National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

Ahh!! Those wonderful words “Free” and “Freedom.”

They’ve galvanized revolutions for centuries. But as always, the real question is: “Free” and “Freedom” for whom?

As so-called “free” trade agreements multiply like rabbits, citizens around the world are discovering that the words “free” and “freedom” are far from being life-choice and life-affirming ideals. Instead, they are fast becoming the sole purview of those with money and power: Lots and lots of money and power.

Utopia has been elbowed aside by Dystopia.

Citizens are realizing that their duly elected democratic governments have sold them out, caving in to the growing spectre of a very different notion of freedom: the freedom of global capitalism and corporate rule, translating into freedom not for people, but for Money.

The Harper government and 99 per cent of the media have been celebrating the news that Canada has signed off on the latest — and by far the most pervasive — of these so-called “free” trade deals.

Best to hold the champagne.

Once Canada signs CETA (the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) with Europe, federal, provincial and municipal governments will suddenly find their hands and feet tied. Suddenly, they will experience real push-back from foreign multinationals should they try to use their historic right to maintain civic, provincial and national autonomy in governmental decision making.

Simultaneously, Canada’s sub-national governments will suddenly discover they have lost the ability to protect the environment, create well-paying, long-term jobs and assist their marginalized citizens unless they are prepared to pay a hefty profit to some private corporation through what is now known as public-private partnerships.

P3s, as they are called, mean provincial and municipal governments will have to forget about the historic definition of public utilities: to serve citizens at cost, without profit and accountable only to citizens. Foreign multinationals will be invited to march in, buy up everything in sight from municipal waterworks to provincial energy utilities, piling up profits for their offshore investors as they cut services and hike costs for hapless citizens.

Proposed rules will prohibit governments from negotiating or considering any undertaking that encourages local development even if the procurement contract is open on a completely non-discriminatory basis to foreign bidders, Scott Sinclair, trade expert for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, warns in his 2010 analysis of CETA.

As a result, he continues, CETA will have an adverse impact on public services across the board, especially those provided by local, territorial and provincial governments. Also, CETA will promote and entrench new forms of commercialization.

Worse, it will prohibit governments from requiring foreign investors to purchase locally, transfer technology or train and hire local workers.

“Unless citizens and their elected representatives speak up forcefully and take action soon, the CETA puts the future availability of these policy tools and the continued viability of essential publicly-controlled services — such as waste, water, electricity and public transit — at serious risk.” Sinclair writes.

In other words, CETA — and indeed all “free” trade deals being crafted in this era of global corporate rule, neo-conservatism and privatization — are, in the famous words of Canada’s leading humanitarian thinker, Sen Eugene Forsey “the greatest ever romp of the rich to skin the poor in history.”

As the details of what Prime Minister Stephen Harper signed off on last week start to trickle out, Canadians should be appalled and angry.

“The European Union has made it clear that gaining sweeping access to sub-national procurement is its highest priority,” Sinclair continues. ” If Canadian citizens and their provincial, territorial and municipal governments remain silent and do not forcefully defend their procurement policies, this policy tool will be permanently sacrificed. Governments’ ability to povide high-quality universal, public services would also be eroded.”

Government procurement — the public purchase of goods and services of all kinds — can be an important economic development tool, Sinclair continues, especially when used to encourage broader public policy goals. But the problem is that the Harper government is not only the smaller and weaker partner in the CETA negotiations, but the politically needier participant.

“The present Canadian government does not believe in the use of government procurement as a progressive policy tool,” Sinclair says. Instead, it has consistently opposed Buy Canadian policies and will actually welcome international trade treaty obligations that tie the hands of provincial and local governments.

Perhaps the most frightening of all developments around the privatization blanket about to smother provincial and local governments across Canada will be the Ark of the privatizers’ Covenant — the privatization of Canada’s water.

“European multinationals, including Suez Environment, Veolia Environnement, Deutsche Bank, Price Waterhouse Coopers, DHL Express and Bilfinger Berger AG, have been leaders in the worldwide efforts to increase market share by eliminating public monopolies and privatizing essential services,” warns Sinclair.

“Their targets include water, energy, waste management, telecommunications, financial and postal services…While the notion may take many Canadians off guard, it is important to understand that European negotiators are working to downgrade regulatory standards and break up public services Canadians so value in order to increase the profit opportunities for European multinationals.”

Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians has long warned against the privatization of water. In an article published last week in the Huffington Post, Barlow writes that the Harper government has tied federal funding of municipal water infrastructure construction or upgrading to privatizing water services.

“Cash-strapped municipalities can only access federal funds if they adopt a public-private partnership model and several cities have recently put their water or wastewater services contracts up for public bids.”

If the big multinational water companies like Suez and Veolia bid successfully for these contracts — and under the new rules local governments are prohibited from favouring local bidders — a subsequent government cannot repatriate its citizens’ water unless it can afford to pay the new multinational owner huge compensation.

This has already happened twice under the North American Free Trade Agreement. An American energy company is currently using NAFTA to sue Canada for $250 million in damages because Quebec decided to protect its water by placing a moratorium on fracking.

A U.S. company successfully sued Ottawa for $130 million for the “water rights” it left behind when it abandoned its pulp and paper operations in Newfoundland, leaving workers without jobs or pensions.

“The Harper government has gutted every regulation and law we had in place to protect our freshwater supplies,” writes Barlow. “Now this deregulation is locked in as corporations from Europe as well as the U.S. can soon claim to have invested in an environment without water protection rules and sue any future government that tries to undo the damage.”

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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