautious optimism that the TPP is not only a boon for big business." But this remains very much a minority stance.
The government is going to hold public hearings. But will they be mere window dressing for a decision to accept the deal that's in fact already been made? That's what U.S. President Barack Obama clearly implied right after meeting with Prime Minister Trudeau. Let's hope the public isn't being suckered here by our sunny new government.