Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal negotiated in secrecy

(Phil here, with some additional information as I’m about to post this October 10, 2015 “Counterpoint” column to this blog: I was obviously worried about the outcome of the election and the effect the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal might have on it. Election day was just nine days away, after the longest campaign in Canadian history. Now-former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper likely hoped the long campaign would work to his advantage. Quite the opposite though; as we now know it worked to the advantage of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party: they went from third-party status, to the formation of a majority government, with Prime Minister Trudeau and his promise of “real change” in charge.)

I was listening to Canada’s International Trade Minister, Ed Fast being interviewed on the radio about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) proposed deal as I drove into Lion’s Head from the farm a few days ago. He was asked by CBC interviewer when details of the secretly-negotiated deal would be made

Fast hummed and hawed a bit, explaining the final draft of the deal with the results of the last-minute negotiations included still had to be written, then it would have to be vetted by the negotiators to ensure it was exactly what had been agreed. “Hopefully,” the minister said, it will be made public “before the election.”

Surely, he knows better. Every on-line news and comment source I’ve read since said it will be at least a month before the details are made public.

Besides, so what if the massive, complex, 30-chapter document is made public a day or two before the election. That leaves no time for the vast majority of Canadians to mentally digest the contents, reflect on them, and come to some sort of opinion.

So, with all due respect, Fast was talking nonsense.

Secrecy has characterized the TPP negotiations since they began several years ago, led by the U.S. The negotiating nations agreed it would be better to bargain in secret than in public, said an article published by Ars. Technica, a high-tech, on-line, news outlet.

But there was one big exception:  “The agreement was reached under rules set by the Obama Administration that allowed hundreds of corporate representatives to have access to the negotiating text, while freezing out the public,” said James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, a private group dedicated to the broader dissemination of information and knowledge.

I referred to the “proposed deal” above because it has been agreed to “in principle” only and signed by the negotiators of the 12 participating countries; but it still has to be approved by the governments involved.

Congressional approval is anything but certain in the U.S. With the 2016 presidential election campaign already in virtual full swing and Pres. Barack Obama by law not allowed to run for a third term, the big, new trade deal is running into opposition on both sides of the Democrat-Republican political divide, in Congress as well as among presidential candidates.

The New York Times reported a provision in the so-called “Investment Chapter” that “allows multinational corporations to challenge (government) regulations and court rulings before special tribunals is drawing intense opposition” in the U.S.

No surprise there. Americans are wary of anything that might give up a portion of their national sovereignty to foreign organizations. That’s unless it leaves them in the driver’s seat, as they likely thought the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would. The Canadian auto sector especially has benefited from NAFTA, which is slated to be superseded by the TPP. Both the U.S. and Canada have otherwise seen their manufacturing sectors suffer massive losses to overseas competition, especially from China, and that’s not the fault of NAFTA. But Americans are rightly touchy about anything that might lead to more manufacturing job losses.

“Opponents in the United States see the pact as mostly a giveaway to business, encouraging further export of manufacturing jobs to low-wage nations,” the New York Times article said.

Notably, the TPP deal does not include China. Obama has openly called it an attempt to counter-balance China’s growing economic power. The 12 TPP countries together have an annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $28 Trillion, about 40 percent of the global GDP. But it leaves the door open for China to join at a later date.

Here in Canada, we’re in the final moments of a long federal election campaign that has seen the three biggest political parties in a tight race most of the way. That was until just the last week or so, when the NDP started to fade.

For a while – depending on which poll you watch – the Liberals and their leader Justin Trudeau appeared to be gaining some upward momentum.

But the TPP announcement appears to have halted and even reversed that trend, as reflected in the daily Nanos poll this week. Meanwhile, the results of the Mainstreet/Postmedia poll released Oct. 6 showed the Conservatives with a substantial lead over the Liberals; and that survey was done days before the deal was announced.

It couldn’t have come at a better time for Harper and the Conservatives. They get to spin it as an example of their economic know-how, without getting caught up in any serious discussion of details that might raise doubts. So far, and so close to voting day, it appears to be working.

I note the last previous session of TPP talks in Hawaii in July broke down without an agreement in principle. Various news sources say the auto and dairy sectors were the stumbling blocks, suggesting Canada’s hard-line position regarding both must have been front-and-center in the failure to reach an agreement at that time.

After that the Obama administration made a point of saying there would be no great loss if Canada dropped out of the talks. So, the the Harper government had a big decision to make – make concessions in those areas, or be left out.

Harper has said being in, rather than out, was a no-brainer. That maybe makes good sense, the way the world economy is globalizing, maybe not. It’s hard to know in the dark.

The problem is though that while the timing looks good for the political fortunes of the Harper-Conservatives, it’s certainly not good for a Canadian public arguably about to make one of the most important decisions in Canada’s history.

Originally published in The Sun Times in October, 2015.

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