Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak to the Reform motion. It gives me the opportunity to make known the Bloc's position on the multilateral agreement on investment or MAI. This agreement is currently being negotiated among the member countries of the OECD.
The Bloc Quebecois supports the motion by the official opposition on the MAI primarily because the government failed to hold a proper public debate on this important issue.
Apart from the brief hearings hastily held by the subcommittee on international trade, trade disputes and investment in the last Parliament, the House and therefore all members elected to represent the people were unable to debate it at length.
Furthermore, a number of groups including unions, non governmental organizations and consumer groups have unfortunately not had the opportunity to express their considerable reservations to the government on this agreement. It is of some concern, because people are unaware of the agreement's existence, its scope, its advantages, its inconveniences and its costs.
The government has failed to explain what is at stake in the MAI and yet it must do so, because, when it signs this agreement, the government is committing the people of Canada for over 15 years. The government has lacked transparency in this matter. It is saying, through its Minister for International Trade that, for the first time in Canadian history, a commercial agreement was considered by a parliamentary committee before it was signed. Care must be taken here.
If the agreement was examined, it was as the result of a leak by the NGOs, which managed to get a copy of it and to make it available on the Internet. A number of members already had the text of the MAI and were querying the government on it. These are the real reasons the government gave the MAI to a subcommittee for examination. No credit should be given for transparency and good intentions when there were none.
Questions from the opposition and public pressure are forcing the minister to organize a public information meeting shortly.
At this point, I would like to give a brief background of the MAI, so as to explain its purpose and the Bloc Quebecois' position.
In 1995, 29 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) agreed to negotiate a multilateral agreement that would liberalize foreign investments and clarify the rules governing them.
The agreement was originally scheduled to be signed in May 1997, at the meeting of the OECD Ministerial Council. This was put off for a year, member countries being unable to agree on final wording because of the complexity of the procedure and, more importantly, differences of opinion.
Sources even indicate that key paragraphs of the text are covered in changes and that over 600 pages of reservations submitted by the various countries have yet to be negotiated. A new deadline has been set for April 1998 and will not be met. And we have since learned that the MAI will not be finalized before the fall. The minister is therefore able, if he really wants, to submit the text of the agreement for public discussion and to hold a real debate.
Two principles underlie the MAI: the first is non-discrimination against foreign companies. This means that countries that sign the agreement will have to treat foreign investors and their own investors without distinction and without discrimination. Eliminating protectionist barriers and opening up our borders to international competition will enable our businesses to increase their foreign business opportunities, we are told. The goal of the MAI is to create equal conditions for international investors.
The second principle is the legal protection of investors and their investments. The goal here is to ensure that investors have safe access to target markets. It is known that investments are not always safe because of a lack of precise rules with respect to investments and because of the corruption sometimes found in certain countries. The recent Asian crisis is a very good example.
The MAI provides for a dispute resolution mechanism that gives a foreign investor legal recourse if he feels he has been treated unfairly. As a result, such an investor could sue a state through a panel of referees with binding powers.
While supporting the general objectives of the MAI, the Bloc Quebecois shares some of the concerns expressed by a number of groups that testified before the sub-committee. In our view, this agreement will promote freer investments and trade in general and we cannot oppose it.
In addition, since capital mobility is increasing, we believe there should be regulations to ensure non-discrimination and protection for investments. This means being able not only to take advantage of globalization but also to manage the stress resulting from globalization while at the same time extending the investment system world-wide.
However, a number of conditions must be met before the Bloc Quebecois will be able to support the signing of the MAI. First of all, it is important that the Canadian government negotiate the inclusion of a cultural safeguard clause to protect the cultural industry in Quebec and Canada. Under no circumstances will the Bloc Quebecois be satisfied with a simple reservation. In this kind of agreement, a proviso does not sufficiently protect this industry as it only applies to those countries that requested it, while a general exemption clause would apply to all signatory countries. Also, the fewer the countries requesting a reservation, the greater the chances of it being removed in future negotiations.
The Bloc Quebecois is also concerned about statements made in this House by the Minister for International Trade, who said on February 12 that the agreement would not be signed if it did not include an exemption for culture. The minister added that he would walk away from the table if there is not a complete carve out for culture in the MAI. However, on February 13, the minister stated just the opposite in a speech, when he said he would agree to a reservation if he could not get full cultural exemption.
The essential thing regarding culture and communications is to preserve the ability of the federal and provincial governments to set up policies that promote the development of that sector. Our planet is rich because of its diversity, its cultures, its ways of life and its customs. The world would lose if we tried to standardize everything.
The Bloc Quebecois also supports the subcommittee's first recommendation that Canada should sign the MAI provided the final text protects Canadian culture, the environment, work standards, health and education services, and social security, at the federal and provincial levels. We should prohibit states from lowering their national standards to attract foreign investments. The Bloc Quebecois will never let the MAI give precedence to the rights of investors and businesses over those of the citizens, the workers and the environment.
The Bloc Quebecois also believes that consultations must continue to take place on a regular basis with the provinces, before the Canadian government ratifies the agreement. There are currently many preliminary lists of reservations and it would appear that coverage of federal states remains a problem. Therefore, there is a need for proper and ongoing consultations between the provinces and the federal government.
An editorial writer was right in expressing concern about the MAI's scope. He wondered whether we would witness the setting up of a charter of rights and freedoms for corporations. Some groups expressed the same concerns when they appeared before the committee. The MAI includes a number of important and far-reaching rules that will restrict governments' ability to regulate foreign investments, because it gives—