There's no time like now

Lana
Lana Payne
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Premier Danny Williams has done something the left in Canada has struggled to do in recent years - focus attention on trade agreements that rank corporate privileges over the rights of citizens.

The expropriation of AbitibiBowater's access to timber and water came at a time when citizens everywhere are questioning the world economic order and the lack of rules governing capital and corporations.

Premier Danny Williams has done something the left in Canada has struggled to do in recent years - focus attention on trade agreements that rank corporate privileges over the rights of citizens.

The expropriation of AbitibiBowater's access to timber and water came at a time when citizens everywhere are questioning the world economic order and the lack of rules governing capital and corporations.

Threats by Abitibi-Bowater to sue the Canadian government because the province of Newfoundland and Labrador acted in the public interest have served to highlight the very real problems with trade agreements.

By taking back the "people's resources" - the water and timber leases that had been issued to the operators of the Grand Falls pulp and paper mill in exchange for industrial development - Williams acted to uphold the public interest over the corporate interest.

AbitibiBowater is claiming that its "investor rights" granted under Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have been violated.

While a big NAFTA fight likely was not the premier's intention, it most certainly came up in the decision-making. The premier had to know that the American-owned and desperate AbitibiBowater would use everything at its disposal to fight his decision.

Chapter 11 of NAFTA basically allows corporations to sue governments if they feel their investor rights have been violated.

Trade expert Scott Sinclair co-ordinates the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives' trade and research project. He notes that since any government regulation or policy can affect property interests, NAFTA's investment rules constrain the fundamental democratic rights of governments.

As of a year ago, there had been 18 investor claims against Canada under NAFTA, including three in each of 2006 and 2007. But according to the federal government's international trade website, in 2008, under Chapter 11, six notices of intent were launched by corporations or individuals. One such complaint is by a U.S. corporation against the province of Quebec's decision to ban lawn pesticides.

The right thing to do

Despite AbitibiBowater's threats, the province was right to protect these natural resources. It was right to put the public interest first. Once AbitibiBowater decided to pull out of the province, it had no right to maintain control over the timber and power resources.

In normal times, outrage from members of the business elite and their media friends would have been extreme. Yet there was but a tiny chorus of opposition from the usual suspects - a few business analysts who predicted the sky would fall and that no investor in their right mind would ever want to do business in the province.

But these voices were muted and few. This is also a sign of the times. The global financial and economic crisis has changed everything. It has challenged conventional wisdom. It has even chastened the usually vociferous business elite.

Strange bedfellows

Even the Canadian Council of Chief Executives is calling for government intervention in the face of an economic crisis that has governments around the world bailing out and nationalizing banks and saving from collapse what were just a few years ago the richest corporations on the planet.

Gone is the usual chant for governments to stay out of the economy unless it's to hand out corporate tax cuts.

In its December submission to the federal government, Canada's Council of CEOs called for Ottawa to spend about $15 billion in an economic stimulus program, stating that "governments can afford to increase spending temporarily to blunt the impact of the crisis and put our economy back on track toward robust and sustainable growth."

This is a big stretch for the council. But it seems not even its members will dare get on with their usual economic medicine of corporate tax cuts and reduced government spending. That's because many of them need saving too.

And because they need help, government spending and deficits are no longer a bad thing. Maybe the times really are a'changing.

Brave new world?

The days of unfettered global capitalism without rules, without regulations, without a re-ordering of priorities, ought to be under severe scrutiny.

The days of leaving everything up to the marketplace, of caving to corporate power, of bowing at the altar of laissez-faire economics ought to be over.

The pain and suffering being felt by families all over the planet -through no fault of their own but because corporate greed was allowed to grow out of control - ought to be reason enough to change the rules of the game.

Governments can and should act in the best interests of citizens and that means protecting natural resources; that means regulating banks and other financial institutions.

It means overhauling the global investment industry. It means placing limits on executive pay. It means governments must be involved in the economy rather than watching from the sidelines.

It means more bold actions - like those taken by the Newfoundland and Labrador government in the case of AbitibiBowater. It should mean a rebalancing of priorities where the needs of people are placed over corporate greed.

We are at one of those times in history where, as a society, we can take the bold steps needed or we can cave under pressure from those who have the most to lose from a new set of rules.

Tommy Douglas once said, "Courage my friends. 'Tis not too late to build a better world."

Indeed, it is not. But it will require a heap of courage.

Lana Payne is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by e-mail at lanapayne@nl.rogers.com. Her column returns Jan. 17.

