NAFTA's under threat. Why doesn't the opposition care?

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
National Post, Friday, February 29, 2008

If Canadians could vote in the U.S. presidential election, they would overwhelmingly support either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama over the presumptive Republican candidate, John McCain. In a Nanos poll for Policy Options magazine this month, 41% of Canadian respondents said they would support Clinton, 36% would choose Obama and only 6% would vote for McCain. By similarly large margins, Canadians thought Canada-U.S. relations would be better off under either Clinton or Obama than McCain.

But that was before Clinton and Obama said they would strip down the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the successor to the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA), under which our exports to the United States have tripled in the last 20 years. Exports to the U.S. account for about a third of the Canadian economy. In Ontario, exports to the U.S. have risen from 20% of output before implementation of the FTA in 1989 to more than 50% of provincial GDP today. We are talking about the lifeblood of the Canadian economy.

Both Clinton and Obama have been taking rhetorical swipes at NAFTA for months. But in their televised debate in Ohio on Tuesday, both went further, declaring that they would cancel it if Canada and Mexico wouldn't renegotiate. They both sounded like protectionist CNN pundit Lou Dobbs in full rant mode.

Particularly notable was Clinton's declaration that she would be "trying to fix NAFTA by making it clear that we'll have core labour and environmental standards in the agreement."

Uh, Hillary, NAFTA was reopened by the Clinton administration in 1993 to include side deals on the environment and labour. Subsequently, the NAFTA environment commission was established in Montreal, while the labour commission was located in Dallas. NAFTA is considered one of Bill Clinton's signature achievements.

No doubt, both Clinton and Obama were playing to the galleries in Ohio, a hard-pressed industrial state hit by layoffs. Perhaps this is merely campaign posturing, but the fact remains that the two remaining serious Democratic candidates both said NAFTA would be reopened, and possibly cancelled on six months notice.

And what was the reaction in Ottawa the next day? There was none.

At Question Period, the Liberals, the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP all ignored the issue. Liberal leader Stephane Dion, having announced he would not oppose this week's federal budget, spent his time denouncing it. Stephen Harper simply blew him off, saying he had zero credibility, referring him to a mirthful Rick Mercer sketch from the night before. In subsequent rounds, the Liberals also found time to ask two questions about Brian Mulroney declining the ethic committee's invitation to reappear before it, declaring this to be a national outrage.

About Clinton and Obama sabre-rattling on NAFTA, there was not a word in the House. It's not as if Harper and Trade Minister David Emerson weren't primed and ready. They were expecting questions, indeed hoping for them. (Subsequently, Emerson made headlines on his own, declaring that if NAFTA were reopened, Canada would be reopening the energy chapter along with it. Message:We have oil.)

Perhaps the Liberals did not want to embarrass either Clinton or Obama, since they wish the Democrats well in the race against the Republicans. Perhaps they saw these threats as mere campaign rhetoric.

But the fact remains that both Democracts threatened to tear up America's trade agreement with Canada and Mexico. The official opposition, no less than the government, is the guardian of the national interest. The national interest dictated that hard questions be raised at the first opportunity in the House. That they weren't is evidence of how Parliament can be completely disconnected from reality.

 
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