Agricultural leaders demand delicate touch to any potential NAFTA changes
Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, August 16, 2017 4:10AM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, August 16, 2017 5:56PM EDT
OTTAWA -- Major agricultural federations are urging NAFTA's negotiators to skip the continent's farms and ranches if they're looking for sectors in need of a makeover.
The demand Wednesday for a "do no harm" approach to agricultural provisions in the deal was part of a joint message from leaders representing the industries in Canada, Mexico and the United States.
They agreed if it's not broken, don't fix it.
"We've got something that's working -- don't do something in the negotiations that's going to undermine that," Ron Bonnett, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, told reporters in a joint conference call from Washington.
"Because that's going to undermine not only farmers and ranchers, but also all of the jobs that are related to farming and ranching in all three countries."
Bonnett, along with his counterparts from the U.S. and Mexico, made the plea on the opening day of NAFTA's renegotiation.
They delivered their message after U.S. trade czar Robert Lighthizer's announced the Trump administration would seek major changes to the deal -- not mere tweaks.
But the agricultural leaders were pleased to hear Lighthizer single out U.S. farmers and ranchers among those who have benefited from NAFTA.
"This has been a good trade treaty for North American agriculture from Mexico to Canada and we want to make sure that we have our voice heard loud and clear," said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Duvall also warned that negotiators should avoid swapping any U.S. gains in agriculture in order to boost other business sectors.
Despite their hands-off instructions, they listed several ways NAFTA 2.0 could further boost ag-related trade volumes. The recommendations include: further regulatory harmonization, easing cross-border flows and updated provisions to adapt to technological innovations.
Duvall noted the three countries are bound to disagree during the talks on agricultural issues, but with much at stake he stressed they should enter bargaining "with cool heads" and focus on shared goals.
One disputed area that could erupt into a much-bigger NAFTA fight is Canada's supply-managed dairy sector.
"I think we could all identify areas where we could create friction," Bonnett said when asked about the system that maintains import limits and price controls on dairy and poultry products.
"We decided to concentrate on areas where we had common interests."
Chrystia Freeland, Canada's foreign affairs minister, has promised to defend supply management in the NAFTA talks.
That vow was on Ottawa's NAFTA wish list, which Freeland released earlier this week.
Stakeholders have been lining up on either side of the core objectives -- some say it covered key points, while others worried about its silence on their top concerns.
The list includes boilerplate trade goals ranging from cutting red tape, to a push for "progressive" chapters on the environment, labour, gender rights and Indigenous relations.
But for some stakeholders, it's what was missing from Freeland's list that worries them.
Privacy advocate Vincent Gogolek was disappointed her priorities failed to come to the defence of privacy laws in British Columbia and Nova Scotia, which the United States has already targeted.
Last month, the U.S. served notice it wanted to get rid of measures that restrict cross-border data flows, or require the use or installation of local computing facilities. Some worry it would limit Canada's ability to protect sensitive information such as health or financial data from foreign agencies.
"Of course, you don't do these negotiations in public and these will be challenging negotiations for obvious reasons," said Gogolek, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.
"But I think that makes it even more important that the government of Canada be very clear in terms of this is not something they're going to bargain off.
"What we're talking about here are privacy rights and rights shouldn't be negotiated against trade in goods and services."
The United Steelworkers initially criticized Ottawa for producing a strategy with few details -- particularly its plan to pursue labour and environmental standards. But national director Ken Neumann said Freeland added more "meat on the bone" during a meeting Tuesday with labour leaders.
Neumann, however, still had concerns about Freeland's intention to seek reform of NAFTA's investor-state dispute settlement process.
It's known as Chapter 11 and it involves companies suing governments. Freeland said she wants reforms so that "governments have an unassailable right to regulate in the public interest."
"It is a bad mechanism and it cannot be reformed because it gives foreign companies the right to sue," Neumann said. "We see no rationale for it."
Other groups were encouraged by Freeland's objectives to ease cross-border barriers by loosening bureaucracy, harmonizing regulations and opening up professional mobility.
These goals -- particularly the desire to cut red tape -- are also high on the wish lists of a pair of major industry associations.
"What the minister said was very consistent with our submission to the government," said Dennis Darby, president of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters.
Corinne Pohlmann, a senior vice president for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said some of Freeland's remarks also aligned with her group's priorities. She added that she would have liked to hear more specifics about Canada's plan to support small businesses in the NAFTA talks.