Despite growing opposition in Canada, Ottawa has begun formal participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations, aimed at establishing one of the world's most ambitious trade agreements.
As nearly a dozen countries -- including the United States, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Mexico and Vietnam -- gathered in New Zealand last week for the 14th round of talks, skeptics here have already expressed doubts about the benefits of the proposed deal.
Canada has free-trade agreements with the United States, Mexico, Chile and Peru, leaving just six countries -- currently representing less than one per cent of Canadian exports -- as the net gain.
Moreover, the price of entry may be high, since leaked documents suggest the deal might require a major overhaul of Canadian agriculture, investment, intellectual property and culture protection rules.
While the substance of the TPP is cause for concern, the more immediate issue is the lack of transparency associated with both the negotiations and Canada's participation in them.
The talks remain shrouded in secrecy, with a draft text that is confidential; public interest groups are largely banned from the venue where the negotiations are being held.
Moreover, the Canadian government has failed to engage openly with the public on the TPP. Foreign Affairs has created an insider "consulting group" that will be granted access to secret and confidential information regarding the negotiations (members of the group are required to sign a nondisclosure agreement). The department has not publicly disclosed the existence of the consulting group or indicated who might be granted privileged access to otherwise confidential information.
Overwhelming no from those consulted
It continues a trend that started earlier this year when the government launched a public consultation on Canada's potential participation in the TPP. The public consultation ran for six weeks, yet the government never revealed the results. The individual submissions were not posted online and no public report summarizing the responses was ever published.
Yet, according to documents obtained under the Access to Information Act, the government was overwhelmed with negative comments urging officials to resist entry into the TPP and the expected pressures for significant intellectual property reforms as part of the deal.
In addition to tens of thousands of form letters and emails criticizing the TPP, the government received hundreds of individual handcrafted responses that unanimously criticized the proposed agreement.
A review of more than 400 individual submissions did not identify a single instance of support for the agreement. Rather, these submissions typically expressed concern with the prospect of extending the term of copyright or adopting restrictive digital lock rules.
Business community split
The documents also revealed that the Canadian business community was split on the agreement, with numerous companies and associations identifying concerns about the potential direction of the TPP.
Leading telecommunications companies, including Bell, Rogers, Shaw and Telus, cautioned against changes to Internet provider liability rules; groups representing the blind warned against new restrictions to accessing digital materials; Oxfam Canada worried about the TPP's impact on pharmaceutical pricing; and the Canadian Library Association expressed fears about a reversal of recent changes to copyright damages rules.
Canada spent months lobbying other governments for entry into the TPP, despite launching a public consultation that revealed serious discomfort with Canadian participation.
Now, the government seems committed to keeping the public largely in the dark on where Canada stands on an agreement that could radically transform our economic policy.
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