Premier Kathy Dunderdale said it won’t cost the province anything to partially eliminate minimum processing requirements, but she forced the federal government to pay a whole pile of money anyway.
Close to 100 politicians, fishing industry representatives and reporters were on hand at The Rooms Tuesday afternoon as Dunderdale announced a $400-million fisheries industry fund tied to the new Canada-Europe free trade deal.
“It’s an exciting time to have access to that kind of market, and this pot of funding to get us ready to take full advantage of it,” Dunderdale told reporters.
About a week and a half ago, the federal government announced an agreement in principle for the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) — a sweeping free trade deal which will eliminate or reduce trade barriers and tariffs on a wide range of goods and services.
When it comes to fish products, Canada will have unrestricted access to the European market, essentially as soon as the deal is ratified — which is expected in 2015.
As part of the deal, the province has to grant exemptions to minimum processing requirements (MPR) for any fish destined for the European Union.
Dunderdale insists this won’t have any economic impact on the province — but she said she wouldn’t give it up for free.
“Within the industry itself and within government, we don’t see any impact coming from an exemption to MPRs for the European Union,” she said.
“While the economic impact of it wasn’t significant anymore in terms of the European Union, politically it was significant, culturally it was significant, and we needed to talk about what we were going to do about that.”
Of the $400-million pot of money, the federal government has agreed to put up $280 million; the province will kick in the other $120 million.
The money won’t start to flow until the CETA deal is ratified and then the cash will be dispersed over the course of three years.
At this point, there’s no detailed blueprint about what the money will be spent on. The government news release said it would be used “to invest in research and development, new marketing initiatives, fisheries research and enhancements to provincial fisheries infrastructure.”
The government will spend the next couple of years figuring out what exactly that means and who to give the cash to.
Representatives from both the Association of Seafood Producers and the Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW) were onstage beside Dunderdale for the announcement.
FFAW president Earle McCurdy said that from his perspective, the deal was “a no brainer.” He supported CETA last week, based on the economic boost that could come from selling fish unrestricted into Europe. At the time, he didn’t know about the $400 million to sweeten the pot.
Both McCurdy and seafood processors’ representative Derek Butler said it’s for the best that the money hasn’t been divvied up yet.
“I think the work around how the money should be spent comes later,” Butler said. “It deserves some careful deliberation in terms of where we put the money.”
Nobody from the federal government was on hand, but a statement was provided by Rudy Husny, press secretary to International Trade Minister Ed Fast.
“In order to realize the full potential of (CETA), and to address the impacts of the removal of MPRs, the federal government has agreed to join the NL government in cost-sharing a transitional program,” Husney wrote.
“The program will address fish and seafood industry development and renewal as well as workers whose jobs are displaced in future as result of MPRs no longer being applied to product destined for the EU.”
The only person in the room who didn’t seem to be impressed was Liberal fisheries critic Jim Bennett.
“This is a bad, bad day for us,” Bennett said. “This is the FFAW teaming up with the big robber barons we see in the fishery here.”
Dunderdale and McCurdy both say they believe Europe can’t compete with Newfoundland and Labrador on processing jobs, because labour costs are higher and energy costs are steeper.
Bennett said that with high unemployment in Greece, Spain and Italy, he believes that once CETA comes into force, the fish processing industry will be ravaged.
“I think plant workers are done,” Bennett said. “Stephen Harper must just be smiling, and Premier Dunderdale is happy to go along with it.”