Canada’s new trade minister, Chrystia Freeland, went to some length this week to downplay the significance of her government’s upcoming public signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The sprawling corporate trade and investment agreement, negotiated by 12 Asia-Pacific countries including Canada under the Harper Conservatives, will be formally signed at a ceremony in New Zealand next week.
To hear Freeland tell it, this is no big deal. In a statement issued as an open letter to Canadians, she says, “As Parliament returns this week, I will work with my colleagues from all parties to conduct a full and open debate in Parliament, a commitment we made in October’s election.”
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The minister’s letter downplays the significance of the signing ceremony, suggesting the government wants to keep a lid on the TPP debate in Canada for as long as possible. “Signing does not equal ratifying,” she says. “Only a majority vote in our Parliament can allow the Agreement to take force. Signing is simply a technical step in the process, allowing the TPP text to be tabled in Parliament for consideration and debate before any final decision is made.”
When’s the debate?
Until the final two weeks of last fall’s election campaign, the TPP wasn’t on the radar. The Conservatives tout the agreement, which took years to negotiate, as proof of the success of their business-first approach to foreign relations. Harper’s trade minister, Ed Fast, even took time out of the election campaign to participate in the final stages of negotiations.
The NDP, by that point slipping in the polls, took a stand against the agreement, asserting that it would, among other things, lead to major job losses in Canada’s manufacturing sector. (Recent number crunching by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which estimates the TPP could cost 58,000 jobs, appear to vindicate the NDP’s concerns on this front.) The Liberals remained non-committal in the final days of the election campaign, heavily emphasizing their support for “free trade” but promising a “full and open debate” in Parliament and with the public before finalizing the deal.
The question now is, when can we start this debate?
While Freeland claims widespread public consultations are underway on the TPP, the government is keeping things as low-key as possible. They have not been convening town hall meetings across the country, instead inviting people to share their thoughts on the TPP via an email address on the government website.
Four months since the deal was first announced by the outgoing Conservatives, the Liberals seem no more eager to take a substantive position on the TPP, making any potential debate more akin to shadow boxing.
Delaying decision on ratification (or not)
Take, for example, this exchange between NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Prime Minister Trudeau in the first Question Period of the new session of Parliament.
Mr. Speaker, the Trans-Pacific Partnership was negotiated in secret during the final days of the Conservative government. Now, after campaign promises of a more open government with real consultations, the Liberals say they will sign the Conservative-negotiated trade deal with absolutely no changes. TPP would kill 58,000 Canadian jobs, weaken supply management, hurt our auto sector, and put Canadian innovators at a competitive disadvantage. Why is the Prime Minister signing this bad Conservative trade deal without the consultations he promised?
Mr. Speaker, I thank the honourable member for his question because it allows me to set something absolutely straight. We were elected on a commitment to consult with Canadians and indeed to consult with the House of Commons before a decision was made on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Indeed, not signing in the upcoming step would mean that we decided, without consulting with Parliament, not to go forward with the TPP. Of course, we are open to consulting with Canadians and consulting with Parliament, and that is the step that brings us toward ratification or not. That is what it is all about, and that is our commitment.
Taken together, the statements from Trudeau and Freeland sound like the government has decided to delay dealing with this issue for as long as possible, punting ratification (or not) as far down the road as possible. They may have already decided to wait this out until at least after the U.S. presidential elections. With a lot of opposition to the TPP in the U.S. Congress, plus the anti-TPP stances of the presidential frontrunners (including, most recently, Democratic favourite Hillary Clinton), the Liberals look like a government that has decided to waste as little political capital as possible on the TPP.
In the meantime, it looks like it will be up to civil society to lead the “full and open” debate on the TPP.