Mr. Speaker, I find the debate that has been going on between our colleagues for the last minutes interesting. It illustrates quite well what my colleague for Terrebonne referred to yesterday, that is, for almost the last three years now, we have been amazed to hear the Liberal government speak in favour of free trade in this House and on at forums around the world, since it was so opposed to the Free Trade Agreement with the United States and, later on, to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Thus, like our colleagues of the Reform Party, we are very happy to see this quite spectacular conversion on the part of our Liberal colleagues.
This being said, I am happy to rise today in this House to speak on Bill C-61, an Act to implement the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement.
I must say at the outset that, even though we are critical of the way in which the Liberal government singularly excluded the official opposition from the negotiations along with all the other players interested in expressing their points of view on this matter, the government can be assured of the support of the Bloc Quebecois because we are in favour of free trade and globalization of markets, which anyway reflect an irreversible trend in world trade.
After the United States and Mexico, here is a third state, which is a lot farther from our frontiers, that will in all likelihood, in January, 1997, enter the group of countries with which Canada will remove all trade barriers.
The Bloc Quebecois favours the establishment of closer ties between Israel and Canada. We think that Quebecers and Canadians can only win from such an agreement, since the free flow of goods and the increased competition promoted by free trade will give our respective peoples access to a larger range of products at better costs. For these reasons, the Bloc Quebecois is in favour of this free trade agreement, which, as I said, will allow Canadian businesses to increase their presence in Israel and eventually in other countries in the Near or the Middle East.
This free trade agreement with Israel is designed to eliminate practically all duties on products traded between the two countries. Israel, with a population of 6 million-which, by the way, is just a little smaller than the population of Quebec-will have closer ties to Canada since tariff barriers that have restricted the free movement of goods until now will soon be eliminated.
This bill, which is divided into three parts and includes 62 clauses, will provide, among other things, for the elimination of duties on all industrial products as of January 1, 1997, except for two products for which the elimination of duties will be done more gradually, namely women's bathing suits and certain cotton fabrics.
In addition to those two products, the agreement also provides for a reduction of duties on most agri-food products, except for dairy products as well as egg and poultry products, as agreed by both parties.
This agreement comes just at the right moment to promote trade between Canada and Israel. In 1995, bilateral trade between the two countries reached $450 million or so, a 37 per cent increase from the previous year. As for Canadian exports to Israel, they stood at $236 million in 1995, up practically 50 per cent from 1994.
Trade between Canada and Israel has been increasing constantly over the last few years.
This is why the time has come to eliminate the trade barriers between the two countries. As Quebec's Deputy Prime Minister was saying, in October 1995, in a letter to the federal Minister of International Trade, Quebec, and I quote: "[-] has always been a strong defender of freer trade between countries-he was referring to the Free Trade Agreement, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organization-and still supports freer trade as an instrument of growth". The Bloc Quebecois is in complete agreement with this view.
What is special about the State of Israel is that it is located in a geopolitical context completely different from ours. The history of the Jewish state has not been all peace and tranquillity, for most of the neighbouring Arab countries have been in an official state of war against it since its creation in 1948.
Certain events in the recent history of Israel are more significant than others. For example, the Six Day War that took place in 1967, culminating in Israel's victory over its neighbours, resulted in the occupation of territories that unfortunately has continued right up until the present.
The names of these territories continue to be well known to us today, because they are still at the centre of world news. Naturally, this presence only adds to tensions between Jews and Arabs, because even though Israel withdrew from the Sinai in 1982 and from the Gaza Strip in 1994, it still occupies East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the greater part of the West Bank.
However, in spite of the peace process set in motion in Madrid in 1991, followed by the signature of the 1994 accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, better known as the PLO, the peace process still has a long way to go.
The tragic assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on November 5, 1995, dealt a disastrous blow to the peace process. This man, whose goal for many years had been to see the people of Israel finally able to live free of conflict, said in his last speech, just moments before being shot down by a young fanatic: "I was a man of war, but today we have a chance at peace. I believe we must take this chance, so deep is our yearning for an end to the conflict".
