Not in club yet, but Fast says he's making progress on entry into trade bloc

OTTAWA – Trade Minister Ed Fast is returning home from a week-long visit to Australia and New Zealand with hope but no firm commitment that Canada will be accepted into the world’s hottest new trading bloc.

However, Fast said he has made significant progress in negotiations with two of three hold-outs to Canada’s quest to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“I’m very encouraged by the discussions I’ve had with my partners,” he said in a telephone interview from New Zealand.

“I’m confident if they evaluate us based on the merits, and the case we’ve made that they will welcome us to those negotiations.”

Fast acknowledged that Canada’s admission to the nine-member club, which includes the United States, Malaysia and Singapore and could soon add Japan, is not assured and will require a consensus of the members.

He said six of the member states have given Canada “a clear, strong undertaking of support.”

That leaves the United States, New Zealand and Australia who need to be convinced that Canada is serious about putting the country’s protectionist supply management system for dairy, eggs and poultry on the table.

In a news release issued in Ottawa, the department noted that the Business Council of Australia had endorsed Canada’s entry.

The minister would not give a deadline for a decision, but said he impressed on Australian trade minister Craig Emerson and Tim Groser of New Zealand that the sooner the better for the process.

He said he assured them that Canada was prepared to discuss its supply management system, while stressing the government intends to support farmers.

“Simply put, Canada is one of the most open economies in the world and our actions demonstrate that when Canada says it seeks a high level of ambition in its trade negotiations … we mean it,” he said.

Fast said there is nothing unusual about Canada not getting a quick affirmative answer, pointing out that Japan and Mexico are also awaiting word on admission.

Canada has pushed hard for admission to the TPP since Prime Minister Stephen Harper indicated his formal interest in joining the club during a summit in Honolulu last fall.

Since, the TPP has taken an increasing importance in the Conservative government’s ever-expanding ambitions on signing free trade agreements, in part because it has the possibility of becoming the pre-eminent trade bloc in the world’s fastest growing economic region.

In a major address last month, Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney called expanding trade to fast-growing emerging nations a key pillar of Canada’s economic future, and lamented that to date only eight per cent of exports go to those markets.

Fast has made clear he is prepared to put everything on the table, but publicly at least, has also insisted that Canada won’t necessarily abandon supply management, which protects about 20,000 farmers in Ontario and Quebec.

In the interview, he continued to maintain that line, noting that Canada has negotiated trade agreements all over the world without abandoning the protected sector.