Canada's international trade minister says her government hasn't decided whether it will participate in an expected signing ceremony for the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Auckland, New Zealand early next month.
"We are aware that some of the countries are talking about a signing in New Zealand. Canada hasn't yet taken a decision," Chrystia Freeland told reporters in Vancouver Tuesday.
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Freeland's holding a series of cross-Canada consultations about the 12-country Pacific Rim trade agreement.
Negotiations concluded Oct. 5 during Canada's federal election campaign, when then-prime minister Stephen Harper heralded the TPP as being "without any doubt whatsoever in the best interests of the Canadian economy.'
The trade minister, along with the rest of Justin Trudeau's government, have taken considerable pains to emphasize their party's openness to international trade deals like TPP. But they've stopped short of endorsing it fully, saying they have a lot to learn first about the contents and implications of the 6,000-page deal.
While her predecessor, Ed Fast, actively promoted the deal he worked to negotiate, Freeland characterized herself this week as being in "listening mode." She met Alberta farm groups Monday, other concerned stakeholders in Vancouver Tuesday and has more consultations set for Montreal and the Toronto area over the next few days.
"This is a very big, complex agreement. I've heard from some stakeholders that they're only now starting to digest it and starting to understand which parts of it will be relevant to them," she said, admitting to reporters in Vancouver that her stakeholder discussions Tuesday revealed some things that were news to both her and her officials.
She declined to specify exactly what.
"I am working hard on it myself, but I do think it's important for Canadians to understand that we are serious about the consultation process."
Signing starts 2-year ratification phase
Plans for the Feb. 4 signing ceremony first emerged in a statement from Chile's trade minister earlier this month. Inside U.S. Trade subsequently cited sources suggesting other countries were making plans for a ministerial meeting ahead of a formal signing.
The New Zealand Herald reported Wednesday that Prime Minister John Key offered to host during the last November's APEC meeting in Manila, Philippines. New Zealand is among the countries interested in hosting a proposed secretariat to co-ordinate the deal going forward.
The timing for the ceremony matters, because a formal signing starts the clock ticking on a two-year deadline for the 12 member countries to ratify the agreement through their own legislative processes. The legal effect of the deal only takes hold upon ratification.
At least six countries, including the largest economies, United States and Japan, must ratify the deal in order for it to come into force at the end of the two-year period — a threshold Freeland characterized as a "Plan B" should some of the smaller countries find the final text politically unpalatable and drop out.
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The unconfirmed Feb. 4 date would immediately follow the Americans' 90-day Congressional review period, which ends on Feb. 3.
Even if Canada does not attend this ceremony, it could sign on and ratify at a later date, before the deal takes hold.
Trade committee hearings this spring?
Asked when her government might bring forward a bill for Canada's ratification, Freeland first paused, and then said "we're very much not there yet."
However, she said when Parliament resumes she will ask the Commons trade committee, once it is formed, to make a "comprehensive cross-country study" of the TPP a priority.
Normally, committees set their own agenda, aside from reviewing legislation referred by the House.
"Our parliamentary debate about this, we really believe, should include careful committee study," she said.
Until recently, Freeland emphasized the text of the deal still needed to undergo "legal scrubbing" to make sure it contained no inadvertent errors, inconsistencies or unintended ambiguities. The English scrubbing is complete, Inside U.S. Trade reports, and the Spanish-language scrubbing is expected to finish this week.
As the only country where French is an official language, Canada is on its own to scrub the French version. When asked Tuesday, Freeland declined to say how far along this process is, and it's unclear whether that would need to be complete before a signing ceremony.
U.S. passage uncertain
In his State of the Union address Tuesday evening, U.S. President Barack Obama, for whom a ratified TPP deal could be counted as a legacy item, encouraged Congress to ratify his administration's efforts.
"With TPP, China doesn't set the rules in that region, we do. You want to show our strength in this century? Approve this agreement. Give us the tools to enforce it," Obama said.
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But successful passage in the U.S. is far from assured. The International Trade Commission's assessment of the deal won't be published until May 18. After that, between summer recess and the fall election, timing is very tight.
Rep. Brad Sherman, the leading Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Asia subcommittee, said last week he thought a vote might wait until the "lame duck" session of Congress after the November elections, when U.S. politicians may feel most free to vote. Passage by a narrow margin is possible, but far from certain, while leading contenders for the U.S. presidency appear cool if not downright hostile to the deal.
"My job is to work with the Canadian politics on this, and work with the Canadian debate and consultation process," Freeland said Tuesday. "I'm going to leave it to my American colleagues to deal with American politics."