Mr. Speaker, I thank the parliamentary secretary for his speech. You will, however, see in the next few minutes that the government has not earned an honourable mention for today's speech.
First of all, I must point out that the government added the bill to the order paper at the last minute yesterday evening, very likely on the assumption that, since all of the members of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade were out of the country on committee business, discussion of the bill this morning would not pose too much of a problem.
I would point out to them, however, that we are here and are well informed on the issue, so we too will be able to contest the stuff and nonsense we have just been treated to.
Let me begin by stating that we are totally in agreement with the Canada-Israel free trade agreement. We in Quebec are part of a free trade Canada. We will not oppose the principle of a free trade agreement between Canada and Israel. However, contrary to what the parliamentary secretary has just admitted, we are in a position to ask some questions about its timing. He says this is the right time. We, on the other hand, believe that it could not be a worse time for the ratification or implementation of such an agreement.
On October 9, I rose in this House in support of Bill C-61, the purpose of which was to implement the Canada-Israel free trade agreement the Government of Canada rushed to sign on July 31 last with the government of the State of Israel.
In that speech, however, I regretted the fact that everything surrounding the agreement had been kept secret and that there had been an unacceptable lack of consultation in the matter. I also referred to the dissatisfaction of Quebec's top of the line women's swimwear industry.
While my views are the same concerning the reservations expressed during second reading, I still believe that having a free trade agreement may be beneficial to the Quebec and the Canadian economy, and that this agreement will no doubt increase trade between our two countries.
The Bloc Quebecois is in favour of free trade, free trade agreements in general and of course the free trade agreement with Israel, but always at the appropriate time.
Since our first debate on Bill C-61 on October 9, I have now realized that the government is trying to get this agreement through as Parliament quickly and discreetly as possible. This raises many questions. If this agreement is so wonderful, why is the government trying to implement it on the sly, as it were? Because this agreement is becoming increasingly controversial from the political point of view. That is why.
Hon. members will agree that this morning's third reading is foolishly being rushed through, at a time when all members of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, who heard a number of witnesses on Bill C-61 and are very well informed on this topic, are outside the country on committee business. Too bad for the minister and the parliamentary secretary: there are still a number of members in this House who know all about this issue and the protests that were heard before the committee.
These witnesses who came before us on October 29 told us, first of all, that the coming into force of the agreement on January 1, as proposed in Bill C-61, was a mistake. First, because it was not the right time to implement the agreement now that the peace process in the Middle East is in worse shape than ever before.
Arab groups also pointed out that this free trade agreement was perceived by many Arabs, in Canada and in the Middle East, as a sign that Canada supported the actions of Israel and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. If this free trade
agreement were to come into force at this time, according to them it might even endanger the peace process in the Middle East.
As for the situation of Palestinians in the occupied territories-the agreement will automatically apply to the occupied territories as soon as it comes into effect-its stability is very fragile. Witnesses told us that the Palestinians do not even control their own territory, much less their economy, which means that today, to apply the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement to Palestinian territory would be to recognize the albeit illegal control the State of Israel has over the Palestinian people.
The occupied territories are at this very moment practically in a state of war. That is what professors, Arab representatives and entrepreneurs came to tell members of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Interestingly, these witnesses had never been consulted previously by the department. After listening to this testimony, which put a different light on the matter, we tried to move amendments to Bill C-61, but to no avail.
Our goal, which was shared by many, including Liberal members, was to defer the implementation of the agreement until two conditions had been met. First, the peace process had to be well under way. It seems to me this is commendable.
Second, the negotiations between the State of Israel and the Palestinian authorities on the future of the occupied territories had to be completed. This amendment to clause 62 of Bill C-61 reads as follows. This is the text of the amendment presented by the Bloc Quebecois to the committee reviewing Bill C-61:
No order may be made by the Governor in Council under subsection (1) unless he has been advised by the committee of the House of Commons to which foreign affairs matters are normally referred that the committee is satisfied that
(a) the Government of the State of Israel has taken satisfactory steps to implement the agreement;
This is already in Bill C-61.
But we added the following:
(b) that the peace process between the State of Israel and the Palestinian authorities is well under way.
I will demonstrate in a moment that this amendment to the bill is completely consistent with the Canadian government's foreign policy. We are therefore justified in wondering why they voted against something that was consistent with their own policy.
