OTTAWA—The Conservatives are conducting negotiations toward a massive 12-country trade deal—that could well prove to be their campaign centrepiece—in secret in the middle of an election, the Liberals and NDP charged Wednesday, Nov. 30.
As Justin Trudeau unveiled the Liberal health-care policy plank, one of the last remaining pieces of his party’s platform, and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair promised to establish a parliamentary science officer to advise his would-be government, the Conservatives were answering awkward questions about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which could be announced, in some form, as early as Oct. 2.
Joe Oliver, in a rare national campaign appearance, defended the government’s right to conduct official business during the election period.
The finance minister rejected suggestions that the government’s continued pursuit of the TPP is a violation of the so-called “caretaker convention,” which is supposed to limit government activity during an election period.
“There is a protocol in place and we of course consult with the Privy Council on these issues,” Oliver said.
“When there’s a matter of importance or urgency for the government to deal with in the national interest then it’s appropriate for us to do that. And this is certainly one of those cases.”
The convention also stipulates that governing parties are expected to consult opposition parties on matters that could end up tying the hands of future governments.
Trudeau flat out said he had “not been approached by anyone in government on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”
“One of the things that we’ve seen over the past years with this government is an approach that has been secretive, non-transparent, that hasn’t let Canadians know what it is negotiating and how it is negotiating, what is on the table,” he said in Surrey, B.C.
“It would be unrealistic for us to expect that the whole world will stop and wait with bated breath for the outcome of Canada’s election. But what we need to know is that our government is negotiating in a way that is going to enhance Canadian opportunities and growth while protecting our interests.”
Questions are lingering about what possible concessions Canada may have to make in agriculture and the auto sector to get a deal.
Mulcair said he is “very worried” about what Prime Minister Stephen Harper is willing to put on the table.
“I don’t trust Stephen Harper as a negotiator,” he said in Iqaluit. “He’s not good at it. He has an ideological bent that means he doesn’t care about what happens here at home. … We’ve been asking the prime minister to defend our supply management system in its entirety and we’ll accept nothing less.”
Harper promised Tuesday to preserve Canada’s long-standing protection of the dairy and auto industries. He said his government is “absolutely committed” to preserving Canada’s supply management system—a structure of production limits and import tariffs—through trade negotiations.
‘Canada is Prepared to Negotiate’
Trade Minister Ed Fast is in Atlanta for a renewed round of negotiations, and speculation is rampant that an agreement in principle could emerge by the end of the week.
In his first full day at the meetings Wednesday, Fast said he’s willing to stay as long as it takes. He said he doesn’t yet have a return plane ticket to British Columbia where he’s in a re-election fight because, he says, completing the deal is critical to Canada’s economy.
“What I can say is that Canada is prepared to negotiate, to stay here until we have a deal,” he said. “We believe we are on track to do so.”
He insisted that he’s also willing to walk away if necessary: “I can’t prejudge whether there will be a deal this weekend… We are only going to sign a deal that is in our national interest.”
Some countries are expressing a sense of urgency that a deal be completed now before several governments involved in the talks face uncertain re-election campaigns, starting with Canada’s.
But the biggest impending concern for TPP proponents is the fast-approaching U.S. presidential primaries, which could play havoc with attempts to get the agreement ratified in Congress.
The Canadian government faces the dual pressure of having to run a campaign at the same time. While Fast chats about dairy and auto quotas in Atlanta, his colleagues back home are weighing the potential impact in dozens of ridings that could hold the key to Conservative re-election chances.
The government left the last talks dismayed by a surprise Japan-U.S. agreement that would have upended auto-production, with tariffs eliminated on cars that primarily use cheaper parts from non-TPP countries like China.
Fast called the last proposal unacceptable. He added Wednesday that there has been movement since the failed round in July: “We have continued to make progress,” he said.
But the Canadian government also desperately wants to change the conversation.
It’s attempting to steer attention toward companies and industries enthused by the TPP. It hopes those voices drown out some of the skeptics: the auto-workers union warning of lost middle-class jobs, and the dairy farmers urging against even a one percent increase in foreign cheese imports.
To that end, the government has been circulating quotes from supportive stakeholders in multiple industries: mining, seafood, pork, cattle, and even from the bigger auto-parts companies with foreign plants.
Another emerging debate has to do with transparency. The deal is being negotiated in secret; the final text might not even be made public before Canadians vote; and the government hasn’t involved opposition parties despite the fact that one of them might actually have to implement the deal if they win on Oct. 19.
Fast said Canada would push for the full text to be released instantly. He offered no guarantee when asked about consulting his election opponents.