Leaders' agenda is complex, not sinister

Sommet de Montebello - 20 et 21 août 2007

Stephen Harper, George W. Bush and Felipe Calderón meet Monday and Tuesday at Montebello, and there, we are told, they will impose a continent-wide draft for military service, destroy the environment, sell us out to the oil companies, create a common currency, confiscate Canada's water, privatize our health care (but "socialize" U.S. health care), and wipe out thousands of jobs. Then, their work done, maybe they'll play golf.
The "Security and Prosperity Partnership," the framework for the meeting, has not much alarmed the public, despite the best efforts of union and leftist groups in Canada, in uneasy tandem with ill-informed U.S. conservative xenophobes. Protests started last week, in a desultory mid-August way, but prudent officials have had to prepare Montebello for large-scale tumult like that at Quebec City's 2001 Summit of the Americas, and previous NAFTA meetings.
Remember NAFTA? The North American Free Trade Agreement? It, too, we were told, was going to steal our water, padlock our factories, and turn us into Americans. But after 13 years we know that NAFTA, while far from perfect, has been a blessing. Yet now we're hearing a comparable litany of conspiracy theories about the Security and Prosperity Partnership, allegedly furtively planning the nightmare of "deep integration." There is, it's true, something a little North-Korea-like about that name. Can't the international capitalist conspiracy even afford a decent public-relations firm? The SPP is really just a sensible continuing push for tri-lateral co-operation. The "security" part refers to terrorism, but also to, for example, long-haul truck safety. With the U.S. Homeland Security department so determined to tighten the border these days, some very-high-level emphasis on co-operation will be useful.

Since 2005, when the three countries' leaders began the process, the SPP has led their officials to look at hundreds of items. An accord on pipeline regulation, for example, is increasing compliance-data sharing and joint training, with an eye to a more uniform regulatory approach for cross-border pipelines. Will this also mean, as some claim, that oil-processing jobs will be piped south, in the form of tar-sands bitumen? If there is technological and economic sense in that, maybe. But if there's sense in it, why object? When the three North American leaders held the second SPP meeting, at Cancun last year, they covered issues such as how to keep the continent's economy functioning in the event of a bird-flu pandemic. If there had been a major outbreak, how many of the SPP's critics would have denounced governments for being unprepared? The three amigos also discussed co-ordinating energy-efficiency standards to reduce the bureaucratic friction that interferes with trade. And they spoke of "compatible electronic processes for supply-chain security" using "advanced electronic cargo information to analyze risk and ensure quick and efficient processing at the border." Is this so outrageous? Harper, Calderón and Bush will not, of course, be writing pipeline regulations themselves. But by demonstrating the political will for co-operation, and telling their ministers to tell their deputies to tell their assistants to get the lead out, leaders can set the tone.
What some unions, unelected "civil society" activists and other "progressives" find alarming is that the three leaders decided at Cancun that all these technical questions needed input from the private sector. The North American Competitiveness Council of senior business executives was quickly born.
Some - in Canada unions, the New Democrats, Maude Barlow's Council of Canadians, and others - say elected government heads and business leaders ought not to discuss such matters unless labour, environmentalists and others are also at the table. That is a recipe for stagnation.
We have a government to govern, and a Parliament - where the government currently has only a minority - to pass laws and monitor the government. The notion that co-operating with our neighbours is a conspiracy that must be "resisted" by "the people" is not only anti-democratic but downright paranoid.

Governments and their business advisers have not responded clearly enough to the SPP's critics, who have the advantage that it is easier to get headlines by discovering a "business plot" than by unveiling joint standards for energy-efficient stoves.
In fact, a lot of solid information about the SPP is available online, including the report the business leaders made to the three governments that will be discussed at Montebello (www.ceocouncil.ca/en/north/north.php and click the Feb. 23 item under "What's New.") And nothing the three leaders do or say can change Canadian law. Only Parliament can change our laws.
True, on some security issues - Canada aping the messy U.S. "no-fly" list , for example - our government has been too willing to follow the U.S. lead. And certainly every government action, from grand treaties to tiny regulations, deserves public scrutiny.
True, too, that some regulatory changes might be unwise. In May, CanWest News Service said pesticide limits on fresh produce are to be changed to harmonize with U.S. standards. This will reduce pesticide use in 10 per cent of cases but raise it in 40 per cent. A Canadian official said changes would be allowed only "where this poses no risk." That's a little too bland a claim, but it is no reason to abandon efforts to find sensible joint standards.
But consider that issue another way: When was the last time anyone looked at Canada's pesticide limits? In a sense, the harmonization process has made the workings of government more transparent here, not less.
Government is a ponderous, complex machine that demands constant fine tuning - and constant public attention. But paranoia about "secret agendas" serves no good purpose. Neither does needless red tape.
In the broad context, the more closely you look at the SPP agenda, the less alarming it appears.

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