(c) that the negotiations between the State of Israel and the Palestinian authorities on the political status and economic development of the West Bank and Gaza Strip indicate that these two territories are about to gain effective control over their economic and internal affairs.
The chairman of the Standing Committee on foreign Affairs and International Trade ruled this amendment out of order for procedural reasons, on the basis that the changes were outside the scope of the bill.
We would also have liked to amend the preamble to the bill. You realize that, with the agreement having already been signed by the government, no changes can be made to the wording of the agreement per se. This in itself is quite frustrating, in a parliamentary system that claims to be democratic, for an elected representative like myself who does not have a say until it is too late to make any changes and the agreement has been signed.
We would have liked to amend the preamble since that is the only part of Bill C-61 that we are entitled to change. But, again for reasons of lack of consistency with the spirit of this agreement entered into quietly by the parties, we were told changes could not be made.
A clause might have been added, as suggested by some witnesses, to deal with human rights and democratic principles. The Bloc Quebecois considers it is essential that fundamental rights be respected, and such a principle should be an integral part of any agreement like this Canada-Israel free trade agreement.
The Minister for International Trade felt and still feels that the protection of human rights has no place in a free trade agreement, even though the free trade agreement between Israel and the European Union contains an interesting clause in this regard: "The relations between the parties, as well as all the provisions in this agreement, are based on respect for human rights and the democratic principles that underlie their domestic and international policies and constitute an essential part of this agreement".
If such an amendment to the Canada-Israel free trade agreement had been proposed, we would have supported it right away, but we were prevented from putting it forward by the committee on foreign affairs and international trade.
A provision on the Canadian government's commitment to the Middle East peace process could have been included in the preamble. Our government could have used this provision as a moral benchmark for its future actions in that part of the world.
A clause on Canada's foreign policy regarding the occupied territories would have been quite appropriate. I will get back to this glaring contradiction in the agreement a little later, but for now I will just point out how the Canadian government has violated its own foreign policy by signing the free trade agreement with Israel, since it also applies to the occupied territories.
The Canadian government has always maintained that these territories are illegally occupied by the State of Israel and that the Palestinians should be the ones in charge.
I will now quote Canada's foreign policy on the situation in that part of the world: "As far as the occupied territories are concerned, Canada does not recognize the permanency of Israeli control over the territories occupied since 1967 (the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip) and opposes any unilateral measure to determine in advance the results of negotiations, including the establishment of new settlements in the territories and unilateral measures to annex East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. In Canada's opinion, these measures contravene international law and undermine the peace process".
Further on in this policy, the Canadian government addresses the rights of Palestinians, and I quote: "Canada recognizes that the legitimate rights of Palestinians that must be exercised in the context of peace negotiations, including the right to self-determination, must be respected".
This is not interference. It is simply consistency in foreign policy. We are in agreement with it, but when we asked the Liberal government to observe its foreign policy, we met with a categorical refusal.
We are in favour of establishing trade ties with the State of Israel and the Palestinian people. But we do not feel this is the right time to implement the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement, given the present very worrisome situation in the Middle East.
We are aware of the commitment the Canadian government made to the State of Israel by signing the free trade agreement last July 31. But we feel that the political and social context is no longer the same as when the Canadian government began its negotiations with the State of Israel. Nor is it the same as when the agreement was finalized and signed.
Furthermore, even the Israeli government in power has changed. We cannot deny the negative impact on the peace process of the death of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, almost exactly one year ago.
For some months now, the Middle East peace process has been taking a turn for the worse. Negotiations have practically come to a standstill. Exchanges of violence have continued since the opening of the Jerusalem tunnel last September. Recently, the Israeli government approved an increase in its budget, apparently in order to bump up the number of troops at the border with Syria in the event of war.
Spending related to Jewish settlement went up by 90 per cent recently, although it is known for a fact that the principal source of disagreement between Israelis and Palestinians has to do with Jewish settlements. The situation is far from ideal and the implementation of the agreement in this context is far from appropriate. It is true that the government feels that this agreement can help the peace process by increasing trade.
That is what we thought also, but some very well informed witnesses have explained that, on the contrary, the timing of the agreement will be harmful instead, and will convince the Palestinians that Canada is siding with the Israelis, contrary to its foreign policy. Let me repeat, we are not against the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement, but we do question its timing. The worrisome situation in that part of the world is obvious to anyone who watches the news.
What are we to do if the peace process is not successful in the medium term? This is a legitimate question, and my answer is that, for once, we must question the type of economic partner Canada wants to have.
