Television screens have recently been filled with furious nurses,threatening to go to the United States because of unbearable workingconditions and stagnant wages. So who in their right mind wouldencourage nurses to leave Canada at a time when there is a nationalnursing shortage?
In its blind pursuit of ever more trade agreements, the federalgovernment is actually encouraging the exodus of nurses by treating themas "exporters" of services. The Department of Foreign Affairs andInternational Trade (DFAIT) has hired public relations firms to compile a list of trade barriers to rationalize its drive to expand the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). FWJ Advertising wrote to HeatherSmith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta, as "an informedbusiness leader" who understands the obstacles to "doing businessoutside of Canada." and who might be able to provide the media with"first-hand accounts of restrictive trade practices in other markets."Nurses, of course, are telling governments the obstacles they face areinside Canada.
No matter. An enormous federal bureaucracy has a stake in getting peopleto say they have the kind of problems that expansion of World Trade Organization (WTO) powers can solve. Another public relations firm hired to create justification forthe department's work told me "DFAIT was looking for businessmen to saythat, 'Yes, we in the service industry face problems daily,'" and thatGATS could help. What he found, instead, were businesspeople facinghuge hassles crossing the border to do business in the United States, aproblem the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was supposed to eliminate.
This zealous pursuit of more trade deals is a danger to the public good.No substantial benefits can be proven, (Industry Canada says 91% of ourincreased trade with the United States in the 1990s was due to U.S.growth and our low dollar) although we will probably soon get aneye-popping figure, calculated perhaps by multiplying growth in theservices sector by the shoe-size of the Minister for InternationalTrade. Don Stephenson, Canada's director of policy for trade inservices, blithely says "Trade, to use a line from Martha Stewart, is agood thing."
There is a studied effort to avoid any talk of downsides, such as thenurses' example. If we encourage our nurses to "export" their servicesby bringing down foreign "trade" barriers, we will need to "import" anequal number. We would then have to open our system to WTO trade ruleswhich say you can't have professional licensing regulations thatrestrict trade. Instead of contributing to a nursing shortage, openingup our health system to WTO disciplines, and poaching nurses from poorcountries, isn't it just possible that encouraging our own nurses tostay might be more efficient and more ethical?
While most federal and provincial politicians remain blissfully unawareof the GATS threat to their mandates, not so the Federation of CanadianMunicipalities. At their recent annual general meeting, they passed a resolution demanding a total exemption for municipalities from the GATS. In response, DFAIT sent municipal councils a "Questions and Answers" flyer.
After reading it, I went to my dictionary just to double-check the wordlie: "a statement that the speaker knows to be untrue." The flyer tellsmunicipalities that "The purpose of the GATS is not to lower oreliminate regulations in Canada or elsewhere or to change thejurisdictional authority of regulating bodies, includingmunicipalities."
Yet the department's official WTO submission on regulation and the GATSwould result in overwhelming pressures to deregulate. Canada says thatgovernment regulators should have to demonstrate that a problem exists,that intervention is justified, and that the benefits of regulationoutweigh the costs. Imagine running any local government regulation by aWTO dispute panel using these criteria. Then guess how many wouldsurvive.
DFAIT is also telling municipalities that public services and governmentpurchasing are categorically exempt from the GATS, despite the fact itis engaged in protracted discussions at the WTO about what is coveredand what is not.
Confirmation that there is something seriously awry with our tradebureaucracy has come from an unlikely source - a NAFTA tribunal dealingwith a suit against Canada brought by U.S. lumber firm Pope and Talbot.While the tribunal actually rejected the firm's substantive arguments,it found DFAIT's behaviour towards the firm was characterized by an"imperious insistence on having its way," and that it relied not on"legal justification," but on "naked assertions of authority." As adirect result of DFAIT officials' behaviour, Canada is liable (for up to$80 million) because it denied "the fair treatment required by NAFTA."
The tribunal goes further, stating that DFAIT's communication with itsown minister showed a "lack of forthrightness" and contained several"misleading statements." Not content to mislead municipalities, DFAITofficials apparently mislead their own minister.
There is something desperately wrong in DFAIT. Canada has lost severalmajor cases officials said would be easy wins. Despite having its GATSinformation repeatedly called into question, it continues to grosslymislead elected officials. There should be a parliamentary inquiry intoDFAIT in order to re-establish some semblance of accountability.
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