His assassination led to a deterioration in the situation. Last spring, the repeated suicide bombings by the Hezbollah prompted the Israeli army to carry out air raids and bombing attacks on southern Lebanon. These attacks left over 150 Lebanese dead, most of them civilians.
A few weeks ago, the decision by the new government of Benjamin Netanyahu to reopen the underground gallery leading to the site of the Al-Aqsar Mosque, the third most sacred Islamic religious site, led to riots in which some fifty Palestinians and some fifteen Israelis were killed. We sincerely hope that Prime Minister Netanyahu will re-examine his current hard line with respect to Palestinian autonomy.
It may be worthwhile to point out that the present Canadian government constantly maintains that human rights are promoted through trade links. Yet, the state of Israel has already signed a free trade agreement with the United States, in 1985, followed by a similar one with the European Union in 1988, and now with Canada. But have we seen any improvement in the situation? No.
We believe that the Israeli government ought now to be seeking solutions for reconciliation with the Palestinian authorities. After all, is politics not the art of compromise? Speaking of compromise, it would certainly be worth while to explore the possibility of expanding this free trade agreement to the Palestinians living in the occupied territories.
The first step would, of course, be to obtain the go-ahead from the Palestinian authorities, in order to have the assurance that their inclusion in an Israel-Canada treaty was indeed what they wanted. It is possible that, expansion of the agreement to include the Palestinians would result in increased employment in the occupied territories, which might eventually contribute to stabilizing the social climate.
The negotiations leading to the signature of this agreement were held throughout this entire troubled period. They began in November 1994, and ran until January 1996, and led to an agreement signed by the Minister of International Trade for Canada and the Israeli Minister of Trade and Industry, on July 31, 1996.
As the party forming the official opposition, we have difficulty accepting that virtually the entire process leading to this agreement was held in secret, with no public debate whatsoever. It is understandable that the negotiating process itself needs to be carried out behind closed doors, that is natural. We know that the negotiators are faced with a tough job and have to negotiate many pitfalls and obstacles, but we would appreciate progress reports on the negotiations.
Now we are not asking for parliamentarians to be present at the negotiating table, but we do believe that in a democracy, it is important to avoid any systematic exclusion of those who represent the people.
Remember that the most important issue in the 1988 election was the free trade agreement between Canada and the United States, to which the Liberals were opposed. Many groups that knew they would be affected by the agreement could therefore take part in the debate.
It was by defending their points of view and by making representations to the political authorities, that stakeholders, company directors and spokespersons for community and environmental groups were able to influence the tenor of the clauses included in the agreement before it was signed.
During the negotiations leading up to the North American Free Trade Agreement, the unions took a position on labour-related issues and expressed their fears about NAFTA. Environmental groups also expressed their concerns about environmental issues. Although the results were not satisfactory to all stakeholders, the fact remains that before the agreement was signed in December 1992, there had been had a major debate in the public arena.
The treaty dealt with in the bill before the House today has now been signed. Negotiations have been finalized and nothing can be changed. Without repeated interventions by the official opposition, which managed to draw the government's attention to the problems that such an agreement would represent for the lingerie and bathing
suit industry in Quebec, decisions that would have had a disastrous impact on this sector might have been made.
In fact, this industry would have been in serious jeopardy, since the State of Israel imports its fabrics from the European Union duty free, which it gives it a competitive edge on Quebec and Canadian markets. If we had not raised this issue in the House in November 1995, it is not certain that the negotiators would have been aware of the problem. And perhaps hundreds of jobs would have been lost in the process, especially in Quebec.
Canada is now busy negotiating free trade treaties right and left. We approve of the opening up of this country to various markets, but it is absolutely necessary to review the process leading up to the signing of these agreements.
The bathing suit issue is only one example of the potentially negative consequences of an agreement negotiated without public consultation. Although the agreement with Israel has already been signed, there is still time to improve the process for future free trade agreements being considered by this government. We are thinking for instance of current negotiations taking place between Canada and Chile, which are to lead to the signing of an agreement on or about November 15 this year.
