Conservatives, Liberals, and the Colombian free trade deal -

Conservatives, Liberals, and the Colombian free trade deal


The government’s decision yesterday to accept a Liberal amendment to its free trade agreement with Colombia is being touted by the main architect of the side deal as a case study in how a minority Parliament should work.

Liberal MP Scott Brison, his party’s international trade critic, proposed the amendment to that would see Colombia produce an annual report, with Canadian input, on how the free trade agreement affects human rights.

Trade Minister Peter Van Loan accepted Brison’s proposal, and no wonder, since it guarantees that the Conservative minority in the House will now be backed by Liberal votes on this issue, enough to get legislation enacting the trade pact passed.

“The Prime Minister and the government have been receptive,” Brison said in a telephone interview yesterday. “It’s an example where minority parliaments can work productively. There’s a lot of dysfunctionality in this minority, but there are examples every now and then about how it can work.”

That’s an upbeat way of looking at the outcome, and generous toward the Tories for accepting a proposal from across the aisle. But the background to this highly unusual case of an opposition party shaping an international treaty—even negotiating with a foreign government—is interesting as more than a rare success story in bipartisan cooperation.

Close Liberal attention to this file goes back to last spring, when Brison and Michael Ignatieff met in Ottawa with the Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez and President Alvaro Uribe. Next, Brison and Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae traveled to Colombia in August for several days of meetings, not only with senior government officials, but also union leaders and human rights advocates who have their own perspective on Colombia’s dismal human rights record.

But the key discussions appear to have taken place in Davos in late January at the World Economic Forum. It’s from past meetings at the annual Swiss resort gathering that Brison knows Colombian Trade Minister Luis Plata. Their familiarity allowed them launch quickly into a series of conversations leading to the side deal that Brison finally proposed in the House yesterday.

It’s telling that the Conservatives were at first skeptical about Brison’s initiative, and then sat back and let the Liberals press on with negotiating the human-rights reporting amendment through to fruition.

Consider the players. Brison attends Davos, which is too easy to put down as a canapé-stoked holiday for the self-important. In this story, though, the forum turned out to have fostered productive relationships. The fact that Rae has deep experience working on human rights issues around the world had to have helped. And Ignatieff is, of course, a well-traveled human-rights specialist.

On the government side, the key figures on this file have been the previous trade minister, Stockwell Day, the current one, Van Loan, and the Prime Minister. Day is viewed as an effective minister and Van Loan as a useful political asset, but neither has a long track record of personal engagement on foreign issues. Stephen Harper’s preoccupation with foreign files ranks as one of the surprises of his prime-ministership, but this remains a relatively new facet of his political persona.

This isn’t to say the Colombian side-deal is a flawless solution that reflects some ingrained Liberal foreign-affairs genius. Indeed, NDP MP Peter Julian raised a valid objection yesterday, arguing that only an independent third party can properly assess progress, or lack of it, on human rights in Colombia.

But beyond the merits of Brison’s amendment, the unusual way it came about serves as a reminder that these Liberals bring a markedly different approach to foreign issues—far more shaped by the personal experiences and enthusiasms of the politicians themselves—than the Conservatives now in charge of running Canada’s relationship with the world.


Conservatives, Liberals, and the Colombian free trade deal

  1. No doubt that the Liberal approach right at this moment is considerably more concilliatory than usual it would have been after having their own leader stand up and drive a spike through his own party's heart on the abortion motion when hell fell over in public redfining the term GAFFE!

    • A spike through their heart…exaggerating much!

      • Through their foot, then?

        • Gets complicated … that foot being in their mouth and all …

  2. Well then lets hear it Canada for our hard working capital ‘O’ : opposition parties. Thank God we have them and please, enough of these prarie boys in kah-boy boots with designs on power. I have never seen such a nimble minded group in all my life: Day memorable for jet skiing in on to a press conference from an Okanogan lake (Safet y issue?) and I suppose PVL is up to a certain standard along with Jim Prentice but this is exactly the reason I never voted for this bunch of loafer wearing SOBS(sorry!) in the first place…lack of experience and expertise in the international arena…..broadcasting via YOUTUBE doesnt count! The entire group has exactly no idea on how this small slender think wedge of positve news reporting translates in the mind of the average Canadian….its a long road to go yet to remove the bitter taste from the mouths of Canadians in their taste for national politics…

    • You know, I was just start to get a warm fuzzy over the possibility that a possible non-partisan effort had resulted in a good, freer trade agreement with attention to human rights, something that everyone here should celebrate given the rancourous parliament we currently endure. then you have to go get all Stockewell Day …jet-sking…loafer wearing and bad spelling and ruin my groove. Why can't you recognize this for what this is, an attempt at improving trade relations tempered with a concern for human rights?

  3. Poor Mr. Brison. Wherever is he going to find another fig leaf at this time of year?
    He used up one and there's only so many around.

  4. Nice to see Scott having an impact on something as dear to his heart as free trade. He was always one of the most right-wing members of the old PC party from an economic point of view and it must be difficult for him to find a voice in the waffly-leftish-middlish party in which he now resides. It was a loss to both him and the Conservative party that he didn't stick it out after the merger and help define the new Tory party. I think there would still be a home for him there if he wanted one.

    • I don't know about your last sentence, and I'm still bothered by the fact that he (apparently) voted for the PC/CA merger just before jumping ship. But generally, I agree – I was pulling for Brison to win the PC leadership in '03, though I think I was one of the few people who liked him who didn't also hate McKay at the time! He had a lot of policies, such as downsizing ACOA, that would set him apart in the CPC of today, let alone the Liberals. Same could be said for Keith Martin on healthcare, when he ran for the CA leadership.