What is more, it is our opinion, as it was the opinion of the Canadian government in its foreign policy statement from which I have already quoted, that the government of Israel is occupying the Gaza Strip and the West Bank illegally, in flagrant violation of international law.
How, then, can we approve having the agreement apply automatically to these territories, without the Palestinian authorities' accepting the Agreement, and particularly without the Palestinian people's having total control over its territory and its economy, so as to reap the full benefit of this free trade agreement?
The government tells us, as the parliamentary secretary did in his speech, that it is pursuing negotiations and exchanging letters with Palestinian leaders. It seems to me that instead of ratifying so quickly the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement we could wait for the completion of these processes. We will be able to study the letters and regulations and adopt a more enlightened position on the issue.
During the last committee hearing, the parliamentary secretary came in with a new card in hand, saying: "The official opposition members of the foreign affairs committee have brought forward very good arguments in the last few hearings, so there is something we forgot to tell you. It is true that we have now been in negotiation for more than a year. It is also true that we forgot to consult several groups, so some of them came to see me. We forgot to inform you that we had an exchange of correspondence with the Palestinians that we will make public after the vote on Bill C-61".
He also said: "It is also true that we forgot to tell you about some regulations but we intend to make them public after the debate on Bill C-61 in the House. Do not worry, you will see that we did some good work. Have no fear, you will see the documents but we cannot show them to you immediately because we have not had time to
prepare them. We forgot to tell you about them, but we are informing you now".
This took place no later that one week ago. Why did the Liberals bring forward new arguments just a few days before the debate on Bill C-61 in this House? They knew very well that the present situation would not help them and that the lack of consistency of their foreign affairs policy would not help them either.
Therefore, they had to use some pretty "bright" subterfuge in order to get us to say: "Listen, support this agreement, support Bill C-61, then we will make public the letters exchanged between the Palestinian authorities and the Canadian government. Then, we will make public the regulations designed to include the Palestinian people, or at least to ensure they fully benefit from this free trade agreement. Do not worry."
But, given what we have seen for three years, for those who have known the Liberal Party over the years, there is reason to be somewhat concerned, at least a little concerned when we are told after a few months, a few years of negotiation: "Afterwards, you will see all the documents, all the papers." Why were we told that the first time only last week? This also is a little strange.
As I said, if we are given those letters, we will be able to analyze them and to have a more informed discussion. It is true that, until now, Palestinians have not opposed the application of the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement in their territory.
They probably feel that this agreement is an unexpected opening onto a foreign country and therefore can help them. It is exactly for this reason that Palestinian authorities must be part of the negotiations and that their situation should not be dealt in their absence with the Israeli government, as the Canadian government is trying to do now.
This is such a current issue that this very morning, the French and English dailies contained articles dealing with the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement. I quote a report from Associated Press entitled "Call to Israel's Boycott as the Cairo Summit approaches", from which I will read some brief excerpts. It is a very relevant report that appeared this morning in La Presse .
It reads as follows:
The Egyptian Union of Chambers of Commerce has called on its members to boycott Israel and to refrain from all bilateral or multilateral co-operation with it, including with the State of Israel.
Further on, it reads:
We reject any economic co-operation with Israel so long as a global political settlement has not been reached in the Near East.
That was said by the representative of the Egyptian Chambers of Commerce.
Later on, the article stated:
Palestinian manufacturers decided to boycott the economic summit by way of protest against Israel's sealing off their territories, which is choking their economy.
The same kind of report can be found in English newspapers in Canada today and probably everywhere in the world. This is no secret. Liberals tried to keep the negotiations secret for a lot of things, but this is no secret. The Palestinian situation is now well known.
Moreover, as mentioned in these articles, one must keep in mind the situation in the occupied territories. For the time being, the Israelis are controlling the territories and their economy. Since February 1996, the territories have been sealed off almost permanently, preventing Palestinians from harvesting their crops and even working.
According to an American study, Israel is using this border-closing policy to prevent the influx of competitive Palestinian farm products and manufactured goods on the Israeli market, thus hampering all attempts of the Palestinian economy to take off, and increasing its dependency on Israel's economy.
We can only presume that the free trade agreement will make the situation worse, increasing Israel's control over the Palestinian economy. On the other hand, it should be noted that the economic life in the occupied territories is nearly at a standstill. Foreign trade has just about disappeared. The economy is working at only 3 or 4 per cent of its capacity and, this spring, the unemployment rate was between 60 and 70 per cent in the Gaza Strip and between 40 and 50 per cent on the West Bank, not to mention a very tense climate and numerous violent flare-ups.
