Madam Speaker, I am pleased to stand in this House today to offer my comments on Bill C-24, An Act to implement the Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the Republic of Panama, the Agreement on the Environment between Canada and the Republic of Panama and the Agreement on Labour Cooperation between Canada and the Republic of Panama.
I will start by talking generally about the perspective I bring to this House from Vancouver, Vancouver Kingsway in particular, and the good folks there. I think this is a broad consensus of their views on trade policy. The principles I am about to talk about fairly express those points of view.
Trade is very important to Canada. It is recognized by all Canadians who care to think about this issue that trade is essential to our economy. British Columbia is a coastal province and a trading province. There is a very strong commitment to the concept of trade being very important not only to the development of the economy of Canada but also the economy of British Columbia.
There are many businesses and enterprises in British Columbia, as there are across the country, that engage either directly or indirectly in the import or export of goods and services around the world. This is particularly the case with Asia with which British Columbia and businesses in British Columbia have a particularly strong tie.
Trade allows goods and services that are within the productive capacity or local expertise or resources of one country to be exchanged with those of another. That is why I can say certainly on behalf of the New Democrats that we believe trade is good. We believe it is desirable. We believe it is critical to our economy.
The question that should be raised with respect to any trade deal is the terms on which that trade ought to be conducted. Are there any principles, policies or rules that should be applied when Canadians consider the exchange of goods and services out of our country and the entrance of goods and services into our country?
There is a vast spectrum in the political world. We have heard some views expressed in this House during the debate. At the far end of the spectrum, there are those who assert that trade ought to be totally free, that the market should be free to act on its own, and that goods and services should be allowed to enter untrammelled to whatever market those goods and services can penetrate, and that government should stay out of the way. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who have the view that trade should be highly regulated, that there should be high tariffs, that countries should be closed and highly protectionist.
On the one hand there are the proponents of total free trade, who think that goods should be able to enter a country regardless of the other country's labour standards, environmental standards, and regardless of the human rights situation in that country. On the other hand there are those with a very closed approach to trade who think it should be very difficult for goods and services to enter the economy.
Speaking on behalf of the people of Vancouver Kingsway, and British Columbia and, I think, on behalf of the New Democratic Party of Canada, we believe that we should have a policy that pursues well-managed trade, not free trade, not a closed approach to trade, but fair trade. That is the approach to trade this party has taken every since the free trade debates opened up in this country some decades ago.
Why do we take this position? We believe that Canadians do not want goods and services that use child labour to enter Canada. We do not want goods and services that are the product of destructive environmental practices to enter this country. Canadians do not want goods coming to this country from countries that have very poor human rights records. Canadians do not want goods and services to enter this country when those goods and services come from an economy that is so fundamentally different from ours, with such lower standards that it actually hurts Canadian employers' ability to compete.
I will give one example. One of the reasons the NDP led such a spirited campaign with the Liberal Party in the 1980s, who opposed the free trade agreement with the United States at the time, was that we would be opening our borders to the U.S. economy which had 10 times the power of ours. In some of the southern states there were no labour standards, there was economy of scale, and employers were paying so little in wages that it would hurt Canadian employers. That was a major concern.
At that time, there was a burgeoning textile industry in this country, particularly in Quebec, but in other provinces as well. Employers were paying good wages. They were paying for health and welfare plans and pension plans. Workers were paid wages on which they could raise their families. Employers were paying workers' compensation benefits to the government to compensate workers if they were injured on the job. The employers were paying EI premiums in case workers became unemployed. These were the kinds of jobs that were being developed in this country. As soon as the free trade agreement was signed, textiles were allowed to flood in from the southern United States, where there were no unionized jobs, wages were half the rate that Canadian employers were paying, employers were not paying into social programs and there was no public health insurance. The result was that Quebec's textile industry was decimated. Canada lost tens of thousands of jobs, hundreds of thousands if we include jobs in other industries. These were good, middle-class, well-paying jobs.
There is a lot of rhetoric around trade in the House. The facts are that over the last 30 years, since the neo-liberal or neo-conservative, depending on one's point of view, concept of pursuing untrammelled free trade agreements, a significant change has occurred in the living standards of workers in this country. By any measure, according to many groups, Canadian workers today make less money in real terms than workers did 30 years ago. The middle class has been squeezed and the inequality of wealth distribution in this country has risen dramatically over the last 30 years. That is not rhetoric; that is a fact.
Part of the reason that happened is the trade policy that has been pursued not only by the Conservative government but by the Liberal government before it. At one time, I think it was in 1993, the Liberals campaigned on removing Canada from NAFTA. Of course, it is not uncommon for the Liberals to change their minds once they get into power, and they never did remove Canada from NAFTA. It is important to understand that Canadians and New Democrats want a trade policy based on encouraging trade and making sure that the sound principles I referred to are respected.
Regarding the bill that is before us today, New Democrats are concerned about it and do not believe it is a sound piece of legislation.
When the committee considered this bill, compelling testimony was heard from witnesses regarding the tax situation in the Republic of Panama, as well as its poor record of human rights. I do not hear anybody on either side of the House disputing the human rights record in Panama, but it is a concern.
Despite requests from the Canadian government, Panama has refused to sign a tax information exchange agreement. This is very troubling, considering the large amount of money that is documented to be laundered in Panama, including money from drug trafficking. Some years ago there was a study done, I believe at Harvard University, which listed Panama as one of the top three countries for money laundering from drug cartels in South America. Panama's complete lack of taxation transparency has led the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to label the nation as a tax haven. It is not the New Democrats calling it a tax haven, it is the OECD.
Recently Panama was removed from the so-called OECD grey list, after substantially implementing the standard for exchange of information when it signed a tax information exchange agreement with France. That brings Panama's total agreements to the critical 12, the international standard. However, French President Sarkozy, in a speech at the end of the G20 conference in November last year in Switzerland, named Panama as a country that nevertheless remains a tax haven.
I believe that all people of Canada and members of this House should be concentrating on pursuing free trade agreements with countries that raise environmental standards, respect human rights, protect Canadian employers and make—