      Brison was an effective Finance critic after '97 as well, which made it all the more galling to see him pal around with Paul Martin once he crossed over.

      • Well, in reality it would be hard for Scott to come back to the Tories, or be accepted, as much as he would be a good fit philosophically. Too much of politics is personal, and while Churchill managed to "re-rat" as he put it, it is unlikely Scott would be able to make the same move. It is a shame though, as he is a talented man. I would have supported him for leader if he had finished ahead of Jim Prentice on the first ballot in '03 (I have to say I always liked Peter Mackay as well, although I hated the deal he made with Orchard). I think Scott would have been a good influence on the Tories had he stayed. It is nice to see him doing something constructive in opposition, since otherwise his talents are wasted with the Grits.

  5. Much as I do not like the policy, this is exactly how minority parliaments should work.

  6. Bad deal for Colombian democracy and human rights. Weak amendment. Colombia is not China: no argument that our trade with it unavoidable and necessary. And anyone who follows Colombian affairs knows Uribe & right-wingers are murderous, torturing thugs. FARC worse, but that's like saying IRA atrocities justified Prots' Paras, or UK excesses. Amendment, and whole deal, would have to be way more stringent to have the supposed democracy & human rights promotion effect. The thing's a lie. And Brison is a fool on foreign policy: "If we isolate Colombia in the Andean region and leave Colombia exposed and vulnerable to the ideological attacks of Chavez's Venezuela, we will be allowing evil to flourish." Anyone who can stand in the House and repeat such simple-minded tosh is not worthy of any position with external affairs implications.

  7. If there is free trade with Canada and Colombia it would just be helping the two country. But i do agree that the Colombian govermant need to work harder one human writes.

  8. The idea that we should not trade with countries that commit human rights abuses is rather silly. You know what's worse than living in a country with human rights abuses? Living in a really poor country with human rights abuses. Free trade should be sought for its own good, rather than being tied to reports or side-deals. Nonetheless, this amendment doesn't cause too much in the way of problems for the flow of goods, and hopefully won't kybosh the whole deal.

  9. I love the idea of free trade with Columbia. It's a poor country with a violent history and a hopeful recent past. Free trade with the first world is exactly the thing to keep progress moving in the right direction.

    I worry about the amendment, though. At best, it could be wonderful: an ideal compliment to open trade. And If the Liberals feel some ownership of the issue, they might work to make it succeed. But if the review starts being treated as way to score partisan points, it could prove very destructive.

  10. And we want free trade with Colombia for what reason exactly?

    • Because free trade improves our opportunities to export goods, thus creating more jobs in Canada and allowing us to have better lives. Do you need more reasons?

      • That is not actually correct. Free trade doesn't create jobs (and it costs jobs, but only in the short-run), it increases income.

        The advantages of trade:
        Part 1: gains from specialization
        Imagine two countries, both of which produce some mix of agricultural goods and computers. One is technologically advanced, one is not. The technologically advanced country may actually be more productive in both sectors, but that doesn't matter, the key issue is that each is relatively better at producing one type of good or the other.

        The total output of goods will be greater if each specializes in the production of the good they have a comparative advantage in (note comparative, not absolute). Workers in the less efficient sector will have to transition into the more efficient sector, however. But the gains from trade should be big enough to compensate them, and pay for job training programs, etc.

        Part 2: reducing monopoly rents
        Monopolies and oligopolies are inefficient. They raise prices and produce fewer goods than would be provided under perfect competition. Getting rid of tariff barriers opens up monopolistic companies to foreign competition, forcing them to lower prices and increase output. This is a substantial welfare gain for consumers.

        Part 3: technological diffusion
        Foreign goods may be more technologically advanced than domestic goods. Through trade, the less advanced country will gain access to goods that were previously unavailable. In the case of capital goods, those goods may play a key role in accelerating development.

        Part 4: world peace
        Increasing networks of trade bring increased interdependence. If all countries were reliant upon other countries for their economic well-being it would arguably reduce the likelihood that any would go to war with each other. Increased exchanges also help to generate cross-cultural understanding. Alternately, trade also gives us leverage over other countries.

        Part 5: lowering production costs/competitiveness
        Because free trade means that we get goods from other countries that can produce things more cheaply than us, it may also increase the competitiveness of Canadian goods being exported to other countries.

        There are other arguments for trade, but job creation is not a particularly strong one.

        • But why Colombia in particular?

      • Why Colombia?

        • Why not?!? They're in the center of the americas… Just a few miles off the coast of Panama and a great recipient of trade coming from various parts of the world. Because they have oil(2.500 millions barrels in reserve), coal, and gas. Because their cattle is aftosa-free, because they're the second most rainy area in the whole world. Because there's great potential in the fishing industry at those latitudes. Because there can be an exchange in agricultural technology that can benefit both countries. Because they have great gold, emeralds, uranium, silver and steel reserves. Because they have a huge textile industry that can benefit canadian markets at with better quality products than the ones coming from China or Asia. Because they have many tropical fruits and vegetables that is only available the tropical area and not the northern lattitudes….

        • You name it. There's a million reasons to do trade with that country, which alone, has a lot more potential than half of South America combined. Why do you think the European Union is negotiating a free trade agreement?!? Why do you think Korea, Panama, Singapore, China and Japan are negotiating free trades with the Colombians?!? Why do you think Chile, Brazil, and Central America have free trades already functioning with Colombia?!? Maybe is about time you stop thinking that the world rotates around you or the US….