Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks peak as Canada eyes election timing

As ministerial talks begin Tuesday towards a trade deal between 12 Pacific Rim countries, Canada faces inconvenient timing: the U.S. and Japan want to conclude a deal now, before their 2016 elections, but the Harper government might prefer to delay the final bargain until its own vote is over.

'It's hard to put out a press release during an election, let alone a 21st century trade agreement'

A tractor sports a Canadian flag in Oro-Medonte, Ont. Pacific Rim trade ministers meet in Hawaii Tuesday for talks on an ambitious trade deal. But access for farm products, one of the issues, makes it a tough deal to negotiate on the eve of an election. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

Pity Ed Fast's campaign manager in Abbotsford, B.C.

While most MPs running for re-election are focused on campaigning, Stephen Harper's trade minister is in Maui, Hawaii, this week to see if there's a Trans-Pacific Partnership deal Canada can sign on to.

It's an agreement, the prime minister said in June, that's "essential" for Canada, establishing a basis for trade among not only the 12 Pacific Rim countries at the table, but others who could join later — like China, India or the Philippines.

A bad deal for Canada — or a deal so bad Canada has to walk away — would be another blow to the Conservatives' election narrative of sound economic management.

Trade Minister Ed Fast joins the talks Tuesday - and might have to interrupt his election campaigning in September if talks drag on. (Daniel Munoz/Reuters)

Fast appeared cool last week, not rising to the bait of Americans launching their position — a dismantling of Canada's marketing board regime for dairy, poultry and eggs — loud and clear in the media. 

But as ministerial talks begin Tuesday, Fast faces awkward timing.

Newly enabled by fast-track authority from the U.S. Congress, the Americans and Japanese speak of concluding a deal now, and finalizing by the end of the year, before 2016 elections.

The Harper government might want to stretch final bargaining until its own vote is over — to strengthen its mandate and minimize electoral risks from what unfolds.

Timing not up to Canada

One of the trade minister's former staff said it would be "next to impossible" for Canada to negotiate during the writ period.

Public opinion in the U.S. is divided over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal - but U.S. President Barack Obama has fast-track authority to get a deal done sooner rather than later. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

"It's hard for a minister to put out a press release during an election campaign, let alone a 21st century trade agreement with 40 per cent of the world's GDP," said Adam Taylor, now with Ensight Canada's international trade practice.

"I think people would never expect a democratic country in the middle of an election to come to the table to negotiate in a meaningful way."

And yet, that's exactly the timeline unfolding. 

"The election timing is clearly on our bargaining partners' mind," said NDP trade critic Don Davies.

"I see the Conservatives in a conundrum. They'd love to deliver a TPP deal before the election, but because they're being forced by some very shrewd negotiators to concede some things that will be very harmful to them domestically, they're in a jam," he said.

Davies said the Harper government weakened their bargaining position by lobbying hard for TPP.

"At the same time as they're saying they will be patient and won't sign a quick deal, they convey to the public and to Parliament how vital these agreements are to Canada," he said. "It's a confused and cryptic message that I think our shrewd bargaining partners pick up on and exploit."

Spinning a bad deal?

Davies said Conservatives made closing deals part of their brand, even declaring victory on the Canada-EU trade deal before it was final. (It's still not ratified.)

What happens if things wrap before or during the election? Opposition parties may be forced to support a deal they haven't seen or face being labelled anti-trade.

Farm visits like this one for Stephen Harper in 2011 are a staple for photo shoots during an election campaign, but could take on more significance against the backdrop of difficult trade talks. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"You cannot analyze these agreements in a matter of days or weeks," Davies said. "The Conservatives could spin a bad deal and pretend it's a good one."

Liberal trade critic Chrystia Freeland said the Canadian negotiators can't decide the pace because Canada was one of the parties that came late into the negotiations.

"I hope that they will do what is the duty of a government, which is to negotiate a deal which is in the best interests of Canada rather than in the best interest of the Conservative party," Freeland said.

"I think it's important for both of the opposition parties to offer assurances [of their support] because I think the trade deal is so important," she said.

Taylor, with Ensight Canada, said that when the Americans negotiate in the media, it pits Canadian interests against each other. 

In an 11th-hour "sign here or there's the door" dynamic, Canada has to make sure it gets what it needs.

​"In the end you want to have a howling wolf pack of people saying 'Wow, this is a great deal,' and then have very few voices saying it was a bad deal," said Taylor.

For example, taking a page from the Canada-EU deal's playbook, Canada may find that dollar-wise, getting key Canadian farm exports like canola into Japan tariff-free is worth some disruption in the dairy or poultry sector. 

One more round?

But is a deal really close? Australia's trade minister said talks were one week of negotiation away.

Taylor's skeptical, after so many misses on earlier deadlines.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, right, with his wife, Catherine Pinhas Mulcair, dropped by a farm in Brunner, Ont., during his leader's trip last week. (Hannah Yoon/Canadian Press)

"I don't think this is the final ministerial [meeting]. I think it's probably the penultimate one," said Mike Dungate, who's at the talks representing the Chicken Farmers of Canada. "They're into this final stage. They're not concluding this final stage."

Dungate expects another ministerial meeting in September — that's mid-campaign, when his trade minister might want to be on the campaign trail.

Fast won his seat handily in 2011 with 63 per cent of the vote.

Lucky for him.

In the 2005-06 campaign, former Liberal trade minister Andy Mitchell had to leave his Parry Sound–Muskoka, Ont., riding for World Trade Organization talks in Hong Kong that December.

Mitchell lost to Conservative Tony Clement by 28 votes.


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