Mr. Speaker, like many of my colleagues, I am rising in the House today to speak about 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.
As many of my colleagues have already pointed out, Bill C-24 is a new version of a bill that was introduced in the House during the previous Parliament, but that died on the order paper at the time.
In August 2009, the Conservative government entered into negotiations surrounding the future free trade agreement with the Republic of Panama. The agreement also included side agreements on labour co-operation and the environment.
This free trade agreement was signed on May 14, 2010, and tabled in the House of Commons as Bill C-46, but the legislative process ended at the clause-by-clause review by the Standing Committee on International Trade.
This same bill is now being reintroduced without any significant improvements over the previous version.
The NDP was opposed to Bill C-46 in the 40th Parliament for the many reasons that have already been enumerated here in this House.
Again, we are going to have to oppose Bill C-24, because there are no provisions in it to remedy the fundamental flaws that have already been cited in this House.
The Canada-Panama agreement negotiated by the Conservative government is in fact only a slightly improved version of the approach to trade taken by former American President George Bush. Once again, in this free trade agreement, big corporations come ahead of the Canadian and Panamanian people, and absolutely nothing is being done to ensure respect for human rights, and very little to protect the environment.
More specifically, it is obvious to my colleagues in the NDP and myself, at least, that there are no provisions in the Canada-Panama agreement to ensure respect for workers’ rights in Panama. If the agreement is ratified by Parliament as it stands, there is absolutely no guarantee that the rights of Panamanian workers will not be flouted as they have so often been in the past.
But honestly, is anyone here surprised by this? If we look at the Conservatives’ record since the May 2, 2011, election, it is clear that workers’ rights are the very last thing on this government’s list of priorities.
In barely a year, they have introduced a record number of bills to force workers back to work and violate their fundamental right to negotiate their conditions of employment in good faith. Given this kind of contempt for the rights of Canadian workers, it is really not surprising that there would be no provisions in the Canada-Panama agreement to protect the rights of Panamanian workers.
My colleague from Burnaby—New Westminster had already proposed two amendments at the Standing Committee on International Trade to remedy this major flaw in the bill.
Those amendments would, first, have protected unionized workers in Panama by guaranteeing them the right to bargain collectively, as is the case here in Canada, or at least as it was before this government came to power.
The amendments presented by my colleague would also have forced the Minister of International trade to consult regularly with representatives of Canadian workers and with Canadian unions.
We know that this kind of consultation seems somewhat repugnant to this government, but New Democrat members think this measure is essential before we can ratify a free trade agreement with Panama.
Of course, in spite of Panama’s bad record when it comes to defending workers’ rights, those amendments were naturally defeated by the Conservatives, with the support of the Liberals.
With the Conservatives confirming on a daily basis their bias in favour of businesses and management—with their brutal attacks on workers' basic rights—it was hard to expect a different outcome.
Another major problem with Bill C-24 is the fact that it does not include any measure to prevent tax evasion. It is important to note that the Republic of Panama is still regarded as a tax haven. In fact, Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of France, recently said so.
Even though these issues were raised by my colleagues during the 40th Parliament, Bill C-24 is still seriously flawed when it comes to tax disclosure.
Despite repeated requests from Canada, the Republic of Panama has refused to sign a tax information exchange agreement.
This is very troubling, considering the large amount of money that is laundered in the Republic of Panama, including money from drug trafficking.
The Conservatives are constantly boasting about the importance they attach to law and order in Canada and about the fact that they are prepared to put Canadians in jail for years just because of a few marijuana plants. However, they refuse to do anything to create obstacles for big drug traffickers. It is really impossible to understand this government.
In its present form, Bill C-24 is not acceptable to the NDP. This trade agreement, which is quite similar to NAFTA, unjustly favours multinational corporations at the expense of workers and of the quality of our environment. This type of agreement with various countries that are often at an economic disadvantage compared to Canada, increases social and economic inequalities, while also significantly reducing the quality of life of workers and their families.
The rights of workers all over the world are important to my NDP colleagues and to myself. We cannot, in good conscience, support an agreement that does not do anything to protect the basic rights of the country with which that agreement is reached. We already have enough problems protecting our own Canadian workers against this government, which is barely able to conceal its contempt for their rights. We should not, in addition, start interfering with the rights of workers in Panama. It just makes no sense. We must ensure there are guarantees, so that they can negotiate their collective agreements freely and in good faith, as should be the case in any democratic society.
Since the beginning of the debate on Bill C-24, Conservative members keep repeating the same old arguments dictated by their government, without trying to understand our position on this issue.
My colleagues and I have made speeches in this House that are very clear. Our position on international trade is clear: we believe in the importance of international trade, but it has to be fair, sustainable and equitable trade. It is totally false to say that the NDP does not support international trade. I think I will say that again for the benefit of my colleagues opposite: it is totally false to say that the NDP does not support international trade. We simply believe that the trade agreements being negotiated have to respect and support the principles of social justice, sustainable development and human rights, which is not to say that we have to neglect the need to expand our trading opportunities.
We are aware that Canada has to trade with other countries; to import and to export. That is the system we are in. That is how things work and we are very aware of these realities. However, my colleagues and I in the NDP do not think that Canada's economic prosperity needs to come at the expense of workers' rights in other countries, people who are less fortunate than we are and who do not enjoy all the freedoms we had before this Conservative government came on the scene. We can indeed see that the rights to free association and to collective bargaining are fading away as the weeks go by.
It is completely absurd and false to say that the NDP wants to close our borders to commercial products from other countries. We do believe, however, that the government should stop focusing exclusively on the NAFTA model and should remain open to exploring other possible solutions to establish trade ties with other countries.
We must ensure that Canada puts the pursuit of social justice, strong public-sector social programs and the fight against poverty at the heart of its trade strategy. As soon as this government presents us with a free trade agreement that respects the principles of social justice and sustainable development, we would be pleased to support and vote in favour of such a bill. So far, however, we have yet to see such a thing in the history of Canada. The Liberals did not present any such agreements, nor have the Conservatives.
So, until that time, we will continue to oppose them. However, there is still time to amend this bill and ensure that the principles of social justice, sustainable development and the fight against poverty are respected.
I invite my Conservative colleagues to reflect on this and remain open to the kind of amendments that my colleagues are proposing.