Trudeau ducks questions on TPP as trade minister bats down deal reports

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau batted away questions about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal during a moderated discussion in Vietnam today, saying he isn't at the negotiating table and couldn't comment on sticking points.

PM says Canada will not sign a deal just because it's facing 'pressure' from its partners

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau removes his sunglasses as he arrives in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on Thursday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canada's International Trade Minister quickly tried to swat away any rumours that the remaining countries in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) struck a new deal Thursday. 

Earlier, media were reporting that Japan said ministers had reached a deal in principle ahead of the two-day Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit opening in Da Nang, Vietnam on Friday.

"Despite reports, there is no agreement in principle on TPP," François-Philippe Champagne​ tweeted midday Thursday.

Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried to avoid answering questions about the trade deal during a moderated discussion in Vietnam, saying he isn't at the negotiating table and couldn't comment on sticking points.

When asked about aspects of the original deal that are currently subject to renegotiation — namely clauses relating to intellectual property rights and exemptions for cultural policy — Trudeau was coy.

"First of all I'm not at the negotiating table right now; we've got our ministers working on that very carefully, but there's a number of things, every country has certain things they realize are very important," he said under questioning from the moderator of a student-focused event at Ho Chi Minh City's Ton Duc Thang University.

Journalist Lien Hoang questions Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a Q&A session at Ton Duc Thang University in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"On the issue of culture, we need to make sure we're protecting minority cultures like our francophone culture. There's a lot of things we're looking at and approaching it with a very simple lens: if this is going to be good for our citizens, is this going to be good for our country."

When asked if culture was the reason Canadian negotiators are pushing for a rewrite of certain sections of the deal, Trudeau said he preferred to take questions from students in the audience.

"You've asked a lot of questions, and like I said, negotiators are negotiating on TPP." Trudeau then fielded questions about Canada's immigration policies, climate change, his boxing match with Senator Patrick Brazeau, and how he deals with difficult moments.

Observers warn of impact on cultural industries

Some observers have warned the text of the original TPP, negotiated by the former Conservative government, and ultimately signed by the Liberals shortly after they took office, would undermine the federal government's promotion of Canadian culture — through the likes of money for artists, financial support for film production, the periodicals fund and public broadcasting, among other such initiatives — as the deal included weaker protections for cultural industries than in other trade treaties, including NAFTA and CETA, the free trade agreement with the European Union.

The preamble to TPP recognized the rights of countries to regulate certain sectors — public health, safety, the environment— but notably left cultural industries off the list, a departure for Canada, which, under governments of all political stripes, has pushed for a lot of leeway for federal and provincial governments alike to support cultural industries without fear of reprisal at a trade tribunal.

This led some analysts, including those at the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, to warn the deal opened the door too widely to liberalization in a politically sensitive area. Quebec sovereigntists, in particular, have also warned unfettered globalization could undermine the province's attempts to promote their French-language cultural industries.

The U.S., home to arguably the world's most dominant entertainment industry, has long pushed to end government supports — as they claim it puts American companies at a comparative disadvantage — but successive Canadian governments have fought such overtures out of fears over cultural assimilation and the survival of local industry.

Japan, the second largest economy in the TPP, also opposed the addition of "cultural exception" parameters in the last round of negotiations.

'We're going to take our time'

The deal is facing renegotiation after one of the original signatories, the United States, under the direction of President Donald Trump, pulled out of the agreement in January.

Ho Chi Minh Stock Exchange CEO Nguyen Vu Quang Trung looks on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau symbolically rings the gong at the Ho Chi Minh City Stock Exchange in Vietnam. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Champagne are currently meeting with their counterparts in Da Nang, the Vietnamese city where the APEC leaders' summit will be held later this week. Some TPP partners hope to have something signed by the weekend, with reports suggesting renewed talks are now in the "final stretch."

But Trudeau said Thursday that Canada would not sign a deal just because it's facing "pressure" from its partners.

"We're going to take our time, and look carefully at the negotiation," he said, echoing a message he signalled yesterday in Hanoi, when he said Canada will not be "rushed" into a renegotiated TPP.

Vietnamese Canadian urges action

Also Thursday, Trudeau rang the ceremonial gong at Saigon's stock exchange, a building devoted to market economics, but paradoxically named after communist revolutionary hero Ho Chi Minh — a testament to Vietnam's delicate embrace of some aspects of capitalism.

Trudeau met with Vietnamese business leaders, including one with Canadian roots, Paul Nguyen, a man who fled as a refugee to Toronto after the fall of Saigon, learned English, pursued an education in actuarial science, and started a career with Manulife Financial, one of Canada's largest insurance companies. His two worlds collided when he took over Manulife's Vietnamese operations some eight years ago.

Nguyen said he is strongly supportive of Trudeau's progressive trade agenda, namely the push for gender rights in the communist country. Nguyen said he is applying what he learned as a student in Canada — namely a belief in diversity — to his role as general director at Manulife Vietnam. More than 60 per cent of the company's 25,000 insurance agents are women, for example.

And yet while Trudeau has sought to throw the brakes on TPP, Nguyen said many Canadian companies are counting on such an agreement.

"Sorry to Mr. Trump, but Canadians are different from Americans, we tolerate, we bring a lot of values to the world, and I think we have to keep it up, get involved in TPP, push forward, and I think it's beneficial for everyone," he said.


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.