Saturday, February 24, 2007

why the secrecy on the North American talks?

Top North American officials play down criticism that talks too secretive
Feb 24

Top North American ministers deflected criticism that they had consulted only big business for their talks on trade and security rules, suggesting Friday there are "different venues" for public interest and labour groups to raise their concerns and suggestions.

The Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) is an ongoing dialogue between Canada, the United States and Mexico to find more common ground on issues ranging from border security to emergency preparedness. The group has an arm of business leaders that provides myriad recommendations, but has no formal mechanism for consulting the public at large.

"That type of thing happens in different venues in a host of other occasions, and we're pleased to note that as we work together on the issues we discussed today then the quality of life of all our citizens improves," Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day told reporters at the close of day-long meetings.

Day was flanked by his counterparts from Mexico and the United States, along with trade ministers from the three countries. The star attraction of the meetings was U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who appeared at a final news conference with Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay and Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa.

The talks were a lead-up to a meeting of the countries' leaders this August in Canada.

The SPP was struck by the leaders of the three countries in 2005 to enhance the continent's competitiveness, but for at least the first year received little attention with their dry talk on regulations and cutting down on paperwork. Recently nationalist groups and politicians in Canada and the United States have raised alarm bells over the lack of formal consultation with either civil society or legislatures.

Some of the issues the ministers discussed during their meetings included finalizing a North American plan on dealing with a flu pandemic and another on a common regulatory environment in all three countries. That could include common food safety rules - Canada currently has more stringent rules for fortified products. Insiders say the value of the SPP is that it puts the weight of ministers and national leaders behind projects that might normally languish for years among bureaucrats.

The issue of public consultation was at least identified during their meetings. In the final statement released by the ministers, they said they discussed the "importance of transparency and communication with stakeholders and the public."

NDP Leader Jack Layton raised the issue during Friday's question period in the Commons.

"The fact is, these discussions are worrisome to all Canadians. They have been incredibly secret from the get-go and there has been no public input," Layton said. "The government has not sought out the opinion of parliamentarians or the public on it. Of course the Conservatives think they know best."

The SPP's business arm, called the North America Competitiveness Council, rejected the criticism as misguided, saying that there was nothing secretive about their work or that of the partnership. Tom D'Aquino of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives said there hasn't been public input because most people aren't clued in to the issues.

"How do we take a lot of issues that are really quite important but frankly quite boring, they're not terribly exciting, and bring those to the public light so that people will discuss them? All I can say is that the more of this discussion that we have, the better ... and probably the faster that it will be to get results."

The council tabled a series of recommendations to the ministers, many of them revolving around the situation at the borders. They were critical of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, the American plan that will require passports at all points of entry by 2009. The report urged the governments to come up with a low-cost, secure alternative to the passport together. To date, there has been little progress on the countries coming up with a new ID card.

The group also urged the three governments to reduce the amount of customs transactions that automobiles and other big products made in North America face. The executives pointed out that cars produced overseas only have to go through one transaction, while cars made in North America - with their parts sometimes manufactured in three different countries - can face more than 28,000 transactions.