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What Would a Coalition Government Mean for NAFTA and the SPP?

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Stephen Harper once again failed to secure a majority mandate in the last election. In the process, he has managed to bring the Liberal and New Democratic Party (NDP) together, with plans to form a coalition if the minority Conservative government is defeated on a non-confidence vote. Harper has shown an unwillingness to work with the opposition parties and assumed that he could bully his agenda through another minority parliament. He essentially backed the opposition into a corner with plans to remove some of their funding. A move to form a coalition government has been called undemocratic and nothing more than a power grab, but many would have to agree that the last thing Canada needs is another election. A Liberal-NDP coalition should be given a chance to govern. Many see this as an opportunity to have a functional parliament, which could serve to curb the apathy that many Canadians feel towards their politicians. It could also be used to further press for renegotiating NAFTA, and could finally lead to a parliamentary debate on the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) of North America.

The Liberal-NDP coalition agreement would expire on June 30, 2011. There is also an 18- month written pledge of support from the Bloc Quebecois. Their leader, Gilles Duceppe, said that at this time, a coalition government will best represent Quebec interests. The Bloc would prop up the government, but would not be formally part of the coalition. Some view this as hypocritical, that Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, a staunch federalist who crafted the Clarity Act, would have to rely on the support of the separatist Bloc party. Harper has said that a coalition with the Bloc will harm Canada. The single biggest reason given by the opposition parties for forming a coalition government is that they feel Harper has not adequately addressed the economic crisis. The Liberals, NDP, and the Bloc Quebecois have agreed in principal to a $30 billion stimulus package for the auto and forestry sectors. Dion would be the interim prime minister under a coalition government and be replaced in May by the winner of the Liberal leadership race. Harper could prolong the matter to pursue other actions to save his government by asking for a parliamentary recess until late January, when the Budget is to be tabled. In buying more time, he could hope that cracks in the coalition start to form, and that Canadians reject the very notion of government assuming power without being elected. He could also ask Governor General Michaelle Jean to call an election. Dion has sent a letter to the Governor General, stating that he has the confidence of the House to form a coalition, should Harper’s minority government be defeated.

The Council of Canadians supports a progressive coalition government, and they have outlined what they feel should be some of its priorities, including renegotiating NAFTA. They have called for the removal of the Chapter 11 clause, along with water and energy provisions from NAFTA. The Council of Canadians has also called for the implementation of an independent Canadian energy strategy as well as a national water policy that bans bulk water exports. Vancouver writer, Murray Dobbin, said in a recent article that such a coalition government “would be based on a limited policy agenda.” He went on to say that, “The Liberals’ Bay Street agenda could be put on hold as the price it paid to survive and rebuild.” What could a coalition government mean for the already stalled SPP agenda?

It is interesting to note that former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, and former Liberal finance minister John Manley, who have both been chosen as part of Dion’s economic team, were also instrumental in the launching of the SPP. It began under Martin, and the agenda has been carried on by the Harper Conservative government. With the release of Liberal Blueprint for the North American Leaders Summit in Montebello, Quebec in August of 2007, Dion stated that Harper was taking the SPP in a very different direction. The Liberal policy paper called for “the complete list of the SPP working groups, their contact persons, and participating membership; requiring quarterly public disclosure of their discussions; providing opportunities for public input into the SPP; and allowing Parliament to examine the SPP’s work.” It is hard to take this seriously because Dion and the Liberals, for the most part, have been silent and complacent on the SPP and plans for a North American Union. A coalition with the NDP could force the Liberals to carry through on promises to make the SPP more transparent.

As part of the agreement to form a coalition government, the NDP would have six out of 24 cabinet positions, with the Liberals holding the finance minster portfolio. There is no doubt that NDP leader, Jack Layton, would be part of the cabinet, but it is my hope that NDP MP Peter Julian also plays a crucial role in a coalition government. He is credited with getting the Standing Committee on International Trade to hold hearings on the SPP. The NDP has rejected the SPP and deeper integration into a North American Union. They have worked with legislators from the U.S. and Mexico in order to try and stop the SPP, and tabled a motion in parliament in an effort to make the working groups more accountable. They have held forums and town hall meeting on the SPP all across Canada. Julian is on record, calling for a full parliamentary debate on the SPP, and with a coalition government, this might become a reality.

Some see a coalition government as an opportunity for the Liberal party to rebuild for the future. Others fear that, with the NDP part of the government, it could take away more votes and seats at the expense of the Liberals in the next election. Could this also be a possible first step in trying to unite the left? What will be the fate of the Canada-Colombia FTA under a coalition scenario? This could very well be the final death blow for the SPP and another nail in the coffin for a North American Union. My wish is that that if a Liberal-NDP coalition government does take power, they will better represent the majority of Canadians.

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Dana Gabriel is an activist and independent researcher. He writes about trade, globalization, sovereignty, security, as well as other issues.

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