Blogs & Comment

What happened to free trade?

Discussion of Canada's free trade left off the 2011 federal election debate.

Confounding both history and general expectation, last night’s debate was, more often than not, a reasonably civil affair in which the participants debated issues of substance and national import. For those looking for a wrapup of the proceedings, my colleague over at Maclean’s, Andrew Coyne, has one of the more sober-minded takes on the evening.

One issue that was left off the table, and which hasn’t made much of an impact on this election at all, is the question of free trade. The Conservative platform invokes Canada’s history as a trading nation, and pledges to complete two trade deals: one with the EU in 2012, and another one with India a year later. These would both be excellent moves, giving Canadians — as the platform says — greater access to a combined market of 1.7 billion people, with a GDP of $20 trillion. Awesome. Oh, and later in the platform, the Conservatives promise to defend supply management “in all bilateral negotiations.”

Now, this is hardly a Conservative tick. Defending supply management has, over the years, become a sacred cow only slightly behind single-payer healthcare in Canada’s holiest of holies.  But observers have been pointing out for the past few years the contradictions in Canada’s commitment to supply management. First, it serves as an obstacle to trade negotiations with countries who are genuine free traders. But when it comes to the EU — also addicted to various agricultural subsidies — the worry is that a trade deal will be concluded that will let both sides keep their preferred subsidies in place, making a mockery of the very idea of free trade. That’s the scenario John Ivison envisioned a while ago.

By all means, let us sign a trade deal with the Europeans, for whatever it is worth. But it is bad enough that we have protectionism; let’s not compound it with the hypocrisy of calling it free.