The House

TPP will be 'major issue' in campaign and CETA may be in trouble says Jean Charest

The former Quebec premier expects the Trans Pacific Partnership to be an electoral issue, especially in Quebec where supply management represents 40 per cent of the agricultural industry. Jean Charest also says he's concerned about the fate of the free trade deal with the European Union.

Trans-Pacific Partnership will be 'major issue' in federal campaign, says Jean Charest

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest (Reuters)

Talks may be stalled in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, but Canadians can still expect the international trade deal to play into the federal election, said former Quebec premier Jean Charest.

"The campaign is in its early days, but I think you will see this as a major issue," Charest told host Chris Hall in an interview on CBC Radio's The House.

Trade ministers from the 12 countries involved in the TPP, including Canada's trade minister Ed Fast, were unable to reach an agreement in Hawaii last week.

Charest laid the blame for the snag on two "sticking points" — agricultural issues, including supply management on the Canadian side, and intellectual property rights. 

The United States, Australia and New Zealand are pushing for greater access to Canada's dairy sector in particular.

The question of whether to loosen supply management of the dairy sector — and by how much — is a politically sensitive one as the prospect of opening up access to the market has been met by strong opposition from dairy farmers.

Supporters of the deal say it would create openings for Canada in dynamic Asian markets for the first time and, in particular, Japan — the world's third-largest economy.

"The agricultural community as a whole is divided," Charest said.

"The beef producers, the pork producers look at the TPP as a real opportunity to have access to a bigger market. So they're going to be fighting for a deal and you'll have the supply management people putting the brakes on."

That could have major political repercussions for the election in Quebec, a province where all three main parties will be fighting for seats, Charest added.

"Supply management represents 40 per cent of the agricultural sector in Quebec," he said. "I think it could be a very significant issue in the agricultural areas, in the rural areas of Quebec. It's also a big chunk of the business in Ontario and Nova Scotia."

Not joining the TPP will 'isolate' Canada

Charest said it is critical for Canada to be a part of the partnership, which represents some 800 million people with a combined gross domestic product of roughly 40 per cent of the global economy.

"There is a strong case to be made for Canada if we're not a part of this deal," he said. "It isolates Canada. So Canada has to be a part of this deal."

But time is of the essence, and with 10 weeks still to go in a federal campaign and no date set for follow-up negotiations on the TPP, momentum on the deal could falter, Charest said.

"I'm concerned for a very simple reason, a very simple rule of life in politics," he said. "If you don't get it done, things happen. It's extremely important that we move as rapidly as possible to get the deal done. Otherwise there is a risk that something will happen and make this deal fall apart.

"Once it's signed is one thing, getting it ratified is another — and the faster, the better to avoid all the unforeseen circumstances that inevitably happen when there's too much time."

Predicts 'partial' preservation of supply management model

Charest added the same thinking applies to the free trade deal between Canada and Europe, known as the Canada and European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

The deal has yet to be ratified, but Charest believes both CETA and TPP will preserve a partial form of supply management.

"In the Canada-Europe negotiations...there was an opening up of the quotas to allow for more cheese coming in from Europe, and I think that's definitely what we're looking at in terms of supply management in (the TPP)," Charest said.

"That means supply management continues to exist but in a market in which there's going to be more product coming from outside of Canada."

"The real issue, the big question is, what is it do we run the risk of losing if we don't sign on?" he said.