As I've already reported for VICE, the Canadian government is taking part in negotiations for a 12-country trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. From the leaked texts we've seen, if it were passed today the TPP would very likely import harsh US intellectual property laws that would harm Canadian internet freedom and digital innovation. Things don't look so good for mother nature, either. Negotiations are still ongoing, but the US seems to be alone in pushing to include a modest amount of environmental protection in the final text of the agreement. So far, not good.
If the whole agreement is as ugly as these two leaked chapters, the Canadian government would probably want to back out altogether. But let's give the government the benefit of the doubt and assume that all their aims are true. Does the TPP have any redeeming qualities?
While digging through a relatively soporific Initial Environmental Assessment of the TPP prepared by the government, I came across one figure that stood out: bureaucrats predicted that the TPP would add 0.36% to Canada's GDP. This works out to about $186 per Canadian, assuming it were all distributed equally (it wouldn't be). Given all the criticism the TPP has received as a "giant corporate wishlist," I wanted to find out whether there was more to the story. Would the government really risk signing over a few more of our rights to The Man so that each citizen could have a chance at an extra two days worth of minimum wage? That doesn't sound like a good deal.
I spoke at length with Robert Wolfe, a trade policy expert and former trade official for Canada now teaching at the Queen's School of Policy Studies. He told me that the above figure likely doesn't mean all that much for two principal reasons: first, the economic model used to come up with that figure isn't ideal; and second, the figure ignores new business and investment that would occur if the TPP were passed. Nevertheless, he said, "most of the potential gains from trade are already being exploited," so it's not as if the deal will light a roaring bonfire under the ass of Canada's economy.
Because governments have already taken tariff (import tax) levels down to quite low levels, much of the agreement that focuses on trade doesn't deal with tariffs. But agriculture remains an extraordinarily protected sector, especially in Japan. Opening things up could result in a significant payoff, since Japan is the second largest export market for our agriculture. Wolfe told me that for Canada, increased access to Japan's food market (especially beef and pork) was "the money to make TPP work," and he pointed to the example of South Korea. Because the US sealed a trade deal with Korea before Canada, Canadian exporters lost bigtime on selling our succulent, tasty meat to that country. It's a loss the government doesn't want to repeat.
Other potential gains from the agreement involve removing non-tariff barriers to trade (e.g. government contracting requirements) and harmonizing rules and regulations between countries without lowering standards for workers, the environment, etc. It's still possible that the TPP could do these things, but at the moment it's impossible to know. Why? Because from the beginning, TPP negotiations have taken place behind closed doors.
I asked Prof. Wolfe for his take on this, especially given that corporate advisors and lobbyists have enjoyed much more access to government negotiators than have the public, academics, or NGO's. His answer was that the TPP represented a 'swinging of the pendulum' away from previous trade deals (like the Doha round of the World Trade Organization) that have stalled in part due to their transparency.
The reasoning goes like this: If every country's position is known to both other states and domestic groups, then potential sources of opposition to a deal become too numerous. Everyone will find something that they don't like, and will speak out against the deal. Because deals naturally involve concessions from both sides, nobody makes any big concessions and the negotiations fall apart. That's the reasoning for clandestine negotiations, on paper anyway.
Unfortunately for the TPP, its unprecedented level of secrecy hasn't exactly led to a fast deal. Perhaps this is because the information available so far doesn't make the deal look palatable to many outside of the boardroom. If this is true, governments should do a better job convincing voters that what's good for big firms may in fact be good for citizens, too. Although their main goal is to maximize profit (sometimes at the expense of the public good), big businesses do offer some goodies. After all, corporations pay a very large amount of taxes to buy schools, hospitals, and other things, in addition to providing jobs. It does make some sense to set trade conditions so that our corporations can succeed, provided they stick around.
Perhaps citizens are becoming wary of trade promises from politicians—with free trade, governments are supposed to compensate the 'losers' so that the country as a whole can gain. Their record is far from perfect in doing this, and it's doubtful that the Harper government will be keen on redistributing income to cushion the blow that globalization has delivered to certain industries. In an era of widening income inequality, this matters—even if, as Wolfe argues, trade often gets blamed for the impacts of globalization, which are much bigger and more complicated than any single agreement.
As we were wrapping up our conversation, I asked Prof. Wolfe for some closing thoughts on the TPP. Will it be good for Canada? His answer was cautious: at the moment, "there isn't enough information to say it's a bad thing, as a whole." Given the gains mentioned above, there's a chance the TPP could improve the Canadian economy. But it's hard to escape the obvious fact that, as the New York Times put it, "companies are using trade agreements to get special benefits that they would find much more difficult to get through the standard legislative process."
The government must make a stronger case for why this process isn't out of balance, at the very least because Canadians value more than just economic growth. We value fairness and democracy as well. Even if the TPP can deliver benefits along these lines, Ottawa hasn't been very forthcoming about what's in this deal or what it means for the public. As an example, Opposition MPs can't see the negotiating texts, limiting their ability to debate the issue if negotiations wrap up and a treaty comes before Parliament. This level of secrecy begins to undermine the consent of the governed and shouldn't be taken lightly.
Trade agreements of this size are important and wide-ranging. For better or for worse, Canadians deserve more opportunity to weigh in on whether the TPP is worth it. Come election time, I hope we'll get that chance.
Chris Malmo is a donor relations coordinator at OpenMedia.