The Throne Speech We'd Love to Hear

Don't bet Paul Martin has the guts to give it.

By Murray Dobbin 13 Nov 2003 |

Murray Dobbin is an author, commentator and journalist. He is the author of five books and is a former columnist with Financial Post and Winnipeg Free Press. He is a board member of Canadians for Tax Fairness and on the advisory council of the Rideau Institute. He lives in Powell River, BC.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I now wish to address the question of trade, more specifically free trade and its impact on the West. As I said earlier, my government will make extraordinary efforts to improve relations with the United States, relations that have been strained over the past few years. But as part of that improvement, we must, once and for all, solve the trade disputes that have remained a huge irritant to westerners since we signed the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement."

"The United States, regardless of how many times trade panels of the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement rule in Canada's favour, continue to unfairly target and harass Canadian industry. The Canada-US Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA in particular were trade-offs: the U.S. wanted secure, guaranteed access to our energy -- something no other country has ever given up. But we did give it up, in exchange for genuine free trade.

"It is now time to draw a line in the sand. While NAFTA does give the U.S. guaranteed access to our oil and gas -- and prevents us from charging an export price higher than the domestic price -- we still have the energy card to play and we must play it. The message is simple and blunt -- the kind our American friends understand. There will be no increase in the amount of gas and oil exported to the U.S.; there will be no pipeline on Canadian soil to bring Alaskan gas to the lower 48 states, and if the U.S. wants access to Canadian electricity it will be on our terms. We will retain the right to have a two-price system for electricity and will retain control over the proportion of our electricity we export until we solve the broader problem. We need permanent, prompt and legally binding resolutions to our current trade disputes and a new mechanism for providing similarly binding decisions in all future disputes.

"Now, I know that energy producers, particularly in Alberta, are dead set against this approach -- calling it trading one industry's health for another's. But that is not how I see it. The energy sector has benefitted tremendously from free trade, increasing its exports exponentially in the past 15 years. They got what was promised. But other industries have been denied what they were promised. These other sectors could easily argue that they have been sacrificed to the interests of the energy industry -- which has enjoyed enormously increased sales and profits -- while they have suffered billions in losses due to what is, frankly, bad faith on free trade by our American partners.

"I said in 1988 that, although I was a free trader, the deal negotiated by Brian Mulroney was a bad agreement and should not have been signed. Yet it was signed -- on behalf of the whole country and all its industrial sectors. We are all in this together. Reopening NAFTA, as some have suggested, would be extremely difficult and would open the door to more concessions from Canada. Yet what the U.S. needs more than anything else right now is energy security. Our oil, gas and electricity can provide it. We still have a huge bargaining chip, and we would be foolish not to take advantage of it.

"Many have expressed fears about Canada driving such a hard bargain -- fears that the U.S. would punish us. These fears are seriously exaggerated. Our two economies are now so integrated that closing the border would hurt the U.S. as much as it would hurt Canada. For example, it would close down the American auto industry within a few days. Canada supplies 94 per cent of U.S. natural gas imports, nearly 100 per cent of its electricity imports, 35 per cent of the uranium for its nuclear power generation, and 17 per cent of its crude oil imports. They need us as much as we need them.

"In closing on the issue of trade, let me say this: We signed a bad deal in 1988. We did not improve on it with NAFTA in 1993. But that does not mean we cannot improve the deal now. This is particularly important in British Columbia where U.S. trade harassment has caused the greatest hardship and economic loss. I am committed to improving the free trade agreement and at the end of the day I believe that the Americans will sit down and bargain seriously. Imagine a future in which forest companies and forestry workers never again wonder if their mills are going to be forced to close. Imagine a trade dispute ruling that is really final and binding. We can achieve this and do so without harming the energy industry, which would continue to export its products into the U.S. market at the same level as they are today.

"Solving our trade grievances with the U.S. is the right thing to do."

Murray Dobbin is a Vancouver author and journalist whose latest book, Paul Martin: CEO for Canada? published by James Lorimer is in BC bookstores now.  [Tyee]

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