Shhh! Let's have an international trade meeting and not tell anyone

The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would be the world's largest free trade deal, has generated huge protests in Japan and open debate in New Zealand. But in Canada, as Curt Petrovich reports, the government won't even tell you when the meetings are.

Canada among the most secretive of Trans-Pacific Partnership countries

Anti-TPL trade talks, like this one involving mostly farmers just outside Tokyo, have been a fixture in Japan for most of the past two years. They have not stopped the government, however, from deciding to become the 12th member next month. (620)

The ambitious, now 11-nation trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership has been raising the ire of U.S. senators as well as reporters, lawyers and labour groups all over the world for the exceptionally high level of secrecy surrounding its negotiation.

But is it possible Canada is raising that bar even higher still?

A case in point was the three-day negotiating session of the TPP that was held in Vancouver recently. And which the federal government had no intention of even mentioning until it was leaked, after the fact, by news media in Peru.

Even then, getting Ottawa to be a little more forthcoming on the most basic details proved futile.

Kind of like that Monty Python sketch "The argument."

You know the one where the customer enters a room after having paid to participate in an argument and asks the man behind the desk, "Is this the right room for an argument?"

The man replies, "I've told you once." "No you haven't," the customer insists.

"Yes I have," says the man. "When?" asks the puzzled customer. "Just now."

And so it goes. The bit never gets old.

I found myself playing the role of the confused customer trying to get information from the office of federal International Trade Minister Ed Fast.

The bare-bones news release about the meeting used a lot of words to say very little. But it did say that "further information" could be had by contacting the minister's press secretary, Rudy Husny.

Husny became the minister's spokesman after serving as cannon fodder for the Conservatives in the last federal election. He stood as the party's candidate in an unwinnable race against NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair in the Montreal riding of Outremont.

My questions for him were quite simple.

"Can you tell me who was present, how many attended, where the discussions took place, what specifically was discussed and what agreements were reached?"

Several hours later Husny responded, telling me the meetings were held in Vancouver, that 11 countries are involved in the TPP, and officials were focused on investment provisions.

Unsatisfied with a response that just parroted the original, vague news release, I invited Husny to take another run at answering these questions more directly, to which he replied: "I believe I did. Which questions are not answered in my last emails?"

It was about this point that Monty Python came to mind. Still, I asked again.

Then came Husny's response, quoting my questions, presumably to help me divine the answers more clearly. (Emphasis his.)

"who was present?

OFFICIALS from the TPP members states.

how many attended?

The TPP currently comprises 11 countries: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.

where the discussions took place, what specifically was discussed?

In VANCOUVER, officials are focusing on INVESTMENT PROVISIONS.

and what agreements were reached?

The purpose of the meeting is to ADVANCE negotiations, as indicated in the title of the news release."

By now, I was imagining Husny channelling John Cleese.

Too much secrecy?

Canada's response is a far cry from what's happening in New Zealand, which is also involved in the talks and which is planning to hold a series of stakeholder sessions this summer with the country's chief negotiator to keep business groups and the public informed about what's going on.

But it is probably closer to the U.S. stance where legal scholars have joined labour groups and a swath of U.S. congressional representatives and senators from both sides of the aisle in asking U.S. President Barack Obama to reveal the texts under negotiation.

Walid Hejazi, a professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, chuckles when I tell him my story. But he isn't surprised.

"This whole issue of secrecy and lack of transparency ... I don't like it," he says.

He can appreciate that the negotiations themselves need to happen in secret (and he believes it would be an economic disaster for Canada to be left out of the TPP).

"But having said that, there needs to be milestones where the issues that are up for negotiation are disclosed to the public," he says. "I think there has not been enough of that."

Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, has a theory about at least some of the secrecy surrounding the recent Vancouver meeting.

"One reason for that is there have been rumours that Canada may be a host to a [full negotiating] round in Vancouver," he tells me.

"So it's quite possible they're hoping to host it in the same place and don't want to leak out word," he says, in the event journalists and protestors would stake out the place.

Still, he says that "that kind of culture of secrecy runs counter to the basic ideals and values I would hope our government would hold when it's my interest and everyone's interests at stake."

And he feels the federal minister might have dug himself a bit of a hole on the secrecy front.

In June, Geist turned over a stack of documents to the standing committee on international trade that showed that, prior to joining the TPP talks last October, the federal trade ministry had created a secret insider group of corporate interests, including Bombardier and the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance, to help guide Canada's involvement in these discussions.

Prior to that, Fast has denied that any group has had special access to the negotiations. He has also refused to release the results of last year's public consultations about the TPP, revealing only that it showed "broad support" for the process.

It is that denial of basic information that some critics argue is not only unnecessary, but absurd in these situations.

Kind of like that other Monty Python sketch in which a man returns to a pet shop with a dead parrot, only to be told it's not dead, "it's just resting."


Curt Petrovich is a journalist and author with more than three decades of national, international and investigative reporting experience.