Sunday, February 28, 2010

Fig Leaves Fall: The Phony Populism of the Harper Government

The populist fig leaves worn by Stephen Harper and his ministers---you can order facsimiles online---to hide the truth that this government has only one priority---low taxes for the wealthy, at the expense of everyone else---were torn asunder by two events on the eve of the resumption of parliament this week.

Last Thursday, Transport Minister John Baird stood behind a blue sign that read “Protecting Canadians” to announce new fees to be charged to all air travelers to fund additional security measures at the country’s airports. The user-fee that the minister denied was a tax will raise $1.5 billion in new money over the next five years.

While in opposition, Conservatives called fees charged at airports an “air tax”, but now the T word has been expunged from their vocabulary. Baird wore his innocent face while making the announcement. This is in contrast to his snarly face, the one he wears while answering questions in the House of Commons.

In Charlottetown meanwhile, Harper cabinet minister Helena Guergis showed up at the airport fifteen minutes before the scheduled departure of her Air Canada Jazz flight to Montreal.

The minister, accompanied by oversize bags she wanted to carry on to the plane yelled at the Jazz agent to hurry up because he was wasting her time. When asked to remove her boots, after running through the security check setting off the bells, she threw the footwear at a security official. She yelled at another employee: “I’m going to be stuck in this shithole because of you.”

Then Guergis and her aide lunged at the security barrier and began kicking and banging on the glass.

The plane’s departure was held up and the minister was allowed on board.

Fascinating juxtaposition: one Conservative minister announcing an increased airport fee in the name of security, and baldly denying it is a tax, while another minister of the crown spews contempt for the airport workers who are the country’s first-line of security at airports.

Anyone who was not a member of Harper’s little elite would have been arrested and cooled off in a cell for behaving the Guergis did. AndI thought this government was tough on crime.

Harper and his ministers like to portray themselves as good old Tim Hortons Canadians who are not to be confused with the pointy-heads in the opposition parties.

The fig leaves have fallen. The Conservatives don’t have to wait now for the nude machines to be installed at airports to be exposed for what they are.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Urgent National Debate Needed on Harper Trade Deal

(This post appeared in the online edition of the Toronto Star.)

In the middle of a period of prorogation, when parliament is not sitting, the Harper government has sprung a sweeping new trade deal on Canadians. The agreement the Harper government has reached with the Obama administration is the most important extension of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) since that deal went into effect in 1994.

The Harper deal will allow Canadian companies to bid on many, but not all, of the contracts involving government funded economic stimulus projects in the U.S., which are restricted to U.S. companies under Buy American provisions that have been inserted into the U.S. government’s Recovery Act.

In return for this “concession” from Washington, Ottawa has agreed to pay an unacceptably high price. Under the deal, Canadian provinces and municipalities will permanently give up the right to favour local companies in awarding contracts. Government procurement at the municipal and provincial levels is an extremely important economic development tool, crucial for job creation, the encouragement of Canadian firms and the development of home-grown technology. At a time when cities are rebuilding their transit systems and are refitting homes to make them more energy efficient, it is the height of folly to open all these contracts to American bidders. (Given the multiplicity of measures used to protect them from outside bidders, it is foolish to imagine that Canadian firms will have an equal opportunity to bid on U.S. state and municipal contracts.)

What makes the Harper government’s deal particularly maddening is that the Buy American provisions in the U.S. Recovery Act violate the spirit if not the terms of NAFTA that guarantee the right of Canadian firms to bid on U.S. federal government projects with the exception of defence contracts. Instead of publicly and loudly asserting that Washington is violating NAFTA, the Harper government is bribing the Obama administration to stop doing that by opening up tens of billions of dollars worth of public contracts in Canada to American corporations.

Moreover, out of the total of $275 billion in infrastructure contracts to be awarded under the U.S. Recovery Act, $200 billion worth have already been signed. The rash deal Harper has made will open up only the last contracts to be awarded to Canadian firms, and at best, a small proportion of those. On top of that, the Obama administration has shifted gears toward fiscal restraint and plans to reign in further stimulus spending.

The Harper government is getting Canadian companies in on the tail end of a U.S. program in return for giving away a very important part of Canada’s ability to nurture Canadian firms and research and development at the provincial and municipal levels. This is an assault on what remains of Canadian economic sovereignty.

It is well known that the Harper government has been negotiating this deal with Washington since last September. Now the government has sprung it on the country when parliament is not sitting.

Expanding NAFTA, as this deal does, requires an open and wide-ranging national debate, both inside parliament and outside. A trade deal of this magnitude should only enter into force following a vote in parliament. (Debates are needed as well in provincial legislatures. Provincial governments should also not be permitted to agree to the deal without debate.)

In the national conversation that must begin, Canadians should examine where the global economy is headed in coming decades and how Canada’s economy can best fit into it so as to create the jobs and opportunities Canadians need. It should now be abundantly clear, as a consequence of the economic crisis through which we are passing that the United States is ensnared in a long-term struggle to cope with its international indebtedness and the indebtedness of its citizens. Whether American policy makers do a good or a poor job coping with the vast problems they face, the U.S. role in the global economy is diminishing and is bound to diminish further.

Canadians need to ask themselves whether this is the moment to put all our eggs in the American basket for the future.

The experience of the Buy American provisions in the Recovery Act ought to teach us something. Whenever the United States needs, in the pursuit of its own interests, to violate trade deals with Canada, it does so. It has done this for years on softwood lumber and now on the operations of the U.S. Recovery Act. Let’s now be fooled again.

Finally, it’s time for us to face up to the implications of allowing a secretive government to foreclose our options without us having a say in the matter.