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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Opting out of CETA

Corrigenda: In the original post, I incorrectly identified Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Grant Hopcroft as a former Conservative candidate and on the Board of FCM. Mr Hopcroft has served as a ward councillor, a controller and a mayoralty candidate and currently serves on the board of AMO. The blog has been modified accordingly. I regret the errors and have offered my apologies to Mr. Hopcroft. GB

There weren’t many surprises at the council meeting on Super Tuesday; most of it came off as expected. I tried to get there early in order to get my usual seat adjacent to the only electrical outlet in the public gallery. I didn’t make it since the Planning and Environment Committee meeting that had started at 4 p.m. used every minute it had available before the 5 p.m. council start time, but as I have become a fixture at these gatherings, people who had arrived earlier kindly made room for me. When meetings run past midnight, you have to have a source of power for your computer.

The gallery was filled with citizens who had interest in one or more of the issues on the agenda. I had brought fruit, not as a weapon, but in anticipation of a long meeting, although I do recall that many years ago while working abroad, a bag of fruit could come in handy when dealing with a group of amorous young men high on the latest romantic film.

The evening started off innocuously enough. Following the musical offering of the El Sistema Orchestra and the recognition of local businesses and nonprofits, the business of the meeting began. Councillor Sandy White started it off by chiding the mayor, as she is occasionally wont to do, for his failure to recognize that the first of May is International Workers’ Day. This went down well with those who had shown up in T shirts and hand printed posters in support of the resolution to opt out of the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement which, at the request of Joni Baechler, was moved to the top of the agenda.

Councillor Denise Brown lobbed the ball to Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, Grant Hopcroft.

“How will it affect us as a municipality if we send this through?” she wanted to know.
Hopcroft used the opportunity to full advantage with a lengthy if obscure explanation of the negotiations between the Harper government and the European Union provided by the federal minister of international trade. Hopcroft is on the Board of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) which has endorsed the position taken by its federal counterpart, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM)

Last spring FCM,despite majority support from its membership, refused to allow an opting out resolution to be debated, preferring instead to support the negotiations but pleading with the federal government to keep in mind the interests and concerns of the municipalities being dragged into the deal. FCM had made its own statement and council had supported it last fall days before the provincial election when council was short-handed and few understood what it was all about.

But others on council took a different tack.

Councillor Nancy Branscombe, who had put forward the motion at the Finance and Administration Committee, was skeptical. “I’m here to represent residents of London, not to hear spin from a federal minister,” she stated. She believed opting out a was wise course of action, allowing us to “manage our own affairs in London.” Enthusiastic applause followed her remarks. She noted that they could always opt in once all the details were known. Since the deal is being negotiated behind closed doors with no representatives from the city, London has to rely on the province to represent its interests. How can you opt in to a deal when you don’t get to read the fine print?

The mayor had been off in China when this matter had been discussed at committee. He had a different point of view. He had been part of a federal government, even the minister of labour for a while. He was sure that labour would be protected in any agreement. There were great opportunities here, a huge market for Canadian products, and the possibility of foreign investors who would hire local residents. Union leaders in the gallery made known their disagreement.

Sandy White, usually a sycophant of the mayor, balked. “I know you mean well, Mr. Mayor,” she reassured him, but she was distrustful of multilateral trade agreements. “Look at what happened at EMD [Electromotive Diesel],” she noted. More applause.

As a council representative to FCM, Joni Baechler felt some clarification was needed. The support at the earlier FCM meeting was for principles, she pointed out, not for being part of the agreement. At the most recent FCM meeting, there was great concern expressed about the deal and a new resolution, the one they were considering now, would be on the table at the meeting coming up. “We want to make sure we protect our community,” Baechler pointed out, noting that opting out was “a pragmatic course of action till we see the analysis.” 

The audience composed of the Council of Canadians, the Stop CETA group, and labour representatives responded enthusiastically and extended their applause to the next two speakers, Dale Henderson, who spoke of the need to stand up for local jobs, and Bill Armstrong, who noted that majority governments tend to “ram legislation through.”

It began to look as if the motion to opt out until full details of the agreement were known would be successful.

Then came several no votes.

Despite the applause from the gallery for supporting the motion, Councillor Harold Usher let the audience know he wouldn’t be voting in favour of it. He had his reasons, he assured them; he had obtained a lot of information. Although he is a member of board of FCM, he makes his own decisions. He just feels that, despite not knowing what is in the agreement, it will open up a lot of opportunities for London.

Then Paul VanMeerbergen took the floor. It was at his plant, Lambko, that the federal government had held a press conference promoting the CETA only days ago. He had been quoted in the media as gloating that the deal would make him a lot of money. Grumblings of “conflict of interest” greeted his remarks but he paid no attention. He took Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians to task, telling its members how wrong-headed they were. “We’re a small nation, this is a brand new market for us,” he asserted to loud boos. One of the most vocal, a professor from Western University, was requested to leave the room and did so, shouting "conflict of interest!" as he departed.

I wasn’t surprised about VanMeerbergen’s position; I had fully anticipated this, but it was difficult to know how other councillors would respond to the issue, especially in light of a few outbursts in the gallery. They don’t usually aid your cause.

But Stephen Orser, expansive in his role of acting mayor, had supported the opting out motion at committee. Now he reversed himself. He urged the crowd to boo him from the outset, but he had attended the conference at Lamko and he was convinced that Ed Holder, who is on the federal government negotiating team would not let the city down. He was going to vote no. It wasn’t looking positive for the motion.

I had no idea how Joe Swan would deal with this issue. He has been rather unpredictable during this term of council. But Swan rose to the occasion, eloquent and adamant. He was concerned that the agreement would rob us of our Canadian culture, destroying health care system and how we do business as a government with our people. “We’re Canadians,” he proclaimed. “We’re proud. We want to control our own destiny.” It was vintage Joe Swan. The applause was loud and long.

“That’s the Swan I remember,” a member of the gallery said later while council was meeting in camera.

Then, when both Judy Bryant and Bud Polhill indicated they would be supporting it, I knew London would join other municipalities like Toronto and Mississauga in opposing being part of the trade deal. "Principles don't make an agreement," Bryant pointed out.

Polhill in particular was a surprise. He’s pretty conservative despite his Liberal Party membership, but he wanted to “know the rules of the game before you get into this.”

Committee vice-chair Paul Hubert had placed the motion on the floor. Now he summed up his position. He sounded eloquent, but I couldn’t be sure. The gallery was chattering excitedly.

The vote to request the federal government to allow London to opt out of CETA until the details and implications of the agreement are known passed 10 to 5. Only Fontana, Orser, VanMeerbergen, Denise Brown, and Usher opposed.

It was past 6:30 p.m. The first item of the agenda had been concluded. One-third of the gallery left happy. The remainder were asked to move to the lobby while council received some legal advice about the next item, Reservoir Hill.


Kathy Clee said...

It seemed to me that Harold Usher's remarks on the CETA motion were saying, "I need to vote against this, but can't articulate why." The alternative is that a councillor with ten-years+ experience on council is alarmingly naive.

Springbank resident said...

Ah, the Swan I will remember emerged in the vote on Reservoir Hill. History was made.
I look forward to the next chapter of your report.