Municipalities Take On Ottawa's Trade Agenda

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The enormity of events like the ones that occurred last week can make discussion of other matters seem trivial in comparison. The issues people faced before September 11 persist, however, and still need the kind of vigorous debate essential to a democracy. The largely unreported dispute between municipalities and the federal government on trade issues is heating up. Over fifty municipalities - including Vancouver, Ottawa, Windsor, Regina and St. John's - have passed resolutions calling on the federal government to protect their authority from the powerful disciplines of trade deals. And last spring the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) passed a resolution at its AGM demanding that municipal governments be excluded completely from the World Trade Organization's services agreement. Toronto council begins dealing with the question this week. This is more significant than it might first appear. Written right into the services agreement - the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) - is a commitment to ensure compliance by all levels of government. Yet the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) is negotiating in areas of municipal jurisdiction with nothing that could be described as a genuine mandate. DFAIT is now mounting a belated counteroffensive against the increasing municipal opposition. But it's not going well. Obsessed with controlling the consultation process, the department insists on excluding the media and the public. Six Nova Scotia municipalities, including Lunenburg, recently asked for a briefing, but when DFAIT insisted on secrecy, the briefing was cancelled. This federal government department is getting an extremely bad reputation amongst municipal politicians for its bland reassurances in the face of concerns that are backed by strong evidence. Its refusal to engage in a genuine give-and-take extends to the media. Don Stephenson, DFAIT's director of trade policy, refused to grant an interview recently, agreeing only to give written answers to questions. In relation to this column, other senior officials did not return calls or hung up. A former senior trade official with the British Columbia government describes the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade's approach: "The answers are what you would expect from Firestone and Ford in front of a judge ruling on who is responsible for all of these road deaths - deny, understate, overstate, duck, bob and weave or blame someone else. You have to treat them as if they were selling you a used car with a defective warranty." But the days of bobbing and weaving may soon be over. Now the people angry with DFAIT include those who are pushing for these trade agreements. The big business players who are eager to privatize public services are beginning to wonder if DFAIT is helping or hurting. The immediate cause for concern: the recent cancellation by the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD) of a $400-million public-private partnership in a water filtration plant. The irony of the cancellation was not lost on the corporate lobby group, the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships (C2P3). Free-trade agreements, especially the services agreement, are supposed to liberalize the economy and facilitate privatization. But in the GVRD case, the privatization scheme was cancelled precisely because of public anxiety about losing control of their water system through trade agreement challenges. Private water corporations have already reached for trade deals to circumvent government action. Local pro-business councillors simply could not get the answers they needed from DFAIT to reassure an increasingly skeptical public. Surrey councillor Marvin Hunt, head of the GVRD's water committee, had promoted and guided the public-private scheme for four years. Reassurances from the federal government's department didn't cut it. "That off-the-cuff stuff doesn't give us any security at all. That's not satisfying our public - they want something that says unequivocally 'We will not go there. Water is not on the [negotiating] table.' We didn't get that." George Puil, a conservative Vancouver councillor, and GVRD chair, said the same about DFAIT's reassurances to the finance committee of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which he also chairs. "Frankly, I don't think the committee believes them." The public-private partnership group has been pressing the trade department to improve its selling job. DFAIT pulled out all the stops recently and sent five of its staff - including Geneva-based chief services negotiator Paul Robertson - to a board meeting of the FCM in Prince George, B.C. But according to Suzan Hall, a Toronto councillor and a member of the federation's finance committee, DFAIT's presentation consisted, again, of broad reassurances. "There weren't any flags being put up by them at all." In a desperate effort to reverse the cancellation of the water filtration plant, the public-private partnership lobby contacted the GVRD and asked them to meet with the trade officials while they were in B.C. Marvin Hunt and other officials met with them - behind closed doors. Hunt thinks that they "got the message this time." We will see. The FCM board passed a resolution that calls on federal government negotiators to report municipalities' desire to be excluded from the services agreement to the WTO's Services Council October meeting in Geneva. Minutes of those meetings are made public. They will tell us whether or not DFAIT is still bobbing and weaving.

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