Delayed China trade deal reflects Tory dissent, NDP says

MPs will be voting on an NDP motion calling on the Canadian government to inform China that it will not ratify the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement, following a six-month delay by the Conservatives to ratify the deal.

Tory backbenchers troubled by Canada-China trade deal, NDP critic says

Prime Minister Stephen Harper signed an investment treaty with China while at the APEC Summit in Vladivostok, Russia, on Sept. 9, 2012. Harper is seen here speaking with then Chinese President Hu Jintao. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A delay in the federal government's adoption of a controversial investment treaty with China has energized the Opposition New Democrats, who are opposed to the deal and would like to see it stopped. 

MPs will be voting on an NDP motion calling on the Canadian government to inform China that it will not ratify the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA).

The government had signalled last fall its intention to ratify the investment treaty it signed with China and tabled in Parliament in September, but six months have passed and the Conservatives have yet to adopt the deal.

"The Canada-China investment treaty has not been unanimously accepted — even among Conservatives," NDP international trade critic Don Davies told CBC News in a telephone interview on Sunday.

The Canadian government has been criticized for negotiating this deal behind closed doors. Opposition critics and experts say it contains significant gaps and provides few benefits for Canada.

Gus Van Harten, an international investment law expert and associate professor at the Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, told CBC News that Canada would come out "on the losing side."

In January, a B.C. First Nation asked the Federal Court to stop Canada from ratifying the FIPA with China until it and other bands have been consulted.

That case is expected to be heard in May at the earliest.

NDP motion is 'anti-trade'

Although a Conservative majority government means the NDP motion will be defeated, Davies said New Democrats have been privately hearing from Conservative backbenchers who are against the deal.

With the rising tide of Conservative backbenchers who feel they have been muzzled by party discipline imposed on them by the Prime Minister's Office, Davies hopes to draw out their support when the motion comes to a vote.

"I believe that many members of the government side are aware of the dangers this deal presents to Canadian interests and are troubled by the agreement's violation of core Canadian values," Davies told the Commons when the motion was debated last Thursday.

While Gerald Keddy, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of international trade, did not give an explanation for the government's delay in ratifying the FIPA with China, he dismissed the NDP motion, telling the Commons "it's not just anti-investment, it's basically anti-trade."

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said she will be voting in favour of the NDP motion, but the Conservatives may not be alone in opposing it.

Liberal international trade critic Wayne Easter, during that same debate, said he disagreed with the NDP motion "to just throw this out" but understood why the NDP had put forth the motion.

Easter took a shot at the Conservatives saying greater transparency and cross-country hearings could have resulted in "a better treaty."

Davies told CBC News the NDP is not against trade with China, it's simply opposed to this deal in its current form. "There's nothing in this motion that says we wouldn't seek to amend it."

Davies said he spent the weekend trying to explain that to Liberals and Conservatives alike.

Defiant Conservative backbenchers

Conservatives have pointed out that the FIPA with China didn't have to be debated in Parliament because treaty making is a royal prerogative and as such can become law through a cabinet order-in-council after sitting in Parliament for no less than 21 days after being tabled on Sept. 26, 2012.

That means the Conservatives could have sent a diplomatic note to China saying the deal was ratified as early as the end of last October.

Requests by CBC News for an interview with Keddy or International Trade Minister Ed Fast went unanswered this week. Fast was on his ninth visit to Asia in less than two years, according to press releases.

While Davies has conceded there may be several reasons for the federal government's delay in ratifying this deal, it would not be the first time Conservatives have been divided where China is involved. 

As CBC News reported in January, documents obtained through access to information revealed three Conservative MPs wrote to the prime minister and the industry minister to raise concerns about the controversial $15.1-billion bid by the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) bid for Calgary-based Nexen before it was approved.

Conservatives Russ Hiebert, LaVar Payne, and Harold Albrecht objected to the deal based on "philosophical and practical" grounds, top among them China's human rights record.

More recently, other backbench MPs such as Conservative Mark Warawa have been increasingly outspoken over what they see as the Prime Minister's Office stifling of debate in the House of Commons.

In a surprise move last Friday, the Conservatives changed this week's Commons agenda, moving the day when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was to present a motion that would see party whips stripped of their power to decide which MPs are allowed to make members' statements and which are not.

MPs will consider an anti-terrorism bill on Monday that the Conservatives say has taken on a new urgency in the wake of the Boston bombings.

But the Liberals aren't buying the rationale, suggesting instead that moving Trudeau's motion to Wednesday, the same day when the Tory caucus meets, is simply an excuse to give the prime minister another chance to quell defiant Conservative backbenchers before the vote.