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Trade deal threatens city services

Sep 21, 2011

Municipal and provincial buy local policies as well as public control over water and other services are threatened by a new trade agreement between Canada and Europe that is close to being finalized by the Harper government. City council is being urged to strongly oppose the proposed Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) that could also affect purchasing decisions of school boards, hospitals, conservation authorities and other government agencies.

Maude Barlow, head of the Council of Canadians is speaking at a public meeting on September 27 to explain their concerns about CETA, and another COC spokesperson has obtained permission to speak to city councillors in October in support of a motion put forward by Brian McHattie.

“Unobstructed access to Canadian municipal procurement by European corporations, combined with investment protections in CETA on government concessions related to transit, water, electricity and other social services delivered locally, may encourage privatization and reduce economic development options for local communities,” argues the west end councillor in asking council to urge Queen’s Park to “negotiate a clear, permanent exemption for local governments from CETA.”

While details of the CETA negotiations are being kept secret, it’s been described as “more far-reaching than the North American Free Trade Agreement” that has empowered private companies to force government abandonment of food safety and environmental measures. NAFTA, however, only applies to federal government actions, while CETA would include “sub-national” entities such as municipalities.

“The impacts on local governments will be greatest in two areas: public purchasing policies and municipal public services such as water, waste, energy and transit,” Scott Sinclair warned the Federation of Canadian Municipalities at their annual conference in June. “The proposed restrictions on government purchasing would eliminate the flexibility for governments to use their purchasing power to enhance local benefits.”

He pointed to EU demands for prohibition of “any condition or undertaking that encourages local development”, a ban that would extend even to voluntary offers by companies to make investments in the community, use or train local workers, or buy goods and services locally. Sinclair also contends that the EU is “seeking new rights of market access” to municipal services such as water, waste management, recycling, and public transit and that CETA could allow private companies to obtain compensation when privatized services were brought back under public control – as happened in Hamilton with water and sewer treatment.

He noted that federal CETA negotiators consider the $100 billion in annual municipal government purchases as a “one of their key bargaining chips”, but explained that decisions on final details need to be ratified at the provincial level.

Eight rounds have been completed in the negotiations between the federal government and the EU, with the objective of finalizing the treaty next year. Federal authorities argue that “there are important benefits for both sides to pursuing a closer economic partnership” and that an agreement “could benefit many sectors of the Canadian economy including aerospace, chemicals, plastics, aluminum, wood products, fish and seafood, automotive vehicles and parts, agricultural products, transportation, financial services, renewable energy, information and communication technologies, engineering and computer services, among others.”

They say “the parties are committed to resisting protectionist pressures in challenging economic times, and are seeking to achieve an ambitious outcome across all negotiating areas.”

The Globe and Mail has editorially endorsed CETA, although one of their columnists has taken a different view. Gary Mason contends the agreement could add $3 billion to government health care costs by delaying access to generic drugs. He’s particularly concerned about the secrecy surrounding the negotiations.

“During the NAFTA talks, Canada had an on-going national debate about the merits of that trade deal,” Mason recalls. “And yet, for a trade pact that some argue is even bigger in scale, there is a deafening silence across the land. Canadians have virtually no idea of what is being negotiated on their behalf. They should. The stakes are enormous.”

The city council discussion is scheduled for October 11. The September 27 public meeting is at 7 pm in the Convention Centre. In addition to Barlow, the meeting will be addressed by the national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

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