Canada arrives late to Pacific trade relationships
Clumsy entry into Trans-Pacific Partnership could hinder future trade with Asia
Talk of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, inspires more nostalgia than Labor Day football.
Long years ago Brian Mulroney left town at 17 per cent in the Gallup Poll but today is still recalled by Ottawa free-traders with a catch in their throat as “The Man Who Showed The Way”. Articulate and methodical, he persuaded Canadians of disparate views to embrace tariff-free U.S. trade – at one point campaigning with a 40-foot flag. “He was going to be the most Canadian of all the Canadians,” an aide recalled.
Step by step, Mulroney a) proposed “freer” trade in 1984, then b) published an ’85 discussion paper and invited premiers to talk it over; c) spent two years negotiating a treaty, then d) took it to the people in an ’88 election that won him 5.7 million votes.
The debate was passionate and respectful, and crossed all lines; former Conservative leader Bob Stanfield in ’85 feared free trade would “reduce the influence of provincial and indeed all governments in Canada,” he said. Even opponents rated the campaign as coherent.
By half-starts and stumbles, with evasion and bluster, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government tripped into TPP talks so clumsily the campaign is now cast as a plot to kill Elsie the Cow. As a Harper communications director once put it, “I’m not a communications expert.” The prospect of free trade spanning 28 per cent of global GDP was reduced to this actual exchange in the House of Commons:
New Democrat: “What is the price Canada paid for entry to the TPP?”
Conservative: “Mr. Speaker, the honorable member continues to amaze me.”
Some Liberals: “Oh, oh!”
Speaker: “Order! Order!”
The C.D. Howe Institute in a damning essay cast Cabinet as the gang that could not shoot straight. “The facts suggest,” the institute wrote, “that Canada has not taken advantage of earlier opportunities to join the TPP negotiations, and is now seeking to make up for lost time. Canada’s absence from this negotiating process so far has left it without an operational strategy for upgrading our historically significant economic engagement in East Asia.”
The TPP was considered such a dead letter that for years it did not warrant a single mention in Parliament. As late as 2008 the Toronto Star reported, “A Canadian official, whom the government allowed to speak to reporters only on the condition that he not be identified” – that means a Harper aide – “said that Ottawa doesn’t think this so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership is worth the trouble.”
When they decided it was worth the trouble, the approach was so garbled it seemed calculated to provoke fear and loathing. The prime minister announced Canada’s entry to TPP talks only after the Montreal Gazette published trade department documents marked “SECRET” stating he was “open to discussing any issue at the negotiating table” – including marketing quotas. Even a Conservative-friendly daily, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, dubbed Harper’s shop “secretive and hierarchical.”
There’s been no discussion paper; no premiers’ chats; no Mulroney charm to smooth public opinion. It was like carving a turkey with a baseball bat: “We have a majority government that is ready, willing and able to make decisions,” the documents read.
Within days lobbyists for dairy farmers launched a “Proudly Canadian” campaign. Under supply management some 15,000 farmers are shielded from imports by escalating tariffs of turkeys (155 per cent), eggs (238 per cent), cheese (245 per cent), chicken (249 per cent), milk (293 per cent) and butter (299 per cent).
One Liberal senator, Robert Peterson from Rose Valley, Saskatchewan, depicted the system as protection from food poisoning. “Supply management ensures food security and food sovereignty,” Peterson said, “and prevents the Canadian market from being flooded by sub-par products.”
Translation: TPP spells unsafe milk for Canadian babies.
So, from a rational explanation of what Pacific trade means, what it would cost and who it would profit, the discourse has fallen into conspiracy talk and secret papers and MPs bellowing like fog horns.
Ah, Mulroney, they hardly knew ye.