The winds of trade are shifting

For decades right wing politicians promoted trade agreements as cure-alls for the economy.  Fueled by the fantasy of trickle-down economics, trade agreements were said to be the only way forward for a modern economy.  Lately, that isn’t the case and the vote for Britain to leave the EU along with the ascent of Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican candidate in the United States share the distinction of being fueled by skepticism of trade agreements.  The phenomenon has spread to Canada as well, where reports of fading support for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) preceded a summit between leaders of the countries involved.

While it may or may not be a surprise that trade agreements are losing their appeal to voters, it is definitely a shock to see the attacks coming from conservative politicians.  It is also surprising that their criticisms are accepted without much proof, whereas left wing concerns were always treated as uninformed no matter how well they were presented.  In the case of Donald Trump, his unspecific claim that the NAFTA needs to be renegotiated is getting the kid-glove treatment in the media.

This does not dove-tail with the official lines coming from Canada, the U.S., and Mexico, however.  When he addressed parliament at the end of June, President Obama went to great pains to defend trade agreements and seemed to be speaking to voters in America as much as he was to parliamentarians.  Meanwhile the Liberals have signed the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and were upset when the Brexit vote de-railed the fast-track status for the Canada European Trade Agreement (CETA) that Stephen Harper’s government negotiated.  It highlights how, on the trade policy front, there has been a seamless transition of governments in Ottawa.

That should be of no surprise for students of Canadian politics.  The Liberals have always had two positions on trade deals, one while in opposition and another when they are in power. Many will recall that John Turner ran the ‘campaign of his life’ against Brian Mulroney’s Canada- U.S Free Trade Agreement (FTA), just as Jean Chretien ran hard against the NAFTA.  Despite both high profile campaign promises, nothing changed when the Liberals finally arrested power from the Conservatives.

For New Democrats, trade deals are to be judged on their merits and not on theoretical claims. Our concerns about the loss of our manufacturing sector, reduced environmental standards, and the weakening of our sovereignty have been proven correct.  Moving forward, we are concerned for our agricultural producers who have been abandoned in the CETA and the TPP, the impending increase to already expensive prescription drugs, and an increased commitment to investors.  The latter has led to a parade of law suit settlements that surrender hard earned tax-payer dollars to corporate entities who feel they have been frustrated by Canada in one way or another.

For populist, right-wing politicians, trade deal skepticism seems to be entirely self-serving.  That said, people often do the right thing for the wrong reasons.  Our government was handed a gift when the fast-track for CETA was put on hold.  The Liberals did not negotiate the agreement and should take this chance to study it.  Likewise, parliament should debate the TPP before it is ratified.  Anything less would reek of putting evidence aside in favour of opinion and Canadians voted against that in October.