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CETA and the HRM

While other municipalities and mayors batten the hatches, HRM greets trade agreement with opens arms

by Robert Devet

Halifax harbour - ready for business? [photo: Doug Kerr]
Halifax harbour - ready for business? [photo: Doug Kerr]

K'jipuktuk (Halifax) - The Comprehensive and Free Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union is expected to be ratified before the end of this year. Many argue that CETA will hamper the ability of municipalities to shape public policy through its current tendering process. Buying locally grown food or expressing a preference for local jobs will become illegal if the municipal tender exceeds defined dollar amounts. The ability to regulate and manage municipal water and sanitation services will also be potentially restricted.

This has alarmed many Canadian municipalities. Municipal councils in Toronto; London; Hamilton; Sackville, New Brunswick; the Cape Breton Regional Municipality; the District of Lunenburg and many more have passed resolutions expressing their concerns. In contrast, HRM so far is not contemplating a similar gesture.

So who is right?

Carol Ferguson thinks HRM is wrong in ignoring the CETA threat. She is a CUPE Atlantic Research Representative who has been closely following the CETA negotiations.

“Passing these resolutions may be symbolic but what is at stake here is the heart and soul of a democracy, namely its ability to set policy without worrying about interference by multinational corporations,” said Ferguson.

A staff report on this very matter presented to Halifax Regional Council in April 2012 argues that CETA isn't really so bad. In short, the reports notes that CETA will most likely not have much of an impact on HRM, and any concerns should simply be funnelled through either the Federation of Canadian Municipalities or the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities.

What is puzzling is that within this very same federation are many member municipalities who feel that their voice isn't sufficiently heard at the CETA negotiating table.

To illustrate, at the same time that HRM staff were tabling their report, the Atlantic Mayors Congress, a forum comprised of mayors of this region's 20 largest municipalities (including HRM's then-Mayor Peter Kelly), issued a press release stating that they “are concerned that municipalities are excluded from ongoing free-trade negotiations between the federal government and the European Union and want a voice in all future talks.”

Just so that there can be no doubt about its intent, the press release quotes Mayor Clifford Lee of Charlottetown, PE, as saying: “As a legitimate level of government effected directly by these trade agreements, we deserve a seat at the table during negotiations.”

Anne Feist, HRM Manager of Procurement, was one of the authors of the HRM staff report. On the press release and the many municipal resolutions expressing dissatisfaction, Feist tells the Halifax Media Co-op: “The report was written based on the facts as we know them. I can't speak for the mayors or the municipalities.”

“HRM is already regulated by other trade agreements, and those thresholds are actually lower,” Feist adds.

Not so, says Ferguson: “Some of the very agreements referred to in the HRM report actually allow you to construct your Request for Proposals in such a way that you can include values other than the cheapest cost, in other words use the tender process to pursue social goals. CETA will most definitely close the door on that.”

The staff report also argues that since CETA thresholds are high, the majority of HRM's tenders would not be impacted. When asked to elaborate, Feist did not have more precise information readily available. Feist did say it is likely that the new library on Spring Garden Road would have been subject to the new CETA rules.

Critics of CETA have also pointed to the well-documented need for municipal water and sewer infrastructure renewal everywhere in Nova Scotia as another likely CETA future target.

HRM councillor Jennifer Watts requested the staff report. When asked why the report was tabled but never discussed at council, Watts responded: “We have never had a buy-local policy in HRM, and council has no real appetite for such a thing. For instance, it was a Spanish company that won the e-voting contract, and only because they were the cheapest. So CETA for us is less of an issue.”

Ferguson isn't comfortable with those kind of arguments: “I call this the snapshot approach. Things are frozen forward. Hamilton privatized its waterworks and sewage treatment and has famously regretted it ever since. Under CETA any reversal will be out of the question. Even though there isn't a buy-local policy in place in HRM at this time, that does not mean that it is OK to prevent any future council from thinking differently about this.”

Indeed, other Nova Scotia municipalities have taken a different approach. Truro is a case in point. According to its procurement policy, “'best value' means evaluating purchase options not only on purchase price and life cycle cost considerations, but also taking into account items such as sustainability factors, delivery, servicing and the capacity of the supplier to meet other criteria as stated in tender documents.”

Given all this, Watts is willing to further look into the matter. In the conversation with the Halifax Media Co-op, Watts noted that she is willing to ask staff for an update. And in a later email to co-op, dated Nov. 6, she wrote: “I will speak with some other councillors about how to proceed on CETA at this point.”

So stay tuned. We will.

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Topics: Governance
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