Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today on Bill C–24, a bill to implement the free trade agreement between Canada and the Republic of Panama, signed in May 2010, and the related agreements on labour co-operation and the environment.
I remind members that the predecessor to this bill, Bill C–46, died on the order paper when the 40th Parliament was dissolved, because the Conservative minority government was unable to get the bill passed by a parliamentary majority. Today, emboldened by its parliamentary majority, the government is trying to foist this bill on Canadians despite the fact that 60% of Canadians voted against this government.
Allow me to briefly remind members why this agreement is at the root of so much controversy.
To begin with, there is the issue of tax evasion. Panama is known as a tax haven because it offers taxation advantages to non-resident investors. It provides foreign banks and companies with extraterritorial licenses that allow them to conduct business in Panama. Not only are these companies not taxed, they are subject to very few, if any, obligations.
The local authority's soft line on taxation, banking and legal matters has enabled this country of three million inhabitants to become the financial centre of Central America, with the second largest naval fleet in the world due to ships flying flags of convenience. Shipowners choose this flag because of how unrestrictive it is in terms of taxation, safety and crew labour rights.
As everybody knows, the Republic of Panama has refused to sign a tax information exchange agreement with Canada. That is very worrying given the high volume of money laundering activities in Panama, especially money from drug trafficking. There is no fiscal transparency in Panama, which in the past has led to the OECD and G20 labelling Panama a tax haven.
In the opinion of Alain Deneault and Claude Vaillancourt, from Attac-Québec—a group that combats tax havens and fights in favour of taxing financial transactions—Panama is certainly one of the tax havens that is the most active, the least co-operative, and the most closely tied to organized crime. I quote:
Panama's bad reputation is certainly well-deserved. This country's main economic activity is to provide financial services to drug traffickers and multinationals.
Moreover, Patrice Meysonnier of France's judicial police has no hesitation calling Panama a narco-state that is responsible for laundering a large share of the planet's dirty money.
Closer to home, we know that certain Hells Angels leaders in Quebec, who have been on a wanted list since the beginning of Opération SharQc, have taken refuge in Panama. They moved to Panama because they have been able to launder large sums of money there and they hope that the local authorities will not unduly harass them.
On one hand, I find it particularly ironic that this government, which calls itself tough on crime, would enter into a free trade agreement with a country that has become a shelter for criminals and their money without at least first obtaining a fiscal and banking co-operation agreement.
On the other hand, while this government prepares to table an austerity budget this afternoon, and is calling on Canadian families to tighten their belts, how can the government facilitate the erosion of the Canadian tax base by signing such an accommodating treaty?
While members of the G20 have stressed the importance of dealing with the problems caused by tax havens, once again the Conservative government is reneging on its word and doing the exact opposite by opening up a new front to facilitate tax leakage. Honestly, what a farce.
Another problem with this bill is that the Canada–Panama trade agreement has no mechanism to protect the rights of workers that have so often been flouted in the past. Allow me to provide a couple of examples from last year, 2011.
Thirty-three employees of Panama Gaming & Services were laid off for trying to start a union. The Panamanian government did nothing to help them. These layoffs constitute a blatant violation of workers' rights and, more specifically, a violation of the International Labour Organization's Convention 87, which pertains to freedom of association and the protection of the right to organize, a convention that Panama has ratified.
Here is another example.
On July 8, 2011, security forces used violence to end a union demonstration, leaving at least six dead and 700 injured. Several hundred people were also arrested. The freedom to demonstrate was clearly violated.
The government regularly uses intimidation tactics on union leaders. For example, in the summer of 2011, the under secretary general of a large construction union was arbitrarily arrested and detained for a week. And that is not to mention all the anti-union laws passed by the country's current government.
It is important to remember that the right to strike is prohibited in the Canal Zone and that the government recently passed legislation to undermine the rights and freedoms of public servants. In the public sector, the minimum number of workers required to form a union was increased to 50 in order to make it more difficult to do so.
By signing a free trade agreement with Panama without requiring the country to take concrete action to protect the right of association and the right to strike, Canada is condoning the Panamanian government's actions.
I suppose that we cannot expect any better from this Conservative government, which, even here at home, has taken action that violates workers' rights. We need only think about the special bill that the government recently passed to suspend the right to strike of 3,000 pilots and 8,600 mechanics, baggage handlers and cargo agents who work for Air Canada. Bill C-33 was a fundamental attack on the right to freely negotiate a collective agreement.
One of the most worrisome aspects of the agreement is found in the chapter on investment. In fact, chapter 9 is modelled on chapter 11 of NAFTA, which allows a corporation to sue a government for creating barriers to trade by implementing a regulation.
According to Todd Tucker of Public Citizen, who appeared before the Standing Committee on International Trade on November 17, 2010.
....hundreds of thousands of U.S., Chinese, Cayman, and even Canadian corporations that can attack Canadian regulations by using aggressive nationality planning through their Panamanian subsidiaries.
I am very concerned that major foreign multinationals will be able to have trade tribunals challenge and perhaps even invalidate a decision made by a democratically elected government or parliament in order to protect public health or the environment, for example.
In the previous Parliament, the NDP presented a series of amendments in an attempt to address these shortcomings. Our colleague for Burnaby—New Westminster suggested adding provisions on sustainable investment, a requirement for fiscal transparency and provisions to incorporate workers' rights, especially the right to collective bargaining, into the bill. All these amendments were voted down by the Conservatives, with the support of the Liberals. This time we hope that the government will look more favourably on our amendments. I would like to recognize the work of my colleague from Burnaby—New Westminster in this matter.
Unlike the Conservative government, which has its sights set only on trade and profits, the NDP is proposing a trade policy that is fair and based on social justice and sustainable development. We want everyone, and not just big corporations, to benefit from economic development.
We believe that Canada's trade policy should be based on the principles of fair, sustainable and equitable trade, trade that builds partnerships with other countries that support the principles of social justice and human rights without ignoring the need to develop trade opportunities.
I know that I have just one minute remaining and I will close by speaking of the five pillars of the NDP's fair trade strategy.
First, we are proposing that an impact analysis of all international trade agreements be carried out in order to determine whether or not trade agreements negotiated by Canada benefit Canadian families, workers and industries.
Second, we are proposing that there be a guarantee that trade agreements negotiated by Canada strengthen Canada's sovereignty and its freedom to establish its own policy.
Third is the fundamental principle that all trade agreements must protect and promote human rights, which Canadians deem essential.
All trade agreements should also respect sustainable development and the integrity of all ecosystems. Last, any time the Government of Canada signs a free trade agreement, the decision to proceed with enabling legislation must be voted on in the House of Commons.
I will take questions now.