The same article went on to say, and I quote:
According to a report published last week by the UN, as a result of the repeated sealing off of the territories, the Palestinian GDP has dropped by 23 per cent over the past four years, and the per capita income has declined by 39 per cent over the same period.
To conclude, we are questioning the coming into force in the occupied territories of the free trade agreement signed by Israel, as long as the Palestinians have not agreed to it and the Palestinian people are not in full control of their territory and economy.
We believe that this is not the time to implement such an agreement now that the peace process has been stopped and is in very bad shape indeed. As long as we are not convinced, as we mentioned in our amendments, that the explosive situation in the Middle East has been defused, we believe that the coming into force of Bill C-61-and consequently of the free trade agreement-should be at least delayed. We believe that the coming into force of this agreement on January 1st, 1997, and the passing now
of Bill C-61 send the wrong message to Canadians, the world in general and the Arab world in particular.
Given the evidence we heard on October 29 and the new developments, and since Israel is preparing for war by releasing new funds for this purpose, we would think that, on the contrary, our intervention at this critical point in time could have a negative impact on the peace process.
It would be much better to encourage the Israeli and the Palestinians to seriously negotiate the restoration of peace in the Middle East and, meanwhile, to suspend this agreement, which could favour one of the two parties involved.
We must put pressure on the Israeli government to respect international law and therefore the Palestinian people. The Canadian government must have the political courage to put the agreement on hold. The Bloc Quebecois, and probably the Reform Party, would support such an action. The Bloc Quebecois totally disagrees with the approach chosen by the Liberal government for the signing of free trade agreements. The secrecy, the lack of consultation are totally unacceptable and contrary to what we are being told.
It is unacceptable that the Canadian government would negotiate and sign free trade agreements by itself and without any transparency. This is what the federal government did in the case of the Canada-Israel agreement and it is doing the same thing for the Canada-Chile agreement, which is now being negotiated.
Once the text of the agreement is published, it will be too late to change it because the agreement will already have been signed. What a remarkable democracy! Then they will ask this House to discuss the Canada-Chile free trade agreement, as they are doing now for Israel, saying: "The only element you have the power to change is the date of coming into force". And even on that point, the Liberal majority in committee will decide if the date should be modified or not.
Even if the Liberal majority decides, according to its convictions and just as it did at the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, to postpone the date the agreement comes into force, it will be very simple, they will only change the players. The government takes the knowledgeable players and puts them on the bench, puts them aside, then sends in people who have not heard about this free trade agreement because, as hard working as they are, as sharp as they are, they are part of other committees and have other issues to examine. The government sends them to raise their hands in committee and say: "Agreed".
They were not present at previous committee meetings. They did not hear witnesses, they have only influenced the government party's decision, as opposed to the beliefs of men and women who were sitting on the foreign affairs committee and who had to be replaced at the last minute so that the international trade minister could have his bill passed clause by clause.
Even the clerk had to be replaced so that another one could come and tell us that our amendments were out of order, even though our amendments were totally compatible with clause 62 of the bill.
It is relatively simple. What we were supposed to put forward dealt with the coming into force of the Canada-Israel free trade agreement, that is: Is the timing appropriate, given the current situation in Israel and the occupied territories? We are sending a signal to that part of the world that Canada is going against its foreign policy as defined by the government, not by us, as this is not the position of the official opposition here but the position of the Canadian government.
Does the Canadian government want to send a signal to the rest of the world that it believes everything is well with the Palestinians, everything is well with the Israelis, everything is well in that part of the world, and that now we can sign a free trade agreement, do business with everybody involved, even though Palestinians have no control over their economy, even though Palestinians have no control over their territory, even though the peace process has been significantly disrupted? No.
According to the Canadian government, this position is a figment of the imagination of the official opposition, this position is unrealistic. News bulletins, newspaper articles must have been made up, they must not be true. And we, the Canadian government, they say, are prepared to send this signal to the entire world, that is, that we can do business, no matter what the situation is, with that part of the world. That is what the Bloc Quebecois wonders about.
We will continue to ask questions to the government party before supporting Bill C-61. I want to repeat that we totally agree with a Canada-Israel free trade agreement, but only at the appropriate time.