The Guardian May 24, 2000


"Free trade", private hospitals and sovereignty

The Government of the Canadian province of Alberta has introduced a Bill 
to permit the establishment of for-profit private hospitals, a first step 
towards abandoning the state-run public hospital system. The move is being 
opposed by Canadians determined to preserve their existing health care 
system.

Now the Caledon Institute of Social Policy has raised serious questions 
concerning the effects of the Alberta legislation under the supra-national 
"free trade" agreements which the US and other imperialist powers are 
pressing on the rest of the world.

Had the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) been adopted, Australia 
would be subject to the same alarming implications as the Canadians. But 
other "free trade" agreements are being touted, and already the provisions 
of the WTO  as the second part of this article shows  seriously 
compromise national sovereignty.

The following material is from the Canadian communist paper, People's 
Voice. These warnings from Canada should be studied.

Despite Ottawa's assurances, health care is not safe under the North 
American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which protects only policies which 
are "maintained in force" after January 1, 1994.

If a jurisdiction changes its laws (in this case introducing for-profit 
health care services), it cannot reverse them later without consequences. A 
future Alberta Government could rescind the legislation, only to face 
challenges.

Under NAFTA, companies denied access to the health care "market" could sue 
for expropriation of assets.

As researcher Michael Rachlis points out in his review of the legislation, 
the move by Alberta Premier Klein could effectively bind succeeding Alberta 
governments to stick with for-profit health care.

Canadians in other provinces could be affected by the legislation as well, 
and not just from neoliberal Premiers who are watching Klein's actions and 
waiting to follow suit.

Under NAFTA, a foreign-owned for-profit health care company could charge 
that the Alberta law had an impact on federal law and, therefore, the whole 
country was now open to for-profit hospitals.

Such a company could sue other provinces for blocking its access to the 
"marketplace". Any such challenges would be heard and judged by an 
international arbitration tribunal, with the decision not open to appeal.

These concerns make the federal Canadian Government's refusal to stop this 
Bill even more criminal.

We can't afford to "wait and see"; as soon as the legislation is passed, 
the NAFTA provisions are activated. It will be too late to roll them back.

However, thousands Albertans have taken to the streets to defend public 
health care, and political pressure has caused Klein to back down on this 
issue on other occasions.

WTO

NAFTA has had a wide-reaching impact on all areas of Canadian life. 
International agreements like NAFTA and the WTO have the goal of striking 
down "barriers" to trade in services, goods and investments.

Environmental regulations, regarding pesticides, food safety, bio-
technology and ecosystem protection, are seen as non-tariff barriers to 
trade.

NAFTA and the WTO use the provisions of the Technical Barriers to Trade 
(TBT) and Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (SPS) chapters to establish 
standards.

Through the use of trade sanctions these agreements seek to modify a 
national government's activities.

For example, responding to an American complaint, the WTO ruled that 
Canada's magazine advertising policies contravened the TBT, and moved to 
introduce trade sanctions against Canadian exports.

The Minister of Heritage argued that the policy protected Canadian culture, 
and should therefore be exempt, but the panel still ruled against Canada.

The single most important principle in these trade agreements is that of 
Most-Favoured Nation Treatment. Governments must treat "like" products from 
member countries equally regardless of the environmental, or labour, 
conditions entailed in that production.

Here we find the principal weapon used against any forms of progressive 
environmental policy.

First, the Canadian Government is unable to use trade measures to influence 
foreign industries that are polluting or producing hazardous materials (or 
with poor human rights records).

Second, Canadian industries use the fact that they are competing with 
transnational corporations, located in countries lacking the most basic 
environmental protections, to force provincial and federal governments to 
weaken environmental protections.

To calm citizen concerns, the federal Government and various corporate 
apologists refer to Article XX of the WTO regime as a means to act in the 
public interest.

Article XX "permits" countries to maintain or introduce standards necessary 
for the protection of "human, animal or plant life or health" and the 
"conservation of exhaustible resources".

But, to quote a brief prepared by the Canadian Environmental Law 
Association: "With the implementation of the expanded trade law regime 
following the establishment of the WTO, an increased number of trade 
disputes have arisen in which environmental or health standards have been 
an issue.

"In every case, the domestic standard that was at issue has been found 
incompatible with GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) or the FTA 
leading to a requirement that it be rescinded."

The fact is that the GATT/WTO negotiations have invariably led to the 
elimination of government options to regulate! It is doubtful that this 
pattern will be reversed in the near future.

It is important to remember that the Canadian Government is no mere pawn to 
the dictates of global capitalism. Ottawa's track record in both the 
Committee on Trade and the Environment and the Review of Technical Barriers 
to Trade has been abysmal.

In two recent cases, Canada successfully challenged the right of European 
countries to ban beef with hormone residues, and is attempting to force 
France to accept Canadian asbestos. (Tasmania has been battling for the 
right to ban fresh salmon imports from Canada.) Repeatedly the Canadian 
Government has shown a complete disregard for the legitimate health 
concerns of foreign peoples.

For all these reasons it is important to oppose the WTO and other 
international free trade agreements.

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