Sparks fly over free-trade issue in Canada. Public support dwindles as critics decry accord
Vancouver, British Columbia — The free-trade issue has stirred up a political thunderstorm in Canada. Edward Broadbent, leader of the left-of-center New Democratic Party (NDP), opposes the free-trade agreement between the United States and Canada and has called for an election on the issue. Initialed by negotiators early last month in Washington, the deal would eliminate over a maximum of 10 years all tariffs on the $130 billion (US) of trade between the two nations, plus many other barriers to cross-border commerce.
``Given its great impact, there should be a national election so that the people of Canada could pass judgment,'' he says.
John Turner, head of the Liberal Party, the larger opposition party, has not yet called for an election over free trade. But he has said that if the final version of the agreement reflects the basic principles already publicized, then a Liberal government would ``tear the deal up.''
However, the Progressive Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has a huge majority in the House of Commons and does not need to call an election for two years.
The latest public opinion poll shows the NDP backed by some 38 percent of voters. The Liberals got 35 percent and the Conservatives only 24 percent. Nineteen percent of those polled were undecided.
Well aware of these numbers and the fact that in 1911 a Liberal premier, Wilfrid Laurier, lost an election after reaching an ill-fated free-trade deal with the US, Mulroney could well await an upturn in his party's fortunes before calling an election.
Meanwhile, the deal still is being negotiated in Washington. Officials from both countries are hassling over details of the massive, tentative agreement, trying to draft the final legal text.
Under the attacks of the opposition, the popularity of free trade has suffered. A Toronto Globe-Environics poll late last month showed 49 percent of those quizzed supporting the idea of free trade, down 7 percentage points from June. Thirty-four percent opposed it, the same as in June. And 17 percent are undecided, an increase of 7 percent.
The debate has become highly emotional.
For example, Mr. Turner told an audience here recently: ``We are now an annex to the United States ... We gave away too much. We gave away our ability to determine our economic and political future as a nation ... We will become a 51st state.''
Simon Reisman, the chief Canadian negotiator for the agreement, once worked for Mr. Turner and maintains that the Liberal leader does not actually believe in his own highly nationalistic arguments against free trade with the US.
Turner is appealing to an ever-present fear among many Canadians of being overwhelmed economically, culturally, and politically by its giant neighbor.
Moreover, Mr. Reisman figures that should the Liberals win the next election, Turner would leave the free-trade treaty basically intact, though possibly taking ``a few buttons off it'' in new negotiations.
Canadian political analysts charge that Turner has taken an anti-free-trade position in an effort to unify his own divided party.
``Turner is finished,'' says Michael A. Walker, director of the Fraser Institute, a pro-free-enterprise think tank here. He says the difference between Turner's genuine views and his rhetoric is becoming increasingly obvious.
Mr. Walker also speculates that the free-trade issue could re-elect Mulroney in a three-way election fight, where only a plurality of the vote is necessary to win a majority in the House of Commons. His thesis is that the Conservatives would win enough pro-free-trade support in the Western provinces, the Atlantic provinces, and Quebec to offset losses in populous Ontario, where Liberal premier David Peterson opposes free trade.
British Columbia Premier William Vander Zalm favors the trade deal. Referring to Turner's charge that free trade would harm Canadian sovereignty, Mr. Vander Zalm said, ``He has got it quite in reverse.''
Free trade will provide more jobs for Canadians, he argued. ``If people are reasonably well off economically and secure for themselves and their families, they are going to be a lot more likely to wave the flag and be nationalistic than if suffering hunger and deprivation.'' Vander Zalm spoke about how free trade would open up the California market - ``the equivalent of the whole of Canada'' - to British Columbian exports. And he raised a historic objection of western Canadians that federal tariffs protect Ontario industry at their expense.
In Edmonton, James Horsman, the Minister of Federal and Intergovernmental Affairs, welcomed the more secure access to the American market the free-trade deal would provide for Alberta's natural gas and oil. ``We need that market,'' he said.
On the other side, the free-trade deal is opposed by the labor movement (which is affiliated to the NDP), some nationalists, and a few church groups.
Robert White, president of the Canadian United Automobile Workers Union, bought a two-page spread in many Canadian newspapers attacking the deal. The advertisement maintains Canada has yielded the right to control its own energy supply, foreign investment, cultural policies, national economic strategies, automobile strategy, and trade policy with other nations. He called for an election on free trade.
So far, Mulroney has ignored the plea.