OPINION: Media Failing Citizens on Corporate Rights Deals

Murray Dobbin
By Murray Dobbin
July 15th, 2016

The Trudeau government is hell-bent on ratifying two massive investment agreements — the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — that will radically undermine Canadian democracy. Yet very few Canadians are informed about these deals because our mainstream media has been so irresponsible in reporting on their impacts. The first-order irresponsibility is the media’s absolute determination to cast these deals as “trade deals” when even a casual reading reveals that they are corporate rights agreements which, because they are treaties, trump our courts and constitution. They are, in large part, investment protection agreements — protecting the largest corporations in the world from citizens who have the temerity to desire laws and regulations protecting their health, environment and quality of life.

For 25 years, the media has steadfastly refused to come anywhere near the truth of these deals and the recent Brexit crisis has fostered another round of media groupthink. The new favourite media frame to dismiss people opposed to these agreements? Isolationism.

Three prominent Canadian media personalities serve as typical examples of journalists eager to dispense their wisdom while demonstrating an abysmal ignorance of the actual nature of these agreements — and the fact more and more people (in Britain, the U.S. and especially in the EU) are learning about them and rejecting them.

First up is Chris Hall, the usually thoughtful and careful host of the CBC’s The House. Interviewing federal trade minister Chrystia Freeland about the summit of the three NAFTA leaders, he asked: “Were the three amigos tying to send a message to the world about isolationism?” That was a softball for Freeland who opined about “[a]nti-globalization sentiment … [which] is in some places [expressed] as vociferously anti-trade sentiment.” This, of course, is utter nonsense: critics of CETA and the TPP never express “anti-trade” sentiment. Why? Because both critics and advocates of these agreements know that they go far beyond simply reducing tariffs on imports. The targets in the latest round of agreements are things that governments do “behind the border” — government regulation, government subsidies, government purchasing from local companies, publicly owned corporations. Hall would know this if he bothered to read any of the think-tank pieces that provide the corporate rationale for the latest wave of agreements.

Then there’s Doug Saunders of The Globe and Mail in a column entitled “Isolationism and the fear of the foreign.” Saunders muses about the irrational, popular response when “[i]nequality rises and life becomes harder” — which is “to put up walls, blame foreigners and try to isolate yourself from the world.”  He uses the term isolationism or isolate seven times and then declares: “Arguments in favour of cutting off trade and political relations have almost always been, at root, election bids based on fear of the foreign.” Again, the classic straw man — phantom millions calling for an end to trade and the severing of diplomatic relations.

And lastly, there is The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson, in an otherwise excellent article about Canada’s admirable openness, slipping easily into the anti-trade groupthink: “Arguments about the need to close borders in order to husband jobs do less well here because so many Canadians know their own job depends on access to foreign markets.” For the record, nearly 80 per cent of Canada’s economy is domestic and despite such agreements, in May we recorded a near-record trade deficit of $3.2 billion.

Of course, not one of these A-list journalists can identify a single article or opinion piece by critics of these deals arguing either that we should close our borders to trade or “cut off” political relations. It raises the question — have any of them actually examined these agreements? They cannot, surely, have missed the fact that most critics have focussed on the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions that allow corporations to sue governments for passing laws or regulations that affect their profits.

 When it comes to signing new investment agreements, Canada is like a barroom brawler who repeatedly goes back to the same bar regardless of how often he gets beaten to a pulp. Canada already has a humiliating record of getting sued by corporations exploiting the ISDS provisions of investment agreements. Out of 129 countries who have signed these agreements, Canada ranks sixth regarding the number of investor-state suits taken against it and has been sued far more often than the U.S. Canadian taxpayers have had to cough up tens of millions of dollars either because tribunals awarded damages against Canada or because our government has given in and paid off companies that have launched investor-state suits.

Yet with CETA, the Canada-EU deal, we are inviting an exponential increase in these lawsuits from the corporations of the 28 EU member states. European corporations love to litigate through investment treaties and are responsible for roughly half of all the cases worldwide, three times the number taken up by U.S. corporations. Seven out of the top 10 countries that are the home base of companies suing under investment treaties are European Union members.

What corporate CEO would sign a contract knowing that it would dramatically increase the odds of their company getting sued? But that’s what successive Canadian prime ministers have been eager to do. It would be wrong to think that this is done out of stupidity. If you shift your perspective, and think of government trade officials as negotiating not for us but for corporations, then the behaviour seems quite rational.

Transnational corporations are not content with their existing ability through investor-state suits to force governments to pay if they choose to regulate. Provisions inserted into CETA will help corporations strangle regulations in their cribs.

Among CETA’s many affronts to democracy is how it dictates foreign involvement in domestic decision-making about new regulations, even when these regulations would not treat foreign companies any differently than domestic ones. CETA actually guarantees foreign corporations (“persons” in trade lingo) the right to participate in public consultations about proposed regulations on terms no less favourable than provided to Canadian citizens.

Picture a post-CETA Canadian hearing on bottled water standards and imagine seats at the table automatically reserved for European corporations like Evian. If you find it hard to believe that trade officials would forever erode Canadian democracy in this way, read the wording for yourself in the actual CETA text posted by the government: p. 19, Article 4.6.1.

Seriously, you need to read this.

Canadians are being portrayed by our media as good little globalizers, supportive of these agreements in contrast with the badly behaved Brexiters and Trump and Sanders supporters. But a recent Angus Reid poll revealed that just one in four Canadians think NAFTA has been good for the country and that we should keep the deal as-is. Forty per cent think it has been bad for workers and 60 per cent think it has mostly benefitted corporations. Just eight per cent think Canada got the best deal of the three NAFTA countries.

But if the elite journalists can’t bear to listen to the unwashed, angry masses, perhaps they would listen to someone with impeccable elite credentials: Lawrence Summers, a former U.S. Treasury secretary and former chief economist with the World Bank. In a July 6 article in the Financial Times, Summers executed one of the most dramatic turn-arounds in support for these agreements. Summers stated that if we replaced “reflex internationalism” with “responsible nationalism” then “international agreements would be judged not by how much is harmonized or by how many barriers are torn down but whether citizens are empowered.” By that standard, the new agreements that Trudeau and the media cheerleaders are pushing are a disaster. Until Hall, Saunders and Ibbitson do some serious study of these agreements, maybe they should quit writing about them.

Murray Dobbin has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble’s State of the Nation column.

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