Officials at Foreign Affairs and International Trade have given us the assurance that information on these negotiations will be made available to us. We can only hope that the ministers responsible for Foreign Affairs and International Trade are prepared to give their approval for the release of such information.
It is imperative to prevent a recurrence of this kind of situation, so that the opposition can do its job properly. Such a cavalier attitude on the part of the government is troubling, especially because the government knew quite well it could count on the support of opposition parties. Why persist in infuriating opposition parties when we could have presented the picture of a solid consensus to our trading partners?
If the government really wants open and transparent debates, it should practice openness and transparency itself. Otherwise, we will have to conclude, as it is the case now, that it prefers secrecy and obscurity. I plan to demonstrate the extent of this government's pettiness and inordinate mysteriousness with the official opposition on this whole issue.
Last April 25, during a special session of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade on Israeli bombardments in South Lebanon, I conveyed to department representatives my reservations concerning the negotiations on free trade with Israel when it was bombarding civilian populations and openly crossing the internationally recognized borders of another independent country.
One official of the department replied that negotiations were interrupted pending the election of a new government in Israel. That statement seemed confirmed later on by replies we received from the Office of the Minister of International Trade. In fact, in May and June, we called the office of the minister a few times to find out when the negotiations would end and when the agreement would be signed and we were always told that the agreement was to be signed only in January 1997.
And yet, a few weeks ago-on September 19, to be exact-the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs informed the committee members that the agreement had been ready to be signed since March, and that the official signing, which was to have taken place during a visit of the Prime Minister of Israel in Canada, had been postponed because of the elections in Israel. This is what we are criticizing.
It would appear that the agreement with Chile will be much more exhaustive than the one before us today. The agreement with Chile is supposed to be modelled on NAFTA. Since it will be more encompassing, there are many issues which would have been interesting to raise with Chile prior to promoting the agreement. Cases in point are standards regarding the environment, labour in general and child labour, in particular. The agreement with Israel is limited to goods and, as such, does not include services or investments.
Last week, we met with Oxfam Canada representatives who told us how concerned they were with the lack of protection on social issues negotiations seem to be leading to.
According to this organization, the agreement, the content of which will be made public when it is signed, around November 15, will undoubtedly not contain stringent enough rules on the environment and labour.
Even though Chile is undergoing tremendous economic growth, too many of its citizens still live in poverty as a result of the polarization of wealth. Therefore, it would have been desirable, both for Chile's sake and Canada's, that these issues be looked at more carefully. This is why it would be important to know how the negotiations are going prior to the House being presented with a bill implementing the agreement.
At least Bill C-61 before us today has the merit of stimulating exports and levelling the playing field for our companies competing with American and European firms, which have benefited from preferential access to the Israeli market for some time now.
The Bloc Quebecois, therefore, will support this bill to implement a free trade agreement with Israel, while condemning the fact that the elected representatives in this House were kept in the dark with regard to the negotiations and the issues raised during the discussions. It is not by hiding each of the negotiating steps leading to the conclusion of such important treaties that we will be able to reasonably debate the themes and issues that will affect the daily lives of our fellow contrymen.
That is why, as I said earlier, the Departments of Foreign Affairs and International Trade should keep the members of this House informed of the status of negotiations, if we are to have an informed and responsible debate. Our position regarding Bill C-61, which goes in the same direction as the government's, shows once again how serious our party is when it comes to the interests of our constituents and their willingness to promote entrepreneurship.
In conclusion, let me quote a short excerpt from the dissenting opinion the Bloc Quebecois gave in November 1994, during the review of Canada's foreign policy: "Quebecers are not protectionists. They have shown it by strongly supporting the free trade agreement, the North American free trade agreement and the Uruguay round of GATT talks. Must we remind the House that Quebec's determination was the spearhead of the free trade movement in the 1980s? Far from seeing Quebec's sovereignist movement as a withdrawal into itself in response to economic globalization, we perceive it as an openness to the world".