Canada is about to play host to the latest round of high-level talks aimed at concluding the sweeping 12-nation trade and corporate rights pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but the Harper government seems to be doing as much as it can to ensure nobody even knows it’s happening.
Not that secrecy is something new when it comes to TPP negotiations which started back in 2008, and which Canada joined in October of 2012.
It's one of the largest and most dangerous agreements ever negotiated, with 12 countries (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam) involved, representing almost 800 million people and almost 40 percent of the world economy. While it's presented as another "free trade" agreement, only a handful of the TPP's expected 29 Chapters have anything to do with traditional trade issues like market access for goods. The rest deal with dictating how governments can regulate corporations, the length of pharmaceutical and copyright terms, rules on the Internet and the sharing of data across borders, and rules for the financial sector.
Worse yet, all of this will be backed up by a NAFTA Chapter 11-like process of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), which will allow corporations to sue governments for compensation when environmental, health or other regulatory policies interfere with profits.
But despite the far-reaching impacts TPP will have if concluded, the talks have been largely shrouded in secrecy. Negotiating texts are secret, so everything the public knows about TPP has come from leaked documents. Background materials won't be made public until four years after the TPP negotiations end. Even elected members of national parliaments apparently can't be trusted with knowing what's in the TPP and they've had to push to see the agreement before it's signed.
So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Canada's first (and likely last) turn as host of a high-level TPP negotiating round is also shrouded in secrecy.
Negotiations are supposed to start in Ottawa on July 3 and run until July 12, with the lead negotiators joining smaller, issue-specific negotiating teams starting on July 5. Even though the talks are slated to begin next week, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) only made it official on their website yesterday afternoon (June 24) with a brief note saying, "Negotiators, subject matter experts and other officials will meet in Ottawa, Canada, from July 3-12. No ministerial meeting is being scheduled on the margin of the officials meeting in Ottawa."
Even more curiously, the talks had been initially booked in Vancouver (not that the hosts made an official announcement about the meetings), but on June 18 Canada suddenly notified the other negotiating parties that it was switching the venue to Ottawa.
And while negotiators and interested civil society groups now know (unless it changes again) that the talks will be indeed be held in Ottawa, no other details have been revealed. Nobody -- not even negotiators coming to Canada next week for the talks -- have been told the location. Specific information about when negotiations on specific chapters will take place are being kept similarly under wraps.
There has been no response from requests from interested civil society groups for information about opportunities for engagement with negotiators. In previous rounds of the TPP negotiations some efforts were made to facilitate discussions with negotiators, albeit with the challenge of not being able to know the specifics of what was being negotiated. As the negotiations have moved forward, however, public interest groups have been increasingly sidelined from the process and shut out of negotiations.
And for its first crack at hosting a chief negotiators-level TPP meeting, it would seem, Canada has taken it to the extreme by attempting to eliminate any possibility of engagement by civil society at all, and is not even letting negotiators from other countries know the location out of concern that word will get out.
With some speculation that the TPP could be finished late this year, it's more important than ever that Canadians -- and the citizens of the other 11 TPP countries -- know what's being negotiated in their name and have a chance to see the deal before it's signed. Unfortunately, the Harper government is instead doing everything it can to make sure nobody can even find the meetings.