A push for free trade

July 18 1988

A push for free trade

July 18 1988

A push for free trade

Little more than a month ago, opposition politicians were vowing to use every trick in the parliamentary rule book to stall passage of the Conservative government’s controversial free trade bill. But last week, MPs voted 114 to 51 in the House of Commons to give approval in principle to the Canada-U.S. trade agreement. Liberal Leader John Turner, who has vowed to tear up the treaty if his party forms the next government, was vacationing at his cottage in Lake-of-theWoods in northwestern Ontario and did not even put in an appearance to vote against the bill. Instead, it was Liberal MP Sheila Copps who led the opposition in an impromptu protest against the bill. As Conservative members rose one by one to endorse the trade bill on July 6, Copps and other critics hummed the U.S. anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, to underscore their claim that the agreement threatens Canadian sovereignty.

Despite that demonstration, there were signs that the opposition’s muchvaunted campaign against the free trade bill is beginning to run out of steam. With the Tories holding 207 of the 282 seats in the Commons, the opposition Liberals and New Democrats could not stop the government when it cut off debate on the 123-page package last week after five days. After the vote, the bill went to a 15-member legislative committee, which will begin a month of study on the trade pact this week. “To me, this was the war that never was,” said deputy Conservative House leader

Douglas Lewis, savoring the outcome of last week’s second-reading vote. “The Liberals and the NDP keep talking about grinding the House to a halt, but they have not stalled us yet.”

Nor did it appear that the opposition would have much success in delaying the legislation at the committee stage. Late last week, Liberal and New Democratic members asked that the committee hold cross-Canada hearings on the

bill so that individuals _

and groups opposed to free trade would have an opportunity to voice their complaints. But the Tories dominate the panel with 11 members and they quickly rejected that proposal, arguing that Canadians have already had time to debate the trade agreement. Declared committee chairman Jack Ellis: “We do not want to provide a platform for any fringe groups.” Instead, the committee decided to remain in Ottawa and report back to Parliament by Aug. 10.

If the Conservatives stick to that timetable, the bill could receive final approval from the Commons by early September. The trade legislation would then be referred to the Liberal-dominated Senate, which—in theory at least—could frustrate the government by using procedural tactics to block

passage of the bill. But although some Liberal senators appear to favor such an approach, others caution that any attempt to obstruct the bill could play into the Tories’ hands by provoking a constitutional crisis that would divert attention from the legislation. Said Liberal Senate Leader Allan MacEachen: “I would think not twice, but 20 times, before I would recommend that the Senate kill the trade bill in one plunge of the dagger.”

Ultimately, however, the fate of the trade bill will likely be determined by the timing of the next election. Although some senior Conservatives would prefer to wait until after the agreement is implemented next Jan. 1, b the party has already leased oils fice space in Ottawa for its cams paign headquarters and the machinery is in place for a fall election. Said a Tory strategist: “The key is to watch the polls. If we can get a majority this fall, we will go for it.” That would mean that all legislation still before Parliament, including the trade bill, would die on the order paper. But if the Tories were re-elected with a majority government, they would be in a position to reintroduce the bill and rush it through both chambers in time to meet the Dec. 31 ratification deadline.

Meanwhile, opposition MPs acknowledge that, when it comes to free trade, the government still holds most of the cards. As a result, they have begun to shift their energies away from Ottawa

_ and toward their own

ridings. Indeed, only 21 of 39 Liberal MPs attended last week’s Commons vote, compared with 30 of the 32 New Democrats. Said Turner’s director of communications, Raymond Heard: “A lot of our members are off tilling their own vineyards. They would rather talk to their local Kiwanis Club and get a few paragraphs in the local newspaper than sit around Ottawa all summer.”

5 Leaving nothing to 5 chance, the government g has launched an expensive publicity campaign to convince voters of the merits of free trade. The first phase of the $10-million sales pitch began late last month when federal bureaucrats set off on a 17-city tour to advise small businesses on ways to increase their exports to the United States. And although the public servants who took part in the tour said

that they wanted to avoid being drawn into the political debate over the Canada-U.S. agreement, there was no mistaking the pro-free-trade message. During a one-day conference for 60 local business people in St. John’s, Nfld., last week, Canada’s assistant deputy minister for economic and trade policy, Anthony Eyton, attacked opponents of the treaty, such as Edmonton publisher Mel Hurtig, as “fuzzy voices of doom and gloom.”

In taking their message directly to the small-business community, Tory strategists concede that they are preaching mainly to the converted. But their hope is that the business community will, in turn, sell the deal for them. “The polling shows that politicians are among the least credible people to sell free trade,” Preston Shea, an adviser to International Trade Minister John Crosbie, said in Halifax last week. “So the pitch is being made for us by local entrepreneurs.”

The Tories plan to enhance their free trade promotion with a national advertising campaign set to begin this summer. Although Crosbie’s staff has released few details of the campaign, Halifax-area businessman Darrell Chaisson told Maclean ’s that federal officials had approached him to lend his name to a print ad that will trumpet the successes of Canadian firms in overseas markets. Chaisson’s company, Ocean Case Co. of Windsor Junction, N.S., sells plastic and aluminum cases for electronic products to buyers in the Middle East. So far, it has failed to crack the U.S. market, but Chaisson said that the free trade agreement could change that: “With free trade, everything is wide open.”

Meanwhile, the Tories face a series of legislative challenges to the trade agreement from Ontario. In recent weeks, the Liberal government in that province introduced four separate bills that conflict with the draft treaty’s definitions of areas of federal responsibility. The bills would protect provincial authority over hydroelectricity, health care, the wine industry and water exports. In introducing the legislation, Ontario appeared to be trying to force Ottawa to take the province to court. But so far, the federal government has refused to take the bait. And in Washington, U.S. Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter said last week that Ontario’s attempts to undermine the agreement can be dealt with after the treaty is ratified. Judging by the mood on Parliament Hill last week, many now consider passage to be a foregone conclusion.

BRUCE WALLACE

ANNE FINLAYSON

— ROSS LAVER in Ottawa with BRUCE WALLACE in St. John's and ANNE FINLAYSON in Toronto