Canadian diplomacy, corporate style

Corporate Canada received a boost earlier this week when Paul Martin announced that an advocacy secretariat will be established at the Washington D.C embassy to lobby the U.S. Congress.

It’s not that unusual for Canadian diplomats to be salespeople for corporate Canada’s special interest agenda. In fact, Canada’s embassies and consulates around the world are heavily used to do corporate bidding.

Financed by taxpayer dollars, Canadian diplomats, bureaucrats and trade officials — not corporate lobbyists — are the envoys of the pro-corporate initiatives. Recently, they have been in the forefront,

  • promoting undemocratic “free trade” agreements;
  • lobbying the WTO to overturn the European Union ban on cancer-causing asbestos;
  • promoting Canadian forest practices and attacking Canadian environmental groups in Europe, Japan, and the US; and
  • hocking Canadian-made Candu nuclear reactors in China.

The image that comes to mind is the vignette in the documentary “The Corporation” showing former Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew at the Free Trade of the Americas summit in Quebec City, hobnobbing with lobbyists from the Business Council on National Issues and the Canadian Council for International Business as protesters outside are gassed and beaten. Whose interest does he seem to be representing?

It’s ironic that Canada has such an internationalist reputation, when our diplomats are unrepentant advocates for Canadian corporations, particularly logging, mining and, now, energy companies.

If the new taxpayer-financed advocacy secretariat is going to lobby US members of congress to push broader Canadian initiatives it would be fine. Will they be lobbying the US to sign the land mine treaty? Will they ease up on trademark rules to facilitate the distribution of Aids drugs in Africa and Asia? It’s doubtful. With Martin being the best Prime Minister corporate money can buy, and with the “travelling salesperson” ethos of most Canadian diplomats, it’s not hard to imagine the promotional materials being laid out right now.

Unrepresentative diplomats
My cynicism comes from personal experience. Over the last few year I have had to deal with Canadian diplomats while educating Canadian, US, European and WTO politicians and bureaucrats about public concerns related to softwood lumber. Canadian diplomats and trade officials were consistently dismissive, and often hostile.

Former federal Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew categorically refused to meet with us, and diplomats in Washington, Seattle and Geneva did everything possible to attack us and convince other countries’ delegations to not meet with us. In the few short meetings we wrangled with Canadian officials, it was obvious that their job was to obfuscate, confuse, and build protectionist support against the US.

While distortion may be the norm in diplomacy, the bald-faced prevarications espoused by members of our federal trade mission around softwood were appalling. In numerous submissions to international trade bodies like WTO and NAFTA, our Canadian diplomats argued that softwood tariffs were illegal — not because Canada doesn’t subsidize our logging corporations (as they claim domestically) — but because tenure holders already own the trees. Technically they argue that stumpage is “akin to a tax on harvesting rights,” which in tradespeak means: the companies already own the trees and we are just taxing that property interest.

Public interest or corporate interests?
Now, we all know that this position is incorrect. The vast majority of trees in Canada are publicly owned (96% in BC). The Canadian argument is so blatantly wrong it has even been rejected by Canadian courts. Our courts have confirmed that “stumpage is the price paid for Crown timber.” Yet they continue to use it. Ask yourself: whose interests is the government serving by arguing that corporations own trees that belong to the public?

Promoting Canadian interests abroad is a noble calling. Canada is a great country, but too many of our politicians believe that our future is tied to:

  1. Advancing the interests of our largest corporations.
  2. Subsidizing corporate promotion, like having the taxpayers pay for diplomats that do the bidding of Canadian corporations.

Some politicians, like Paul Martin, believe these corporate subsidies are a good investment. They are not. Especially when many of these corporations are using the money saved on promotion abroad to fund aggressive lobbying campaigns that undermine civil society here in Canada.

Often these savings are used to fund think tanks and other corporate lobbying efforts to promote privatization, corporate-friendly tax reforms, job-killing mechanization, and deregulation that allow corporations to destroy habitat, contaminate water and air, and lay off workers.

Expanding diplomacy is good, but not just to act as taxpayer-financed hucksters for corporations that commodify Canadian resources and undermine our future sustainability.

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