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.

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