Federal election 2015: Choosing the best negotiator for the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Is the Trans-Pacific Partnership the only way to secure markets and make Canada strong? Or is it a global corporate plot to undermine freedoms Canadians hold dear? Don Pittis says the federal election is about choosing the best negotiator.

As politicians score points with loaded sound bites, does it matter if they avoid details?

Advocates of the Trans-Pacific Partnership say it will open foreign markets to Canadian goods and strengthen the economy. Opponents say it will allow global business to undermine Canadian values. But as Don Pittis says, elections are not the time to negotiate policy details, but to choose the best negotiator. (Canadian Press)

"You can't have a debate on such a key issue as the modernization of social programs in 47 days," Conservative Leader Kim Campbell said during her unsuccessful 1993 election campaign. 

Nor would you want to negotiate an entire trade deal during an election.

Campbell's quote, widely interpreted to mean elections are no time for serious issues, was ill-advised. But it seems obvious that Campbell was trying and failing to articulate an absolute truth: that in election campaigns, complexity is washed away in waves of superficial and often misleading sound bites. 

Reports now suggest that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was confident the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal would be signed last Friday. Instead, negotiations among 12 nations bordering the Pacific Ocean ended without a deal, but more meetings are scheduled. 

Constitutional experts have told the CBC that if the deal had been signed, Harper could have committed Canada to the agreement without parliamentary ratification. But now that's all changed.

Now there's a danger that one of the most crucial issues facing Canadians — trade — is being reduced to caricature. The danger is that instead of a discussion of serious and complex issues, we will end up with a cartoon debate. 

'Oh, yeah?'

We don't just want Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny taking turns shouting "Oh, yeah?" at each other. But neither do we need to be dragged through the detail of the trade deal. Campbell was right.

As a regional radio news reporter in Saskatchewan in the 1980s, tasked with making the original Canada-U.S. trade deal comprehensible, I can attest to the fact that sparking interest in the details of a trade deal is a hard sell.

The fact is trade deals are complex, affecting us decades into the future, and not even experts can foresee exactly how. Some of the things that will affect us the most are so nuanced, not to say boring, to most Canadians that they just don't work as election fodder.

Even one of the issues simple enough to make it into the public debate — whether Canada should open its dairy market to low-price competitors like New Zealand and the U.S. — is almost too complex for proper debate. Repeatedly I have seen it broken down into a superficial argument of free-trade-good versus protection-bad.

Motherhood and poutine

The argument for TPP is one based on simple economic principles. Lifting tariffs and letting every country do what it does best seems as wholesome and Canadian as motherhood and poutine.

And if there is a trade agreement that includes the U.S. and Japan — and might one day include China and India — Canada does not want to be left out. That is why in its broadest principles the three main parties support it.

The detail, hidden behind secret negotiations and strategically leaked as the various players feel it helps their case, is arcane and exhausting. 

According to critics, one hidden subtext is the power of global corporations to subvert Canadian democracy. A goal of "economic integration" sounds benign. But policy wonks from the Council of Canadians and other groups worry about whose rules will be the basis of integration. 

Will investors' rights written into the secret deal make it difficult to block foreign takeovers? Will environmental or human rights legislation be seen as an unfair barrier to trade? Will Canada be limited forever to being an exporter of raw materials and clever people as our industrial collapse continues?

WikiLeaks, founded by Julian Assange, released what the group said were drafts of the secret trade agreement. (Associated Press)

It isn't even a left-right issue anymore as the online libertarian community, in some ways the ideal free traders, weigh in against the established power of big corporations and big government.

WikiLeaks, the group founded by Julian Assange, has released what it says are drafts of the secret investment chapter. A Google search of TPP WikiLeaks will find many more examples.

Strongest criticism

Assange is either a villain or a hero depending on your point of view. But independent of his group's methods, its strongest criticism of the deal is that Canadians, even those few willing to read the boring details, are not allowed to see them.

Perhaps this is a Kim Campbell lesson in how democracy works. The fact is, the complex details of a trade deal cannot possibly be debated in an election campaign, even one that is 78 days long. 

Canada's caretaker government has announced its intention to continue negotiations with its TPP partners.

According to leading constitutional expert Peter Russell, while Canadian trade agreements do not need parliamentary ratification, according to the caretaker convention the government would not have the power to commit the Crown to such an important deal. 

University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist agrees. As he wrote this week, negotiations are pointless if the government elected in October will not accept them. He advises TPP partners that they should realize a caretaker government does not have deal-making power.

And this is the power of democracy. It may be what Campbell meant to say — that while we cannot reinvent social programs or negotiate detailed trade deals in an election campaign, that does not mean voters are without power over those issues. We have the power to elect representatives we trust.

Our job is to listen carefully to what the candidates say, subtract the cartoon sound bites and decide which leader and which party are most likely to negotiate a deal that is in Canada's best interests. And on this issue, that is how we should vote.


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.


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