By Peter Henderson
A government led by Tom Mulcair would have a dramatically different stance on free-trade agreements than the NAFTA-bashing NDP of the 1980s.
NDP trade critic Don Davies says pragmatism is the guiding principle for his party’s policy on international agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the New Democrats are willing to support flawed deals if they improve Canadian trade.
His remarks give clarity to the party’s position on free trade, a thorny subject for the NDP. The new stance is somewhat at odds with the party’s history and its roots in the labour movement.
The NDP opposed Brian Mulroney’s free-trade agenda in the 1980s, arguing against Canada’s participation in the Free Trade Accord with the United States and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Since being elevated to Mulcair’s shadow cabinet in 2013, Davies has taken a more nuanced position on trade deals versus the party’s NAFTA-bashing past.
“We favour signing good agreements with strategic partners in the world,” he said in an interview on Friday.
Although Davies tried to downplay the magnitude of the shift, he added that it leads to a “sea change” in how the party approaches free trade deals such as the TPP.
“We recognize that in any trade agreement there are gains and there are concessions,” he said. “The important thing is to examine it on a net comprehensive basis. Overall, is it a benefit to Canada?”
Davies said the NDP’s support of free-trade deals with South Korea and Jordan in the last session of Parliament were the first two such agreements the party has supported in its history.
"We understand that there are deficiencies in those agreements, things that we wouldn't have negotiated if we were in government," he said. "But overall, we think the benefits outweigh the costs."
He pointed to the NDP's opposition to similar agreements with Honduras and Panama, which he said didn't fulfill the requirements of improving Canadian trade without betraying Canadian principles.
Davies said an ideological approach to trade agreements, blindly supporting them or rejecting them based on knee-jerk policy, is irresponsible for a governing party.
“I think it's time to replace simplistic ideological approach with a smart, detail-oriented one where we sit down with business and economic sectors to build a trade policy that actually results in support for our exporters," he said.
As for the TPP, the wide-ranging 12-country agreement that has been under discussion for more than half a decade, he said the government’s secretive approach means the NDP are still waiting to see whether they can support it.
"We have from the beginning supported Canada being at the table," he said. "But we don’t know what’s in it. We can't say that we're for or against the TPP until we know what's in it.”
The TPP negotiations include 12 nations around the Pacific Rim, including the United States, Australia, Japan and Chile.
On Thursday, International Trade Minister Ed Fast told Bloomberg News on Thursday that negotiations on the TPP are entering their final stages.
Fast is due to attend a negotiating meeting on July 28 in Hawaii to hammer out the final details.
Davies said the government has given little indication about how the deal will affect the Canadian economy or even how the negotiations have been going.
Last week, Mulcair sent a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper asking the government to vigorously defend Canada’s supply-managed sectors, such as dairy and poultry producers.
“Every country has sensitivities that they preserve throughout trade talks,” Davies said. “There are other considerations that go into making policy in Canada than just unfettered trade.”
While an NDP government would be pragmatic in its negotiations, Davies said, they would do more than previous governments to add environmental and human rights issues to their trade agenda.
"When we sign an economic agreement with a country, one of the many objectives should be to improve and elevate their environmental, labour and human-rights standards," he said. "There's an economic element to it, but there's always a political element too."
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