At the time
this article was written Roger Bertrand was the Member of the Quebec National
Assembly for Portneuf and Chairman of the Committee on Institutions.
In December 2000 the
Committee on Institutions of the National Assembly tabled a report entitled
Quebec and the Free-Trade Area of the Americas: Political and Socioeconomic
Effects. Among other things it called for parliamentary representation in any
free trade agreement among nations of the western hemisphere. This
article summarizes the main points in that report. It is a revised version of
his presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs
and International Trade on April 5, 2001.
I would like to begin with a few
words about the Committee on Institutions of the National Assembly. It is one
of ten standing committees and is composed of twelve members from all political
parties in the National Assembly. The committee’s terms of reference include
the fields of justice, public security, the Constitution and international
affairs, relations with aboriginal people, youth, elections and the regulation
of professional bodies, as well as everything concerning the Executive Council.
Like all Quebec committees it has
the power of initiative which means that, with the consent of a majority of
members of each party, it may initiate examination of subjects that it deems to
be important in keeping with its duties. All the committee members agreed that
it was urgent and necessary to study this issue. I must point out that the work
done as part of this exercise was approached in a completely non-partisan
manner. The report produced by the committee was unanimous, and I think that
this is a fundamental consideration when judging the significance of the report
and the soundness of its recommendations.
We began this study in January
2000 and then in June we launched a far-ranging public consultation. We
innovated by calling for public briefs in the traditional manner, namely through
notices in newspapers, but also by allowing our fellow citizens to express
their views and opinions by means of the Internet. I believe it is important,
for the sake of democracy, to use and to take advantage of this opportunity to
reach even more people and obtain their input. In many cases, we are reaching
citizens who are not necessarily represented within large organizations.
In response to our invitation,
we received 41 briefs, collected 25 opinions from the Internet and met with 36
people and groups. The report was tabled in December and, in the committee’s
view, is only an initial step.
The plan for hemispheric
integration has four main components: first, preserving and strengthening
democracy; second, economic integration and free trade; third, eradicating
poverty and discrimination; four, sustainable development and the environment.
We therefore clearly realize
that this is a huge, comprehensive undertaking that encompasses not only
economic and financial issues, but political, social and democratic
considerations as well.
However, we must keep in mind
that the Free Trade Area of the Americas is the only component of this huge
initiative of hemispheric integration that seems to be moving ahead as was more
or less planned. It is only one of the components, but, clearly, it is the one
that has made the most progress. Committee members were concerned that the
other three major components of this huge undertaking were dragging behind.
As we all know, it is an
ambitious undertaking. Let me recall the main features of the Free Trade Area
of the Americas: an agreement that could be concluded as early as 2003 and
implemented as early as 2005; 800 million consumers; a total GDP of $10,000
billion annually, a single large market; an incomparable variety of economies
and people participating. Therefore, as parliamentarians, we have no choice but
to look very carefully at such initiatives, through the lenses of democracy,
the economy, the environment, social policies, culture and many others.
Let me go directly to our
recommendations and conclusions. The first main observation is the noticeable
lack of transparency that seems to characterize the whole process. Of course,
this is nothing new, as everyone has been talking about it for some time now.
All of the groups and individuals who testified before our committee mentioned
a definite lack of information, despite the commitments that had been made by
the heads of state at the start of the process.
The witnesses were almost
unanimous in levelling this criticism. Of course, such a situation has the
effect of fuelling the worst fears and leaving room for all kinds of
speculation, for example, on the future of public services and on the treatment
that will be given to water as well. In such a context, the issue of water is a
topical one. The committee deplores this situation and believes that we should
take steps to make this process much more transparent than it is now. It also
believes that, in order to clarify the issues, we should conduct an in-depth
evaluation of the lessons learned from these major free-trade associations that
we have belonged to for a number of years, at least a decade. Although it would
be a complex task, why do we not undertake an exhaustive study of the
advantages and disadvantages, the pros and cons of the NAFTA and the FTA? For
example, the North American Free Trade Agreement, is often credited – and
perhaps a little too quickly – with ushering in the period of prosperity that
we have experienced in the last few years and the increase in wealth that has
been observed in the participating countries. But to what extent are the
advantages that are currently observed attributable to an initiative like the
NAFTA? It is responsible for 90%, or perhaps for 10%, of the advantages. No one
can say today.
We therefore ask the following
question: before venturing rashly into an even broader economic association,
can we reasonably do without an in-depth study of the results of our experience
in the last 10 years? The committee consequently makes the recommendation
– I will speak to it a little later – that a thorough analysis and assessment
be conducted. Although it recognizes that there will be obstacles and
difficulties, these should not prevent us from going ahead with such an
The second main observation,
which is also receiving more and more attention, is that there is a democratic
deficit. To begin with, the implication of the first observation is that the
lack of transparency leads to the conclusion that there may be a democratic
deficit. In addition, however, despite the limited involvement of civil society
in the negotiating process itself, there is nothing to prevent broader, more
frequent and more constant participation by the various groups of civil society
in consultations and in monitoring the process than has been the case up to
Furthermore, there is a democratic deficit because of the almost
total absence of parliamentarians in the whole process, both upstream and
downstream, that is, both before the negotiations are initiated and in the
possible outcome of such negotiations.
