Should Canada be completing a trade deal in the middle of an election?

October 1, 2015

The Obama administration is pulling out all the stops to wrap up the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations this week. Trade ministers, including Canada’s Ed Fast, have been summoned to Atlanta for what is intended to be a final session.

The participation of Fast will be controversial back in Canada, where a federal election campaign is in full swing. Concluding a sweeping, still secret trade treaty on the brink of election day is unprecedented and arguably illegitimate.

Parliamentary convention dictates that caretaker governments refrain from taking major policy steps during an election. The sitting government is also obliged to fully consult with opposition leaders on any such decisions, but there’s no sign this has occurred. 

We were reminded of this when the Privy Council Office posted the guidelines for the caretaker period just before the writ dropped. They included a passage, absent in previous versions, stating “there may be compelling reasons for continued participation by Ministers and/or officials in specific activities such as treaty negotiations.”

This conveniently timed insertion hardly gets government off the hook. The caretaker convention authorizes interim governments to act in real emergencies like the Syrian refugee crisis, where events are truly beyond Canada’s control. They do not provide cover where political expediency is the driving factor. 

The Obama administration is keen to burnish its legacy by delivering a major trade deal. There is no reason for Canada to play by this opportunistic U.S. timeframe. Even if an agreement is hammered out in Atlanta, the president must give Congress 90 days’ notice before signing anything, and that only starts the legislative clock ticking. Congressional consideration would extend well into 2016, making the TPP a political football during the U.S. elections. 

The Canadian government could have argued for a postponement of the Atlanta meeting.  More time would allow whoever forms the next government to be fully briefed and properly consider the myriad issues. Until then, Canada could be represented by senior officials charged with defending the country’s interests but refraining from final commitments. 

But far from arguing for a delay, the Conservative government appears eager to drop a TPP bombshell into the final weeks of the federal campaign. New Zealand’s veteran Trade Minister Tim Groser recently told his country’s media that “The Canadians are negotiating as if there’s no election.”

Whatever one’s position on this sweeping deal, there are no prospects for a fair, informed debate before the election. The Conservative government will be in full control of information about the text, and free to spin it to its own partisan advantage.  

This would not be the first time this government has run roughshod over constitutional convention.   Prorogation of Parliament, contempt of Parliament, misleading Parliament, omnibus budget bills … the list of abuses is long. 

There are political risks in such Machiavellian maneuverings. Atlanta will not be an easy meeting. Negotiators admit that some thorny issues, including market access for dairy and content rules for the auto industry, are still not within reach of a clear solution.

At the last meeting, the U.S. secretly cut a side deal with Japan to allow Japanese and other automakers to sell cars and parts with high levels of Chinese content duty free in North America, undercutting the Canadian and Mexican industries.  Economist Jim Stanford estimates this could cost the Canadian auto sector 24,600 jobs. 

With energy and commodity prices in the gutter, many Canadians understand it is not a good time to be sacrificing well-paying jobs or weakening struggling manufacturers that are the main hope for reviving our stagnant economy.

These high-profile issues are just the tip of the iceberg. The TPP could mean major changes in matters ranging from access to medicines to the weakening of privacy protections. Unfortunately, there is no way these and other potential surprises buried in the massive text would be properly aired in the closing days of the campaign.

Striking a TPP deal during the election flies in the face of democratic convention and the government’s own promises of openness. Canada’s negotiating partners must understand the current government does not have the authority to commit to this trade treaty. 

Whoever forms the next government must make their own decisions, in consultation with the Canadian public, and should not feel bound by whatever is agreed this week in Atlanta.

Scott Sinclair is Senior Trade Researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the director of the CCPA’s Trade and Investment Research Project. This op-ed was first published in the Toronto Star