Last week Premier Christy Clark took the unprecedented step of promising there would be public consultation regarding the Province’s position on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union.
If this really happens it would be an important opportunity. The current government has never allowed the public to have a say on these issues. The TILMA agreement with Alberta was signed in secret. The things BC gave away as part of the US procurement deal were equally hidden. BC gave up more than any other province in that deal.
The worry is just how the Premier defines consultation. If the current sales job on the HST is any indication, consultation won’t mean much.
Canada has now completed the sixth round of negotiations on CETA and the Europeans are pressing hard for trade rights on issues that fall under provincial jurisdiction. For that reason provinces are playing a role in the discussions.
The Federal Government has asked provinces for a list of items they want to see left out of the deal.
During the Estimates debate last week NDP leader Adrian Dix and House Leader John Horgan pressed the Premier on issues such as the possible inclusion of drinking water in the agreement, a subject that has been exempted from previous trade deals. Dix also asked the Premier whether she supported the request from the Union of BC Municipalities and the B.C. School Trustees Association that they be left out of the deal. The Premier declined to answer those questions.
Dix asked the Premier if she would make public what BC was offering up in the discussions. The Premier once again refused saying “negotiations aren’t typically conducted in public.” She did commit however that:
There will be, I’m told, consultation on this agreement…There will be many avenues for the public’s input.
Earlier during Estimates debates in May another trade related issue surfaced. MLAs Guy Gentner and Vicki Huntington asked what the government was thinking of when they hired a company to study possible development of Foreign Trade Zones in British Columbia.
In the United States there are many Foreign Trade Zones that frequently see materials being shipped in for processing and then re-exported without any duties or tariffs being applied. In Canada the Federal government says existing programs already offer the benefits of Foreign Trade Zones without the need for specific geographic sites being designated.
Jobs, Tourism and Innovation Minister Pat Bell denied that the Province had any plans at all and said they were only looking for information when they hired the InterVISTAS Consulting Group on a $77,000 contract to look at how FTZ programs could be improved.
Gentner and Huntington expressed concerns about possible problems with labour rights in such zones and the possibility that such a site might be located on agricultural land in Delta. At least one economist has suggested that FTZ’s are simply one more way to give money to corporations.
Both of these issues could be tremendously important to the people of British Columbia. The Europeans want water as part of the trade deal because of their enormous private water corporations. Polling has shown that Canadians everywhere do not want private corporations managing their water systems. The Europeans also want complete access to local government procurement. In a legal opinion prepared for the Centre for Civic Governance trade lawyer Stephen Shrybman says:
under CETA, municipalities would no longer be able to restrict tendering to Canadian companies, or stipulate that foreign companies bidding on public contracts accord some preference for local or Canadian goods, services, or workers. As a result, municipalities would lose one of the few, and perhaps the most important tool they now have for stimulating innovation, fostering community economic development, creating local employment and achieving other public policy goals, from food security to social equity.
The Premier has promised the public will be consulted on these critical issues. She needs to go further and make those consultation meaningful. That means consulting before the decisions are made and actually listening to what people say.