Right this moment, negotiators from 12 countries are holed up in a fancy Ottawa hotel to try to hash out an agreement regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
The TPP is a trade deal that promises to free up more Canadian meat exports to Japan and the Asia-Pacific region, among other things, in exchange for some restrictions on internet freedom, environmental regulation, and access to medicines for the poor.
Opposition to the TPP's secrecy has been building for some time. When rumours were confirmed that the TPP was coming to Vancouver for the latest in a long line of sessions, public-interest groups like OpenMedia and the EFF clamored at the opportunity to get some face-time with negotiators on North American soil.
A week before the talks were slated to begin, the Canadian trade ministry announced that the location had been changed from Vancouver to Ottawa. When pressed for comment as negotiations began on July 3rd, International Trade Minister Ed Fast's office claimed that the whole switcheroo was done to save taxpayers $150,000, and not to "thwart planned protests."
Given the Harper government's history of hosting wasteful billion-dollar events in major cities, this reasoning rings about as hollow as a black bloc protester's bank account. As noted Canadian copyright expert Michael Geist put it, the Canadian government's misdirection and secrecy is because the TPP has "something to hide."
So far, the entire negotiating process has been about as secret as it gets—unless you're involved in a business that has a large material interest in what's going on. In this case, you get plenty of access to top negotiators, as a quick search of the handy Canadian lobbying registry shows. Industry representatives have also been granted access to draft texts of the TPP—a privilege that Canadian opposition party members don't get to enjoy.
Corporate access and input is understandable, because if Canada is negotiating a trade deal, it's normal to want to hear from industries that could be affected—and by no means are they all on the same page. But the TPP process has riled up civil society considerably, because it turns out that public-interest groups, academics, and ordinary citizens have had very little input.
As Maira Sutton from the EFF wrote in a blog post, TPP rounds used to come with a large helping of secrecy and a small "superficial nod to public participation. But now, they don't even pretend to give us their ear."
We already know that business and elite interests in the US get outsized attention from politicians and bureaucrats when it comes to policy making. Their preferences have a measurable impact, and ordinary citizens' preferences do not.
But this is Canada, land of free medicare, where we'd like to think the concerns of the little person are taken into account. So if we're going to be negotiating a trade deal and consulting corporate interests, we'd better make damn sure to be consulting citizens, academics, and public interest groups as well. As the cliche goes: if you're not at the table, you're on the table.
In previous articles about the TPP that I've written for VICE, my stance has been clear: the Canadian government is letting us down with their opaque approach to the TPP. The negotiations coming to Canada offered an opportunity to reverse the trend and offer some much-needed transparency.
Instead, citizens have been treated to a puzzling shell game—one that seems designed to hide the workings of a signature piece of economic policy from the public.
Chris Malmo is a donor relations coordinator at OpenMedia.