The Trudeau government’s push for so-called progressive chapters in a revamped Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement are likely to be a tough sell among many of Canada’s partners in the region, experts say.
International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne has said part of Canada’s negotiating strategy, aside from preserving market access, is to press for the inclusion of chapters on the environment, labour rights and gender equality.
But trade experts like former Quebec premier Jean Charest believe Canada should proceed carefully as it tries to persuade some of its partners around the table for an updated Pacific Rim treaty.
“They’re addressing the angst of Canadians that’s shared elsewhere in the world about trade agreements having to be more than just about lining up numbers on a sheet of paper,” Charest, a partner at McCarthy Tetrault who is also on the board of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, said in an interview.
“When we bring those issues _ environment, workers’ rights _ I think we’re in a broader trend. How far we want to push it when we’re dealing with developing countries that are going to follow their own path of development is another issue.”
For example, Charest, who was involved in international-trade talks as a federal and provincial politician, said Mexico hasn’t pushed back against Canada’s effort to include similar progressive elements in the new North American Free Trade Agreement. But when it comes to following through, he said Mexico lacks the training and education at the same level as a country like Canada.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Champagne will be in Danang, Vietnam this week for meetings with Canada’s partners in the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation bloc.
The TPP is expected to be a key theme during the APEC summit as 11 economies, including Canada, try to revive the deal following U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw earlier this year.
There are expectations that some kind of agreement on a revised TPP _ also known as TPP11 _ could come together when the leaders meet later this week.
A senior government official has said Canadian negotiators are seeking changes to the original TPP in several areas, such as its intellectual-property provisions, cultural exemptions and its impact on Canada’s supply management system for dairy, poultry and eggs.
Champagne has also said Canada wants the revised pact to contain progressive chapters on the environment as well as workers’ and women’s rights. He added that New Zealand’s new government supports a similar approach.
Maude Barlow, a veteran human-rights activist, said while it would be an improvement to have these progressive chapters within the bodies of trade agreements, she warned they will end up “more meaningless than meaningful” unless the partners undo the other, bigger concerns with these deals.
Barlow, the honorary chair of the Council of Canadians, pointed to elements in trade deals like the original TPP such as investor-state dispute mechanisms. They would enable corporations to challenge government regulations and standards, including environmental standards, she said.
She also noted concerns that TPP could open up local procurement to foreign bidders and raise drug prices.
“You’ve got to get at the heart of what’s wrong with these trade agreements,” Barlow said.
“Suddenly, everybody’s talking about labour rights and environmental rights, but I doubt it. So, I just wish they would slow down and I wish we could get some true public consultation.”
Carlo Dade of the Canada West Foundation think tank says he expects the progressive chapters will be a “non-starter” for countries like Japan, which he believes would likely prefer to keep trade issues separate from social issues that would be handled domestically.
“It’s not that they’re against gender (equality), it’s not that they’re against stronger environment, it’s not that they’re against labour,” said Dade, who has done extensive research on TPP11.
“It opens up a whole bunch of contentious issues for them. Where do you stop adding things to trade agreements? For these guys, the agreements are trade agreements.”
Dade has done modelling that shows TPP11 would be a major economic benefit for Canada. He said the deal presents a stark choice for the federal government and has him wondering how far Ottawa wants to push the progressive chapters.
“How much are they willing to sacrifice in trade gains?” Dade said.