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Secret trade deals causing harm

How much are you willing to wager what government does in secret will work out to your benefit? Not much, I’d bet. We don’t trust politicians and bureaucrat to do the right thing, and with good reason. That goes double when they’re deliberately trying to keep us in the dark.

Whether it’s lying about the cost of F-35s, breaking election laws or attempting to steal your civil liberties, Ottawa is working even harder against the public interest the more secretive it’s being.

Canada’s not alone in that regard, of course. It’s worse still in other countries, including many of those involved in the very hush-hush Trans-Pacific Partnership talks. Marginally a free trade agreement, the TPP is the latest attempt to boost the failed policies of globalization at the expense of the majority of us.

Canada, along with Mexico, talked its way into a seat at the table this summer, joining the likes of the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. Ostensibly a trade deal, it’s really another forum for securing investors’ rights and the mobility of capital. As with the likes of NAFTA, it would create unaccountable quasi-judicial boards with the right to override national policies, regulations and laws in favour of corporate profits. Beyond that, we know little about TPP, as only two of its 26 chapters have been leaked to the public.

So secretive are the talks that even members of the U.S. Congress haven’t been able to get information about what’s on the table, despite the fact some 600 corporate lobbyists and insiders are privy to the negotiations. They are, in fact, framing much of the agenda.

The reason for all the secrecy? Not security or likewise dubious claims. No, proponents don’t want you to know because they fear the public backlash would kill the deal. The TPP simply wouldn’t hold up to public scrutiny, as it’s bound to make the economy worse for most of the people in the countries involved.

U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk, for instance, recently admitted that all the secrecy was necessary because public disclosure purportedly killed another major regional trade pact, the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

While politicians routinely claim free trade deals create jobs and wealth, that’s just not the case. Well, not the jobs part. And the wealth goes to only a few. But that’s not what proponents will tell you.

Canada is still easing into the TPP talks, but has been focussed on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), a proposed free trade and copyright agreement between our country and the European Union. It, too, is rife with downsides, though the government continues to tout it as a job-creation scheme, just as all governments do with trade agreements that typically result in job losses and the hollowing out of the manufacturing sector.

“This is about scraping the bottom of the barrel for new sources of growth,” says Stuart Trew, who coordinates trade issues for the Council of Canadians, of the latest free trade talks. “This is about investors. There’s no focus on jobs – it’s a short-sighted economic strategy.”

CETA and TPP would simply add to the 30 years of growing global inequality that has been the legacy of free trade agreements, he adds.

Of course, calling them trade agreements is rather disingenuous. As Trew notes, the real goal is the ability to move capital with the intent of securely off-shoring jobs, intellectual property rights (a big push in the U.S.-led talks), extending pharmaceutical patents to raise the cost of drugs and reduce access.

Language in existing deals such as NAFTA becomes even more pronounced in CETA and TPP allow for end-runs around national governments, essentially constraining their powers, he argues. In many ways, its continued deregulation by stealth, as governments would be handcuffed. As parties to the negotiations, they do so willingly, attempting to hide from the public the desire to turn more power over to corporations. Once the agreements are in place, any issues raised by the public can simply be third-partied.

“This is a corporate-friendly agenda, to the detriment of other priorities we might have,” says Trew of agreements that turn over the levers of control from public hands to private.

Critics of deals such as the TPP, including those in the U.S., point to changes that would take away even the minimal controls over the financial system that caused the economic meltdown in 2008. Instead of more regulation, we’ll continue down the road that led to the crisis in the first place.

By pursuing these deals, Ottawa is essentially agreeing to policy changes being forced on Canadians, changes that we don’t want and are harmful to most of us, says Trew.

We’re told the deals will bring prosperity and jobs – as always – but the government offers no proof. Secrecy ensure that we know very little, and the Harper government can argue its hands are tied by the confidentiality of the negotiations. In fact, Canada had to agree to abide by the already-approved clauses of the deal – sight unseen – just to be allowed to join the talks.

They’re saying “trust us” when they hadn’t seen the text, nor has it been shared with the public. Their track record says we shouldn’t trust them in the least.

“The government is full of contradictions,” laughs Trew.

For the Council of Canadians, the government should be focussed on supporting manufacturing in this country, promoting firms that build actual things that people want.

If free trade proponents put as much energy into creating jobs as they do destroying the middle-class economy, there might actually be progress and prosperity.

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