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Viewpoint: Convince, don’t coerce

There's a well-accepted rule in politics: It's better to convince than to coerce....

There’s a well-accepted rule in politics: It’s better to convince than to coerce.

And U.S. Customs has a lot of convincing to do if it is planning to follow through on its rumoured plans to stiffen or perhaps make mandatory its Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) program.

C-TPAT acts as the backbone of the partnership among U.S. Customs, carriers, owner/operators and other supply chain partners and if two recent memos from U.S. Customs serve as good indication, this backbone is about to get a lot stiffer.

So far participation in the program has been voluntary – in a way. I say that because since participation in C-TPAT is a prerequisite for participation in the expedited release program Free and Secure Trade (FAST), Canadian carriers who depend on transborder hauls for nearly half their income really have no choice but to join C-TPAT. The owner/operators and drivers working for them have even less choice. As one trade attorney suggested, C-TPAT was the most “non-voluntary voluntary program” that U.S. Customs had ever devised.

But at least the regulatory yoke of C-TPAT is not a particularly heavy one.

To participate in C-TPAT, carriers complete a security questionnaire and agree to develop programs to enhance internal controls throughout their operations. And so far U.S. Customs, provided it found those plans to be satisfactory, has allowed each supply chain partner to tailor its security program to its own business needs. There was no attempt to adopt a one-size-fits-all security regime.

That may be changing.

There is a fundamental debate about whether C-TPAT should remain a voluntary partnership with industry or become a regulated program. Industry stakeholders who have seen the two “informal” drafts of proposed changes to C-TPAT released by U.S. Customs late last year report that C-TPAT will no longer be a set of guidelines. They say terms like “should” and “recommend,” which permeate the C-TPAT agreement, have been replaced by the word “shall” in the drafts.

If that’s the route that U.S. Customs intends to take, I’m not opposed to it. C-TPAT would benefit from more clarity on what is considered a requirement versus what is asked of carriers and supply chain partners as a best practice. Stricter standards may also help prevent another terrorist attack, after which the greatest danger to the continent’s economy would come, as suggested by long-time Washington lobbyist Carl Bentzel, not from al-Qaida but from an enraged American public that would force the U.S. government into far more draconian security measures.

But I must also ask, where’s the beef? When will C-TPAT-approved carriers and shippers finally get that elusive “green lane” for secure cargo that has been promised? (I know that it has been promised by the end of 2005, but I’ve heard those promises before.) How about a government policy that ensures that in the event of another terrorist attack that C-TPAT participants will be guaranteed border access within a certain matter of time, ahead of those not in C-TPAT?

When “should” becomes “shall,” guidelines turn into standards, and the government must then reconsider the benefits of compliance if it still expects a true partnership with the transportation community in the fight against terror.

– Lou Smyrlis can be reached at or (416) 510-5142.

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