Canada set to enter Asian trade talks

Canada's ready to leave the sidelines and join talks towards a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, but critics see a threat to the current quota system for agricultural products like milk, eggs, and chicken.

Harper vowed to 'defend and promote' interests, Opposition sees threat to supply management

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during his meeting with Trans-Pacific Partnership leaders during the APEC summit in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Saturday. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

Opposition critics accused the government Monday of selling out Canada's supply-managed agricultural sectors in its desire to pursue an emerging Asia-Pacific free-trade agreement.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Sunday that Canada would indicate its formal intention to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks. Previously, the Harper government's strong commitment to the current marketing board quota system for dairy, eggs and poultry farmers was seen as a barrier to Canada's participation.

"We would like to know what has changed. What will Canada have to give up in order to be allowed in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks?" interim Opposition Leader Nycole Turmel asked, leading off question period Monday.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, walks with U.S. President Barack Obama at the 2011 APEC Summit in Kapolei, Hawaii Sunday. Obama endorsed Canada's participation in Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
"All countries approach these negotiations with a view to protecting their interests, as Canada certainly will," said Defence Minister Peter MacKay, filling in for the prime minister, who was still travelling home from the APEC Summit in Hawaii.

"Canada's approach to the TPP will not be different [than its approach to the] European Union free-trade negotiations," MacKay added, "and of course this includes our interests in defending and promoting our specific interests in the economy, including supply management."

Later in question period, Gerald Keddy, the parliamentary secretary to the trade minister, echoed MacKay's lines after Liberal Frank Valeriote questioned Harper's "feigned allegiance to supply management."

"We will continue to defend supply management as we always have," Keddy repeated.

Trade Minister Ed Fast had suggested earlier in the weekend that the TPP may not be in Canada's interests if it needed to open up the supply management system.

"There has been some resistance and suggestions that we should be pre-negotiating our entry to the Trans-Pacific Partnership," Fast said Saturday. "We have made it very clear that Canada will not pre-negotiate. We believe all of those issues should be discussed at the negotiating table."

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was asked on his way into question period Monday whether Canada's supply management system was up for negotiation.

"Not at all," the minister said.

Dairy farmers confident

"Supply management has not stood in the way of Canada's ability to successfully negotiate trade agreements in the past and it is unlikely to do so in the future," said Wally Smith, president of Dairy Farmers of Canada, in a press release Monday.

The dairy farmers' release notes that Canada has concluded trade deals in the past while preserving the supply management system.  

Fast also mentioned that on Saturday. "We have free-trade agreements with 14 countries. In each case we have been able to negotiate agreements that are acceptable and that allow us to continue to support our supply management system," the trade minister said.

Protecting supply management is not seen as a dealbreaker in current talks with the European Union.

The TPP started as a small Asia-Pacific economic block with four countries advocating freer trade: Singapore, New Zealand, Chile and Brunei. In time, the United States, Australia, Vietnam and Peru were prepared to join, and Japan also may follow suit.

Chile made significant concessions on agricultural tariffs as part of this deal.

Canada is seeking its own bilateral free-trade deal with Japan and wants to improve its market access, including for non-supply-managed agricultural commodities like beef or pork.

Japanese farmers have protested in opposition to the TPP, fearing economic ruin if large international food exporters gain more access to the Japanese market.
Japanese farmers staged protests against the Trans-Pacific Partnership in October, fearing economic ruin if large exporters gain access to the Japanese market. (Shizuo Kambayashi/Associated Press)

Americans now supportive

New Zealand and the United States had been fingered as countries who were not supportive of Canada joining the talks, at least in part because of its unwavering defence of its supply management system. New Zealand is a leading international dairy exporter, while the United States poultry industry has long coveted more market access in Canada.

Nevertheless, U.S. President Barack Obama endorsed Canada's participation during TPP talks at the APEC Summit on Saturday.

"It's been told to me that President Obama was very strong that he would like to see Canada join the Trans-Pacific Partnership," Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters Sunday in Hawaii. 

The U.S. and eight other Asia-Pacific countries agreed Saturday to broad outlines for a potential deal, but the entire process could play out over five years or more.

"We looked at ... the criteria actually set by the partnership, and they're all criteria that Canada can easily meet," Harper continued, "so it is something that we're interested in moving forward on."

Harper dismissed suggestions Sunday that Canada had to give up its marketing board system as a pre-condition for joining the talks.

"Whenever we enter negotiations, as we've done in the past with other countries, and as we're doing right now with Europe, we always say that all matters are on the table, but of course Canada will seek to defend and promote our specific interests in every single sector in the economy," Harper said.