Organizations: NAFTA, Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives, Canadian Council of Chief Executives Council of CEOs Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour

Geographic location: Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador, Grand Falls U.S. Province of Quebec Ottawa

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Recent comments

  • Phoebe Tilley
    July 02, 2010 - 13:34

    Lana thank you yet again for showing all of us just how out of touch with reality you really are. The actions of the Wiliiams Government might be expected in any third world communist country but not here. You however seem to think its just great. What a sad life you live Lana. You have way too much time on your hands these days since you became head of the Federation.

  • Richard
    July 02, 2010 - 13:27

    Aren't you confusing the timber rights with the expropriation of assets? The potential NAFTA action has nothing to do with resource rights. Chapter 11 allows a company in one member country to complain against unfair treatment at the hands of another government. The potential NAFTA issue involves the inconsistency with which the government is expropriating certain hydro assets, and other assets. The province is well within its right to expropriate in the public good, but what it cannot to is discriminate as between the owners of such assets. Hydro facilities in the area in question are owned in part by AbitibiBowater, SunLife, and Fortis. There may be other smaller investors also. The Chapter 11 action would essentially demand equal treatment for AbitibiBowater. The government is not allowed to unilaterally impose acts of vengeance on one investor and treat other owners differently. That's what is happening here. Maybe if you lefties actually learned to read, instead of repeating your socialist anti-trade mantra ad nauseum, you'd learn to make a sensible argument once in awhile.

    I don't like AbitibiBowater any more than you do. And I think they should lose their timber and water rights as per the terms of their agreement. But even evil corporate Americans have right to due process, equal treatment, and the rule of law. This isn't Cuba or Venezuela. Let's keep it that way.

  • Joe
    July 02, 2010 - 13:09

    Lana, your article is as naive as the actions of the provincial government. Congratulations on reclaiming natural resources that will now likely stand worthless, albiet pretty. It is interesting to think that anyone is congratulating a government who has virtually assured the citizens they represent that their children will be mired in a third world business environment, shunned by first world business. The issue facing the people is not been a lack of government regulation or involvement. It has been the attempt to cling to outmoded work arrangements that have long ago put jobs at that mill and many more at risk, How many of the workers who lost their jobs when ABH shut the mill, will be put back to work by the government's action? The answer is zero. No business in their right mind is going to invest money in the province knowing that the government is likely to throw a tantrum and like bratty immature kids everywhere take its ball and go home. Congratulations on having a valuable ball, with no one to play with. Enjoy the tall trees, rushing water and business solitude.....the province has earned the outcomes that will play out for generations to come.

  • Phoebe Tilley
    July 01, 2010 - 20:23

    Lana thank you yet again for showing all of us just how out of touch with reality you really are. The actions of the Wiliiams Government might be expected in any third world communist country but not here. You however seem to think its just great. What a sad life you live Lana. You have way too much time on your hands these days since you became head of the Federation.

  • Richard
    July 01, 2010 - 20:15

    Aren't you confusing the timber rights with the expropriation of assets? The potential NAFTA action has nothing to do with resource rights. Chapter 11 allows a company in one member country to complain against unfair treatment at the hands of another government. The potential NAFTA issue involves the inconsistency with which the government is expropriating certain hydro assets, and other assets. The province is well within its right to expropriate in the public good, but what it cannot to is discriminate as between the owners of such assets. Hydro facilities in the area in question are owned in part by AbitibiBowater, SunLife, and Fortis. There may be other smaller investors also. The Chapter 11 action would essentially demand equal treatment for AbitibiBowater. The government is not allowed to unilaterally impose acts of vengeance on one investor and treat other owners differently. That's what is happening here. Maybe if you lefties actually learned to read, instead of repeating your socialist anti-trade mantra ad nauseum, you'd learn to make a sensible argument once in awhile.

    I don't like AbitibiBowater any more than you do. And I think they should lose their timber and water rights as per the terms of their agreement. But even evil corporate Americans have right to due process, equal treatment, and the rule of law. This isn't Cuba or Venezuela. Let's keep it that way.

  • Joe
    July 01, 2010 - 19:45

    Lana, your article is as naive as the actions of the provincial government. Congratulations on reclaiming natural resources that will now likely stand worthless, albiet pretty. It is interesting to think that anyone is congratulating a government who has virtually assured the citizens they represent that their children will be mired in a third world business environment, shunned by first world business. The issue facing the people is not been a lack of government regulation or involvement. It has been the attempt to cling to outmoded work arrangements that have long ago put jobs at that mill and many more at risk, How many of the workers who lost their jobs when ABH shut the mill, will be put back to work by the government's action? The answer is zero. No business in their right mind is going to invest money in the province knowing that the government is likely to throw a tantrum and like bratty immature kids everywhere take its ball and go home. Congratulations on having a valuable ball, with no one to play with. Enjoy the tall trees, rushing water and business solitude.....the province has earned the outcomes that will play out for generations to come.