Canada Votes 2015

Could free trade become an election issue?

Poll shows even Conservative supporters are uneasy about CETA
Photo: Janet Lackey

A new poll released today by the Council of Canadians shows significant opposition, even among Conservative voters, to elements of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement currently being negotiated with the European Union.

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The poll, an advance copy of which was provided to Ricochet, was conducted online by Ekos Research between Sep. 8 and 15 among 1,092 Canadian adults.

It found that 71 per cent of Canadians, including 62 per cent of self-identified Conservative voters, support “the Parliamentary Budget Officer conducting an economic assessment of the Canada-Europe free trade deal before it is ratified by Parliament.”

The poll also found that 61 per cent of Canadians oppose extending investor-state dispute settlement rights to European investors, rights defined in the poll as similar to those which exist for American investors under NAFTA. Broken down by party affiliation, 71 per cent of Greens, 68 per cent of New Democrats, 60 per cent of Liberals and 49 per cent of Conservatives oppose including investor-state provisions in CETA. Thirty-two per cent of Conservatives support their inclusion, highest of all the parties.

61 per cent of Canadians oppose extending investor-state dispute settlement rights to European investors

These investor protection mechanisms have become a staple of international trade agreements, and allow a foreign company to sue if a country’s policies negatively affect their investment or future profits.

Critics allege that including this kind of enforceable provision in trade agreements is anti-democratic because it prevents sovereign governments from taking action to, for example, reduce carbon emissions, enforce higher labour standards or source goods and services locally, if such actions would negatively affect foreign investors.

The Conservative government is a strong supporter of international trade deals, arguing that they are essential to open foreign markets to Canadian products. The government initially hoped to conclude negotiations on CETA before the current campaign and run on this success, but the deal is now not expected to be finalized until after the election.

The Liberals also support the deal, although they’ve expressed some reservations, while the NDP has reserved judgement until they are able to see a final version of the deal’s text.

The NDP generally opposes investor-state protections, arguing they are not necessary in trade deals, but they have also said that they assess trade deals as a whole. The party has voted for trade deals containing investor-state provisions at least twice, in the case of deals with South Korea and Jordan, while voting against others with Panama and Honduras.

“If I were an NDP or Liberal strategist, I would be looking at these results very closely” Sujata Dey, trade campaigner with the Council of Canadians, told Ricochet in a phone interview. “We know there’s a struggle between those two parties to win over voters, and clearly many of those voters have concerns with trade agreements.”

It’s almost become taboo in this country to say there’s a problem with trade agreements

“It’s almost become taboo in this country to say there’s a problem with trade agreements, and there’s a lot of corporate cheerleading for their benefits. What we need is some kind of objective analysis of those benefits, and not just the benefits for corporate Canada but for all of us. Canadians want a debate on this issue, and they want independent information.”

Dey noted that the poll did not ask Canadians if they supported or opposed the trade deal in its entirety because they felt there wasn’t enough public awareness of the deal and its implications for Canadians to make an informed assessment.

Despite the ongoing negotiations over CETA and another controversial trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the issue of trade has been largely invisible in this election campaign. That may change in Thursday’s televised debate on the economy. Both Liberals and New Democrats are looking for issues on which they can differentiate themselves, and either party could endorse a review by the PBO as a measure of transparency, or decide to take a clearer position against the inclusion of investor-state protections in future trade deals.

If nothing else this poll suggests that the conventional wisdom on trade, that Canadians overwhelmingly and uncritically support all trade deals, needs to be revised.

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