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Provinces look for more drug savings, give lukewarm support to EU deal that will undercut them

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Former Premier Jean Charest told iPolitics.ca to watch the Council of the Federation meeting last week for news on the Canada-European Union corporate trade negotiations. We did, but the premiers sounded more interested in (and interested in participating in) Canada's other trade and investment negotiations with China, India and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. You be the judge:

Premiers recognize the importance of efforts to enhance international trade and commerce, including with key markets such as India and China, and through the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They strongly support the active engagement of provinces and territories at the table in trade negotiations in areas of provincial and territorial jurisdiction. Premiers agreed their trade ministers should continue to strengthen their exchange of information and coordination of trade negotiation priorities and activities. Foreign investments are also key to Canada's global competitiveness, and it is critical that the federal government engage provincial and territorial governments in the foreign investment review process.

Premiers reiterate the importance of concluding an agreement with the European Union which would be beneficial to their citizens and businesses, and commit to continue their involvement in the negotiation process in order to conclude a comprehensive agreement as soon as possible.

That sounds to me like the premiers angling (publicly this time) for a permanent role in the formation of Canada's trade policy agenda. Some people think this is a very bad idea, and no doubt if anything goes wrong with the CETA negotiations the provinces will be blamed free traders in government, media and the business lobby. But with new generation trade and investment deals affecting so much of the policy that provincial governments are responsible for, it's only natural the premiers would want to be involved.

Drug costs is just one area where the provinces have an interest in avoiding lengthening patents and creating more hurdles for generic competitors in CETA. CBC reports that the premiers will be building on a previously agreed to bulk generic drug purchasing plan to include brand name drugs as well. It's an effort to lower the costs of health care that would be wiped out by a CETA signed on Europe's terms.

The Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions wants the premiers to go a step further, or rather to live up to a 2004 promise to establish a universal drug care program. Linda Silas, the president of the CFNU who was in Niagara-on-the-Lake for a people's summit and rally on health care outside the Council of the Federation meeting, says, "Each year, we lose billions by not moving forward with this long-promised program, and, more importantly, millions of Canadians go without adequate access to medically required medications."

The contradiction between the premiers' interest in containing drug costs and in finishing the Canada-EU trade talks attracted the Trojan Horse to Niagara (photo). A banner on the horse explained that CETA would smuggle privatization into health care unless the premiers acted to make sure health services were completely excluded from the deal, and that an intellectual property rights chapter pulled out as well.

From what we can tell from meetings with provincial trade officials, they are taking this into account but it's hard to tell how much that's true because the CETA negotiations are happening behind a wall of secrecy. Before the Council of the Federation meeting, the Trade Justice Network and RQIC sent all premiers a letter saying they could correct this by giving the public a role in reviewing and approving any deal that is eventually signed. That would extend to the TPP and other deals that involve provincial governments.

There are lots of good reasons to do this. It would annoy consummate elitist John Manley, for one thing. But seriously, as the letter says, the provinces have a responsibility to compensate for an almost farcical treaty approval process in Ottawa. Things might be different in a minority government situation but right now there is no possibility of making the slightest change to a trade or investment deal once it's been signed by Prime Minister Harper or one of his ministers.

The message from public health care advocates in Niagara was a supportive one aimed at bolstering the premiers' demands for a renewed health accord that reverses the $36 billion in federal health care cuts that will come into effect after the next election in 2015. With help from a big horse, we also asked the premiers to stand up to Harper's bullying in CETA. The provinces will be blamed by a tiny elite for scuttling a bad deal with Europe. They'll be punished by a much bigger electorate if the costs of CETA are too high to pay.

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