I realize that, in the case of
the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the negotiations are not over and so we
parliamentarians cannot easily examine a possible agreement. But in other
cases, for example the NAFTA, we found that parliamentarians were involved in a
minimal way, after the fact.
Let us look at this question of
the lack of upstream involvement on the part of parliamentarians, which I could
compare to the process used in negotiating a collective agreement. What
happens? There is a general assembly that usually mandates an executive to
negotiate a certain number of items. In the second stage, the items are in fact
negotiated. During the actual negotiating process, the details of the
discussion are perhaps less distant, but information is nevertheless constantly
made available to members so that they may form an opinion on how things are
going. This is followed by the ratification of a draft agreement or a draft
Naturally, no comparison is perfect,
but I think that our executives should be wise enough to, in the first place,
ensure greater involvement of parliamentarians in developing negotiating
mandates and also in following the progress of the negotiations, without going
into detail, by providing information. Of course, not everything can be made
public during negotiations. There is no point in everything being public, as
this might make negotiations difficult. I have less parliamentary experience
than some of you around the table. I can understand that, but there should be
clear mandates at the start, mandates that we think should be approved by
parliaments. During the negotiations, there should definitely be much more
information available than there is currently and, at the conclusion of the
negotiations, parliaments should ratify the draft agreements signed in
The second problem, then, is the
democratic deficit, the fact that parliamentarians are absent from the process.
This is particularly important in the case of parliamentarians within a
federation, which is the situation of parliamentarians in the National Assembly
of Quebec. Not only are we still kept away from these various stages within the
process leading up to the signing of an agreement, but in addition, our own
executive is not at the negotiating table. Consequently, there is a twofold
As lawmakers, there are a number
of responsibilities that we must exercise in our fields of jurisdiction. In
these fields, we are not at all in a position to reassure in any way those
people whom we have the duty to represent that, in the end, any
agreement—signed or unsigned—is acceptable.
We have other reservations, and
I will just mention them quickly. There is the sharing of wealth. All of the
witnesses told us that they thought a Free Trade Area of the Americas could in
fact help create more wealth for all of the peoples concerned. But the major
obstacle is the sharing of the wealth. People who have given somewhat closer
study to what has happened in the areas where we already operate, wonder
whether the end result has not been to make the rich richer, while the poorest
classes have not become any wealthier and have not gained any advantage from
these large entities.
There are also the social
clauses. To what extent could the agreements that we might sign, or that might
be signed on our behalf, call into question some of the progress we have
achieved in areas such as working conditions and the environment? If we sign
them, to what extent might the social standards that we have adopted have to be
revised, and possibly lowered?
The environment is another
concern. There is the whole process of dispute settlement and its impact on
legislatures, which we have noted so far with regard to Chapter 11. This might
force a parliament to amend a legislative provision as a result of a settlement
or ruling of an international trade tribunal.
We have additional concerns
regarding the marketing of certain commodities. I mentioned water and
commercial services a few minutes ago.
I will attempt to group together
under five main headings the committee’s recommendations, that you will find in
the report which has been made public.
Our first main recommendation is
the duty to inform and involve. The general public must be informed,
parliamentarians must be informed, and all those who may have reasonable
concerns around the issues being discussed should be informed, and should also
Secondly, we recommend that we
assume our responsibilities. This message is directed in large part at our parliamentary
colleagues of the Americas. We believe that, together, we have not played our
role as we could have. Parliaments are the places where debates ought to be
held. They are intended to be places where people can make themselves heard on
such fundamental issues. We have observed, however, that few parliaments and
few parliamentarians have looked into these issues.
Few parliaments listened to what
various groups of citizens had to say about this initiative. But if our
constituents cannot make their views known to their elected officials, what
will happen? They will take to the streets.
I will summarize our third main
recommendation as follows: there must be respect. What has to be respected? Our
jurisdictions must be respected. We want respect for our jurisdictions as
parliamentarians in a parliament within a federation, and we want respect for
our values. In Quebec—and it is probably true in the other provinces of
Canada—we have a different way of doing things. We have economic tools, for
example, that are not used in other provinces like Ontario, and that is okay.
We have also opted for a pan-Canadian health care system that is largely
publicly funded and operated. Will the agreement that is going to be signed
jeopardize these choices that we have made in a democratic manner within our
society? So, we must be careful. The third recommendation is that jurisdictions
need to be respected, our values and our social choices need to be respected.
The fourth main recommendation is
that we work on all the components. Currently, as I said earlier, true progress
is being made on only one component, the Free Trade Area of the Americas
strictly speaking. We are dragging our heels on the other three components.
Lastly, there is a set of
recommendations that are intended more for our executive, for the government of
Quebec, suggesting that Quebec prepare itself to enter into this new