The Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) Round Four

April 16, 2008

As the NAFTA leaders and their big business counterparts gather in New Orleans a few days from now for the fourth North American Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) summit, it is worth reflecting on its role in North American integration.

The SPP was conceived by business and political elites as a vehicle for expanding and deepening the North American integration process entrenched under the NAFTA model. While its long-term (unstated) goal of a unified business friendly continental market may be ambitious, its strategy for getting there is slow and covert—small incremental steps out of the public eye and away from parliamentary scrutiny.

The SPP is the umbrella under which hundreds of trilateral initiatives have been assembled. (Though recently they have been pared down to five priority areas.) Legions of bureaucrats work diligently on trilateral accords, understandings, protocols, etc. But they operate under centralized political control. NAFTA leaders and key Ministers meet regularly with business representatives under the guise of the North American Competitiveness Council (NACC). Business conveys its demands, the politicians respond, consensus is reached, and civil servants implement. This takes the privatization of public policy-making to a new level.

Under the SPP process information is scarce. There is no public input or access to decisions made behind closed doors. They may pop up eventually as domestic policy measures, but nothing that would identify them as SPP-related initiatives.

Some commentators say the SPP has not achieved much. But how does one evaluate the results of a project about which so little is known? Without their knowledge, the cumulative effect of many small steps may indeed be hugely significant on Canadians’ health and safety, environment and civil liberties.

Notwithstanding this difficulty, the following examples may shed some light on how the SPP interacts in a conditioning manner with domestic policy- making.

The US national energy security strategy calls for grabbing as much Canadian oil as it can get its hands on. The Stelmach government, with the Harper government’s blessing, has enthusiastically ramped up tar sands production to accommodate US demand. The SPP role is to help reduce regulatory barriers that stand in the way of getting the product to US markets quickly. Bilateral pipeline agreements have been signed; understandings have been reached on regulatory approvals, environmental assessments, etc.

Little is known about these accords. However, this much we do know: the National Energy Board recently approved the construction of two massive pipelines to carry raw bitumen from the tar sands to the US. Together their capacity exceeds the total volume of Alberta’s 2006 oil exports. And once the oil flows, the US will, under the terms of NAFTA, have secured a proprietary claim.

This raises important policy questions: Why is Canada accelerating the export of this most polluting of fuels (to say nothing of other forms of environmental havoc) that is single-handedly preventing Canada from meeting its international commitments to reduce greenhouse gases? Why in the name of Canadian energy security are no pipelines being built to eastern Canada, which is heavily dependent on imported oil, much from unreliable sources? And why are we exporting the raw resource and not doing the value-added work here in Canada?

Canadians and their elected representatives deserve to know what is going on at these SPP tables so that they can see how they relate to domestic policies.

Another example: At the last SPP summit in Montebello, the three countries, with virtually no publicity, signed an agreement on the regulation of chemicals. This seemly innocuous accord now turns out to be an important milestone in global chemicals deregulation efforts. The Canadian chemicals regulation regime was, till then, positioned somewhere between the more stringent safety-first regime of the European Union’s REACH program, and the business-friendly (so-called risk-based) American approach. The Montebello accord shifts the ground, placing Canada firmly in the American camp. What’s more, the US chemicals industry is using this accord in its global lobbying campaign to dilute and diminish the global impact of the European approach.

Here again the SPP process denies Canadians and their elected officials access to this information and a voice in policy decisions that affect their lives.

The SPP has never been a forum for discussing ambitious NAFTA-plus agreements. To do so would risk another high-profile public debate—something governments avoid like the plague.

NAFTA—15 years after its signing (20 years in the case of the Canada-US FTA)—remains controversial among citizens of all three countries. Despite proponents’ incessant claims of its success, the fact is that NAFTA did not fulfill its promise of shared prosperity. Inequality has grown dramatically. Average incomes have stagnated or fallen for most families over the last 20 years; and job insecurity is widespread. Wealth and profits may be at record levels, but most people have not seen the benefits of economic integration.

Prominent continentalists like Derek Burney, Tom d’Aquino and Allan Gotlieb are frustrated by the slowness of progress under the SPP. They want Canada to Think Big--step outside the SPP frame to negotiate bilateral agreements on border management, dispute settlement, etc. This too seems unlikely.

Will the SPP survive the passing of the Bush administration? US presidential candidates are threatening to tear up NAFTA unless fundamental changes are made. If NAFTA is reopened, as it may well be, the SPP will probably go into temporary hibernation. This would provide an opportunity to fundamentally rethink the SPP process and goals as well, and to bring it into line with democratic practice and the public good.

Bruce Campbell is the executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He is co-editor of “Living with Uncle: Canada-US Relations in an Age of Empire” (James Lorimer, 2006)