By Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke

One of the few interesting things to come out of the 1997 election campaign was the revelation that Canada is involved in negotiating a treaty called MAI, the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. The purpose of MAI is to facilitate the movement of capital across international borders. It would work by limiting the power of governments to impede such movement by legislation or any other action. Latest word has it that a vote on ratification is due sometime in May 1998.

What MAI will eventually amount to is anybody’s guess. The scandal surrounding it is that there has been no public debate of its provisions. Almost everything we do know about it has resulted from the drafts of the agreement being leaked on to the Internet (excerpts from the latest draft are included here in an appendix, with reference to a website for recent updates). As a result, any discussion has to be provisional and speculative. In this “road map” guide, written by two of Canada’s leading social activists, the emphasis is placed on worst-case scenarios.

On some minor points the argument is not entirely convincing. Far too much emphasis is placed on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights both as a foundation and a model for Canadian law (its status is dubious in both cases). And, as usual in arguments concerning Canadian sovereignty, the argument for the protection and preservation of our culture is weak. An entire chapter is given over to the MAI’s “War on Cultural Rights,” but one is left with no clear idea of what a cultural “right” is. I can only hope it doesn’t mean I have to watch more Canadian TV.

These quibbles aside, MAI is well worth taking a look at.

What the MAI represents is perhaps the final stage in the evolution of the modern corporation. It is already being heralded as the “constitution of a single global economy” – a constitution that contains a powerful corporate Bill of Rights. For example: Under MAI, corporations would have a legal status equal to that of nation-states, and be allowed to sue governments directly for any preach of MAI rules. Judgments would not be based on the laws of the country in question, but on the terms of the treaty.

Public concern over the MAI tends to take two forms. The first involves what has been dubbed by economists the “race to the bottom” – a process where governments compete for foreign investment by dismantling social welfare programs, lowering labour standards, and gutting environmental regulations.

The second concern has to do with the loss of government power. In a nutshell (and the book goes into this in some detail), the MAI “contains measures specifically designed to take away government’s ability to maintain existing laws or enact new laws in the public interest.”

The net result of all of this is to “confer rights and privileges on transnational corporations without any corresponding responsibilities and obligations to society, communities, or the common good.” The problem, and there is a problem, is that when corporations grow in autonomous institutional power and become detached from people and place, the human and the corporate interest can sometimes diverge. What is good for Megacorp International may not always be good for Canada or Canadians.

Barlow and Clarke end by suggesting that capitalism, flush from its triumph over communism, has a new target in democracy. It is a point worth considering. There is, after all, nothing democratic about a free market, where money, not people vote. And recent years have indeed shown a substantial devolution of power away from the elected representatives of Western democracies to supranational economic agencies that are accountable to the public only indirectly, if at all (EU, WTO, NAFTA).

The secrecy surrounding the MAI fits this pattern, since democracy depends upon an informed public. Spending some time with MAI is at least a first step in the right direction.

Review first published December 13, 1997.


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