National News: We should argue about NAFTA

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by Thomas Walkom

The impasse in the North American Free Trade Agreement talks is commonly viewed as a setback for
Canada. It is not.

The fact that no agreement may be reached until after the U.S. Congressional midterm elections in November gives Canadians – and Canadian political parties – a chance to hold the debate we have never had:

Do we want to continue within the broad parameters of deal that firmly binds the economies of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico? Or do we want something fundamentally different?

Up to now, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has successfully presented the NAFTA renegotiation as a non-partisan national emergency, one that requires all hands on deck.

To that end, it has co-opted potential critics, including former Conservative cabinet ministers Rona Ambrose and James Moore, as well as prominent New Democrat Brian Topp, onto a NAFTA advisory council.

Trudeau has also enlisted former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney as a high-profile supporter of the cause. The NAFTA talks represent arguably the governmentís most important file. But except for occasional sniping in the Commons from NDP international trade critic Tracey Ramsey, the opposition parties have given the Liberals a pass.

In the media, the talks tend to be presented as a long-running sporting event – or perhaps morality play – that pits plucky Team Canada against the evil forces of U.S. President Donald Trump.

There has been little questioning of Trudeau’s goal, which is to “modernize” the agreement while leaving its fundamentals unchanged. But the hiatus caused by the U.S. mid-terms gives Canadians a chance to debate the content of NAFTA.

Do we want to continue on with a deal that draws manufacturing jobs to low-wage Mexico? Or is there some virtue in Trump’s idea of demanding that manufacturers, in order to qualify for NAFTA status, must pay higher wages?

Do we want to keep the so-called Chapter 11 provision that allows foreign investors to overturn domestic laws and regulations? Or do we want to scrap it altogether? Do we want to rely on a deal that has proven itself unable to resist unwarranted U.S. trade sanctions against aluminum, steel and softwood lumber?

Is there any point in encouraging continental economic integration through NAFTA if, as in the case of steel, that integration leaves Canada more vulnerable to U.S. punitive

actions?

There is bound to be a debate in Mexico’s upcoming presidential election campaign about what kind of NAFTA that country wants.

There is bound to be a debate of some kind in the U.S., particularly among Democrats, many of whom are already critical of the pact.

Indeed, if the Democrats end up controlling the House of Representatives in November, the future of NAFTA may be up in the air.

In Canada, any debate so far has taken place along the edges. Political economist Gordon Laxer, for instance, has co-authored a report titled “NAFTA 2.0” that calls for changes to the deal in order to take on climate change.

In particular, he would scrap a so-called proportionality rule that he says locks Canada into producing tar sands [oil sands] oil for export to the U.S.

Laxer’s argument may not convince everyone. But at least he is talking about the content of any renegotiated NAFTA deal.

Perhaps Canada’s opposition parties too will find their voices.

There is nothing treasonous about critiquing the government’s handling of trade talks. In the early ’90s, the opposition Liberals and New Democrats were happy to attack the then-governing Tories over the original NAFTA deal. A reinsertion of sensible politics into the current Canada-U. S. negotiations would be welcome.

Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based reporter covering politics.
Follow him on Twitter: @tomwalkom
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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