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We’re pushing the democracy (not panic) button on Trans-Pacific Partnership

The following opinion piece ran in Ipolitics.ca on January 24 in response to a column from Hugh Stevens of the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada. 

It’s standard operating procedure for the Harper government to vilify or ignore critics of its ballyhooed trade agenda. This is supported by a malignant media cliché that the free trade debate is over, that the critics lost — and therefore it is impossible to fault a recently-concluded free trade deal with Europe (CETA) and the nearly finished, 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The message is clear: There’s nothing to see here, folks. Go home, watch a movie and let the wise men and women in Harper’s cabinet sort it out. Canadians wouldn’t accept that posture on, say, energy policy and pipeline approvals. They shouldn’t have to accept it for trade deals either — and especially not for the TPP.

The planned Pacific deal almost certainly would require a number of controversial policy changes in Canada that most people wouldn’t associate with trade. These include, but are not limited to, Canadian copyright policy, Internet regulation, patent protections and drug reimbursement plans, agricultural supply management and other domestic laws, regulations and policies that only minimally affect trade.

Hugh Stephens mentioned some of them in his recent column. But he too quickly dismissed the deal’s critics, including The Council of Canadians, for (in his opinion) pushing the panic button. He also relies on several false assumptions about the TPP’s benefits and is overly confident of the Harper government’s ability to secure a good deal.

Stephens assumes there will be many advantages for exporters and consumers from the TPP and that nobody disagrees with this. But studies suggest the new export opportunities will be small to insignificant, nullified by U.S. competition and offset by growing trade deficits.

Canada already has free trade deals in place with four of the 11 other TPP countries. They are the United States, Mexico, Chile and Peru, with which we do much more trade than we do with the Pacific countries in these negotiations. (Even this arguably has more to do with geography than the existence of trade deals.) In 2012, Canada exported nearly $19-billion worth of goods to Brunei-Darussalam, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Japan combined. That represents just over three per cent of Canada’s total exports last year.

Proponents of the TPP suggest this proves there are major new opportunities in the region. They don’t mention that tariffs are, for the most part, low, and that many important Canadian exports to the region compete directly with U.S. exports, so that mutual tariff elimination across the region merely re-establishes the current dynamic.

It’s also important to note that, in many cases, imports to Canada from Asian TPP countries outpace exports and have for at least the past decade, with small yearly fluctuations. This produces an average trade deficit of more than $8-billion for Canada and a much higher deficit in the United States. North American labour economists predict these deficits will only worsen under the TPP, displacing Canadian, U.S. and even Mexican jobs while further depressing wages on this side of the Pacific.

No one is afraid of fair competition. It is just that when poverty wages and low health and safety standards in countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, Singapore act as a kind of perverse subsidy for corporations operating in developing countries, there can be no fair trade.

When poverty wages and low health and safety standards in countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, Singapore act as a kind of perverse subsidy for corporations operating in developing countries, there can be no fair trade.

Stephens’ second problematic assumption is that “all trade negotiations are conducted on a confidential basis, for good reasons,” and that secrecy is and should be the norm. This is a false assertion in two ways.

First, it’s not true that all trade negotiations happen in secret. There is a good deal of public access to multilateral negotiating texts at the WTO. Perhaps more relevant was the decision in 2004, apparently at the request of former trade minister Pierre Pettigrew, to publish the full negotiating text of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Complaints about secrecy had grown too loud across all FTAA countries and their governments gave in to the pressure. Robert Zoellick, then U.S. trade representative, called it “an important step in an international trade negotiation — to make public at such an early stage the text under negotiation.” He said the FTAA “will expand U.S. access to markets for American workers, consumers, farmers and businesses, and we believe that the availability of the text will increase public awareness of and support for the FTAA.”

He was wrong, of course. The negotiations collapsed shortly after the text went public, which is the real reason why we’re relying on Wikileaks for TPP text. The text is not being kept secret so that each country can get the best deal possible. It’s because if people knew what was in the deal, they might not like what they see — not a good excuse for negotiating in the dark.

If it were only about a poker-faced trade-off for tariff elimination in areas important to the Canadian economy, there might be nothing to worry about. But a secret trade mandate handed down by the Harper cabinet should not extend to areas of complicated public policy such as pharmaceutical patents and drug reimbursement plans, or areas like copyright — where we just concluded a long and difficult policy review.

As University of Ottawa professor and “fair copyright” advocate Michael Geist continually points out, it would be a shame if after more than five years of healthy public debate on striking the right balance in copyright policy — between rights holders and users of copyrighted content — we let the Harper government shift that balance through a secret trade negotiation.

And do we trust this government to consider stronger environmental rules and the means to enforce them? Do we trust Harper to properly consider the rights of workers and the public to hold corporations accountable for their actions? Stephens might. That doesn’t mean everybody should.

Democrats in the U.S. are asking the same questions of the Obama administration. They want a bigger role in the development of government trade policy and negotiating positions. They are resisting ‘fast track’ legislation, supported by the Obama administration and House Republicans, that would limit their options by forcing a yes-no (up-down) vote on the TPP and an eventual U.S.-EU trade deal.

In Canada, we have a permanent ‘fast track’ situation in which MPs only ever get to vote yes or no to trade deals. There’s no option to say ‘yes’ to the tariff package and ‘no’ to longer drug patents or copyright terms. Harper won’t even release a cost-benefit assessment of the TPP to trade committee MPs — the people who are supposed to be studying the deal. The only information we have about Canada’s negotiating positions comes from leaks, which Canadian negotiators refuse to talk about.

Pipeline opponents have every right to demand to see environmental assessments of proposed routes and a voice on approval hearings. This is permanent energy infrastructure with often greater risks to the environment than the economic rewards can cover. Modern trade deals like the TPP, which are about much more than tariffs, create a legal infrastructure with permanent and potentially harmful effects on our economy and communities. The process for approving them should be no less transparent.