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Conservative opposition to free trade agreement makes no sense

Dec 1, 2023 | Editorials, Featured

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

November 21 the House of Commons passed Second Reading on Bill C-57, which is intended to upgrade the current Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement to reflect changes that have come about since the deal was first implemented in 2017. The bill now goes to committee for further study. The vote passed 205-109, with the NDP, Bloc Quebecois, Greens and Independents all joining the governing Liberals. However, all 109 Conservatives who were present for the vote opposed it. Their official reason: The bill imposes carbon taxes on Ukraine.

As Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre put it: “The Prime Minister betrays Ukraine while the country has a knife at its throat. He uses it as an occasion to try to bolster his carbon tax by putting in, for the first time in the history of trade, a carbon tax in a trade agreement. Ukrainians do not need a carbon tax. Canadians do not need a carbon tax.”

Aside from the overblown hyperbole, the statement is misleading. The text of the new trade deal does not commit either Canada or Ukraine to a carbon tax. A clause in Chapter 13 says only that both sides are expected “to promote carbon pricing and measures to mitigate carbon leakage risks.” And that is not a binding clause.

As Marianna Kulava a spokesperson for the Embassy of Ukraine said in a statement e-mailed to the Globe and Mail, the “modernized CUFTA does not include any specific instruments on decreasing carbon footprint, including specific taxation instruments.”
As a matter of fact, Ukraine has had a carbon tax since 2011 and is developing its own emissions-trading system to bring its policies into line with the trade policies of the European Union.

Reacting after the vote Government House Leader Karina Gould told reporters she was “absolutely gobsmacked,” by the Conservative vote.

“This is an agreement that demonstrates Canada’s solidarity, our commitment to Ukraine fighting for their freedom, for their sovereignty,” Gould said. “This agreement is about supporting the rebuilding of Ukraine, and every single Conservative member of Parliament voted against it. I have to say, I am in complete shock about this.”

She said Canadians of Ukrainian origin should be concerned by what has happened. “They should be asking what is going on with the Conservative party of Canada: why would they vote against something that the government of Ukraine has asked the government of Canada to do in a moment when they are under siege.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the party’s excuse for rejecting the agreement absurd.

“The real story is the rise of a right-wing, American MAGA-influenced thinking that has made Canadian Conservatives — who used to be among the strongest defenders of Ukraine, I’ll admit it — turn their backs on something Ukraine needs in its hour of need, Trudeau said.

Liberal MP Yvan Baker, who chairs the Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Friendship Group, said the Conservative’s decision to vote against the updated Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement shows the party doesn’t support Ukraine.
“[Poilievre] argues that the war doesn’t affect inflation, when we know the war is the primary reason for food and energy price inflation around the world, including here at home,” he said.

Several pundits have also criticized the Conservatives for opposing the deal simply because it includes the words “carbon pricing”.

“Mr. Poilievre appears to be so hungry to win back the PPC (People’s Party of Canada) vote, to placate elements within his own base, and to demonstrate his unwavering opposition to carbon taxes, that he would compromise on his support for a democracy whose very existence is under threat,” stated Jon Iveson in The Globe and Mail.

Alexandra Chyczij, national president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC), told this newspaper that the UCC strongly supports the modernization of the Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement – as negotiated by Canada and Ukraine.

“The Ukrainian Canadian Congress was disappointed that the Official Opposition unanimously voted against legislation that would update the Canada Ukraine Free Trade Agreement. We call on the Official Opposition to revisit this position before third reading.

“We are grateful to Members of Parliament who support the modernization of CUFTA. Supporting Ukraine means supporting measures to build Ukraine’s economic resilience through instruments such as free trade agreements,” she said.

Poilievre’s justification for the negative vote is nothing but a red herring. The question is why would a party that has so consistently supported Ukraine in the past, suddenly decide to vote against an updated UFTA based upon a flimsy excuse.

One can only surmise that Poilievre — who smells blood with Trudeau’s mishandling of the whole carbon tax issue, especially his decision to axe the tax for heating oil, but not other sources of home heating in a move that was clearly designed to bolster his falling popularity in Atlantic Canada — is putting partisanship ahead of support for Ukraine. Also, Poilievre has yet to issue a policy statement on Ukraine.

Throughout the years the Ukrainian community has had very good relations with Conservative leaders. It was John G. Diefenbaker who appointed the first Ukrainian Canadian to cabinet and called upon the USSR to free its captive nations in a 1960 speech to the UN General Assembly. It was Brian Mulroney who was the first Western leader to recognize Ukraine’s independence in 1991 and it was Stephen Harper who stood up for human rights during the Yanukovych years, initiated Operation Unifier to help train Ukrainian armed forces to fight off the Russian invaders in 2015 and began negotiations on the free trade deal.

These long-standing relations have benefitted both our community and the Conservative Party of Canada. As a result, we not only want to maintain them, but enhance them as well. We therefore urge members of our community to engage their Members of Parliament and engage the Conservative leadership to better understand our concerns. And we urge the Conservative Party to reconsider it opposition to the updated CUFTA before Third Reading and to issue a comprehensive policy statement on Ukraine as soon as possible.

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