Chrystia Freeland signs Trans-Pacific Partnership deal in New Zealand

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland has travelled to Auckland to put Canada's signature on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal negotiated last fall. Today's ceremony kicks off a two-year ratification period, but it's not a sure thing the TPP will ever take effect.

Ministers from 12 Pacific Rim partners sign broad trade pact, but ratification still iffy

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland performs hongi (the traditional Maori welcome) with a Maori elder at the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement in Auckland, New Zealand, Thursday. (David Rowland/SNPA via Associated Press)

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in a ceremony in New Zealand today.

After signing the agreement, Freeland told reporters that Canada's participation in the Asia Pacific economy was very important and reassured her counterparts from the other 11 countries that Canada's new government was pro-trade. 

"We are in a unique position because we were not in government when the TPP was negotiated," Freeland said. "Our commitment during the election was to state very firmly that we are a party that believes in trade, and a government that believes strongly in free trade."

Ministers from the 12 Pacific Rim countries met at Auckland's Sky City Casino on Thursday morning, local time. The signing ceremony kicks off a two-year ratification period, during which the United States, Japan and at least four of the remaining 10 countries must approve the final legal text in order for the deal to take effect.

Freeland said Canada's approval process will begin with broad consultations on the agreement, which will include discussions with First Nations, prior to ratification.

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement on Thursday, but made it clear that signing is not the same as ratifying. (David Rowland/SNPA via Associated Press)

"Those consultations in Canada very much will include aboriginal communities, they are a very important part of the national discussion," Freeland said. "We are committed to a full parliamentary committee study and a full parliamentary debate ahead of ratification." 

A vigorous political debate in the two largest economies, the U.S. and Japan, combined with elections in both countries in 2016, make it far from certain that the two players in the driver's seat for negotiations will even ratify the deal.

In Canada's case, last October's election signalled a shift from the enthusiastic cheerleading Stephen Harper's Conservatives did for the deal, to a cautious, listening process on Justin Trudeau's watch.

'Big difference'

Freeland speaks of having already done "more than 70 consultations, meetings and roundtables on the TPP." Her parliamentary secretary and other ministerial colleagues have done more than 200, she said Wednesday.

She's also asked the House of Commons and Senate trade committees to conduct a comprehensive study of the deal and report back before an implementation bill is introduced.

"There is a big difference between signing and ratifying," the minister said.

Former Conservative trade minister Ed Fast, third from left, was at the table when TPP negotiations concluded in Atlanta on Oct. 4. Stephen Harper's Conservatives were defeated two weeks later, and Canada's bullish tone on the TPP changed. (Reuters/USTR Press Office/Handout)

Trudeau's government may prefer to wait out the ratification debate elsewhere before putting too much of its own weight behind a deal closely associated with the previous Conservative government's economic strategy.

Should the deal fail to be ratified by enough countries before the deadline, there may be political advantages for the Liberals in holding back.

Freeland refused last week to answer questions about whether the ongoing consultations could yet shape the contents of the already-negotiated deal, saying it was "not very wise to answer hypotheticals."

Asked whether there was reason to feel skeptical about the value of consulting on a done deal, Freeland said Wednesday that "it's important for us as a country to discuss and understand its many implications." 

Protestors perform a haka outside the venue of the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement in Auckland, New Zealand, Thursday. (Martin Hunter/SNPA/Associated Press)

She hedged when asked if there's an economic study proving TPP's benefits: "It's a big job and we are working on it."

"In all honesty, we don't know the results of those consultations," NDP trade critic Tracey Ramsey said on Parliament Hill. "This deal doesn't have an economic impact study attached to it."

"If this deal's not good for Canadians, then why are we there signing?" 

'Grand PR exercise?'

While the signing is a "very important moment," it's "only a first step," Freeland said.

As politically useful as it may be to portray the parliamentary vote as more significant, that's not how international treaties work, notes an academic who studies the constitutional powers of different branches of government.

When it comes to ratification, Parliament is "a political arm, and not a legal one," the University of Ottawa's Philippe Lagassé told CBC News. "I think there's a legitimate critique of saying 'are the consultations merely a grand PR exercise?'"

Protesters took to the streets in Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 23 to protest against the TPP's ratification ahead of a debate in Malaysia's parliament last month. All 12 countries who negotiated the deal signed on in Auckland Thursday. (Joshua Paul/Associated Press)

First the deal is signed by a minister of the Crown, then implementing legislation to change domestic law must pass to demonstrate that the deal is binding, which might include changing both provincial and federal laws.

Finally, it's cabinet's job, not Parliament's, to ratify.

"The difficulty is that it's [already] been negotiated," Lagassé said. "I'm just worried that it's going to give a false impression that somehow you're in a position after you sign to renegotiate.

"If it is a take it or leave it situation ... what role will the House play in scrutinizing this?" he said, noting that it will be interesting to see if there's a free vote or if Liberals with concerns are free to break rank.

Scrub complete in 3 languages

Freeland took her time confirming her attendance. Her department hadn't been forthcoming with details about the signing ceremony.

It's not clear what the consequences would have been if she didn't go, Lagassé said.

"If you perceive yourself as one of the main beneficiaries of this treaty, then you don't want to be seen as a party that's holding it up," he said.

"There are ... privileges that original signatories to the deal have. And that is why we believe that it is very much in Canada's national interest to be here at the signing," the minister told reporters Wednesday.

Farm groups eager to see tariffs cut or eliminated in key Asian markets like Japan were in Auckland to applaud the signing. Some 65% of Canada's agri-food exports go to TPP countries, and they warn of billion-dollar consequences if Canada doesn't ratify.

"Canadian agriculture has lived through this before with Korea, when a billion dollar market was cut in half virtually overnight as the U.S. had access and we didn't. We can't afford to see this happen again with TPP countries," said Brian Innes, the president of the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance in a release.

On the other hand, groups like OpenMedia, which opposes the intellectual property provisions, continue to pressure the government not to ratify.

TPP would "censor the Web, criminalize our online activities, and cost us money," digital rights expert Meghan Sali said in another release.

This week's talks will see the 12 partners consider how and where to set up a permanent secretariat to oversee the deal and work through other remaining issues.

The final text has been legally scrubbed in English, French and Spanish and posted online by New Zealand.

The twelve signatories are: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, United States and Vietnam.

Ministers from 12 Pacific Rim countries signing on to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement in Auckland, New Zealand, Thursday pose for a family photo, including Canada's international trade minister Chrystia Freeland (third from left.) (David Rowland/SNPA via Associated Press)