When President Bush meets his counterparts Felipe Calderon of Mexico and Stephen Harper of Canada in New Orleans this week for the fourth summit of the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP), NAFTA itself will not be on the agenda. Nevertheless, the reinvigorated debate over that landmark trade and investment deal in our three countries—which became highly visible during the recent dust up between Prime Minister Harper’s office and both U.S. Democratic presidential candidates—ensures that it will be an elephant in the room.

Launched in 2005 by the three NAFTA countries, the SPP was billed as an initiative to "develop new avenues of cooperation that will make our open societies safer and more secure, our businesses more competitive, and our economies more resilient." That sounds good, but after three years and four summits, it has become increasingly clear that the SPP is an attempt to expand the reach of NAFTA using stealth to circumvent the debate our three democracies demand.

Under the SPP, these heads of state—advised solely by a body of 35 elite corporate CEOs—have committed Mexico, Canada, and the United States to a series of regulations, rule changes, and other executive decrees that are not subject to the scrutiny and oversight of the three countries’ nationally elected legislative bodies. The SPP affects over 300 areas of government responsibility, from energy production and environmental protection to national security and public health.

Let us be clear: we strongly believe in regional cooperation and reciprocity on matters of mutual concern like environmental protection. However, we reject the idea that acceptable hemispheric policy on such important matters can emerge from cloistered summit meetings that exclude the public, civil society, trade unions, the media, and—in violation of the constitutional traditions of all three of our countries—transparent legislative oversight.

The resistance of our three executive branches to greater public scrutiny and legislative participation in their continental planning seems rooted in their fear of the growing opposition to NAFTA that has emerged in all three countries. They appear determined to avoid representative democracy, as messy and unpredictable in nature as it can be. They don’t want their secretive plans to expand NAFTA’s reach derailed by those who have called for a renegotiation of the most egregious elements of the agreement during the U.S. presidential primaries.

The harsh truth Bush, Harper, and Calderon won’t face is that during 14 years of NAFTA, the citizens of our three countries have experienced growing inequality and stagnating wages. In the case of Mexico the collapse of opportunity has been so severe that out-migration to the United States has more than doubled to an all-time high of nearly 500,000 people per year. The poor and the middle class have born the brunt of the damage and dislocation, while the richest few concentrate unprecedented levels of wealth.

Now, these three leaders ask us to not only turn a blind eye to these realities, but to put blind faith in their current negotiations. It is our democratic obligation to hold them accountable. On energy policy for example, should U.S. citizens place unquestioning trust in the Bush administration after it battled all the way to the Supreme Court to conceal the participants in Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy policy meetings? Should Canadians place faith in leaders who push relentlessly to squeeze oil from Alberta’s tar sands while disregarding the environmental risks and refusing to assure any broadly based benefit for the resource sell-out? Should Mexico’s people trust a government that just this past week introduced legislation to privatize Mexico’s national oil industry—currently the source of at least a third of total government revenue?

Rather than place our trust in the good faith of heads of governments and their corporate advisers, we need to insist on transparency, accountability, and the informed consent of the governed. That is why we’ve asked the presidents and prime minister to stop their negotiations until proper oversight can be assured. It is also why we have formed a tri-national Task Force on NAFTA that is recruiting supporters among our three national legislatures to seek a renegotiation of that trade agreement.

At an address earlier this month to the Council of the Americas, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Shannon suggested that President Bush’s goal in New Orleans is to institutionalize the U.S. commitment to the SPP, regardless of who occupies the Oval Office come January 2009. Rather than attempting to handcuff the new administration and the people of our three countries to NAFTA-plus, it is time to chart a fair trade future for North America that fosters democratic governance, growing economies, rising standards of living for all, and puts the interests of working people and the environment over those of global corporations.