Trans-Pacific Partnership – the scariest trade deal you’ve probably never heard of

A few weeks back, a poll by Environics Research Group for Trade Justice Network, “an umbrella group dedicated to challenging the secretive process by which international trade deals are generally negotiated”, released a poll showing that three out of four Canadians have never heard of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Assuming my readership is roughly representative, that means that for 75% of people reading this, this is your first introduction to the horrorshow of a trainwreck of a landmine which is the TPP. So, fair warning – there’s not much good news in this post, not many glimmers of optimism, no clear path forward. This is a story about a disaster in progress, a disaster which has been carefully concealed from the public.

There’s something darkly ironic about the CBC reporting on ERGTJN’s poll results, because they’re very much part of the problem. They haven’t exactly covered the story in great depth – a Google search reveals that the term received a mere ten mentions on their site all year up until their article about the poll, with half of these being passing references and the other half being related to the squabbles in the US Congress and among US Presidential candidates over the super-secretive trade deal. If you’re wondering why Donald Trump easily has four times the name recognition of the TPP while possessing way less than a quarter the relevance, look no farther than the mainstream media.

If you’re one of the 75% who don’t know what I’m talking about, I won’t leave you in suspense any longer. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is ostensibly a free-trade deal being conducted between twelve Pacific Rim nations, including Canada, which will vastly empower corporate interests while in large measure sacrificing the national sovereignty of all nations involved.

The full extent of the damage this treaty will do is unknowable, because we’re literally not allowed to know. The treaty will remain secret until four years after it is completed and signed and ratified and brought into force.

Does that sound absurd to you? Almost as though it couldn’t be true?

Because, unfortunately, it is.

Economist Robert Reich explains it succinctly in this (admittedly US-centric) video (h/t Lorne over at Politics and its Discontents):

There’s a lot that we don’t know about the TPP – the negotiations are secret, and only a few draft chapters have been leaked to the public. (By the way, huge kudos to Wikileaks for continuing to bring valuable secret information to the public’s attention.)

The TPP is a huge sprawling topic with lots of angles and I’m just a humble blogger with a full-time job on the side, so I’m not even gonna try to tackle the whole thing. For this post, I’m gonna focus on what seems to me to be the most pernicious and frightening aspect of the whole thing – the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) Process.

(If you’d like to learn more about how TPP benefits Big Pharma and patent holders, see here and here. To learn about the TPP and copyright protections, see here and here. For a critique of the secrecy surrounding the whole negotiation process, see this New York Times editorial.)

ISDS basically signs away our ability to pass regulations. If, for instance, some future government wants to change the laws so that climate change is a factor that regulators must consider before approving or rejecting a proposed pipeline (amazingly, this isn’t already required), and a major pipeline project is rejected on this basis, some major company, like Enbridge or TransCanada, can sue the Canadian government for all of the profits they would have made if the pipeline had been approved. They would say that the laws unfairly violate the treaty, and they would demand compensation in a court composed entirely of corporate lawyers, presided over by a corporate lawyer. If the court ruled in their favour (which, duh, it would), the Canadian government wouldn’t be able to appeal to a higher court.

Why the hell would any nation agree to this, you ask? Behold the awesome power of capital and corporate wealth! Marvel at the might of the banking sector!

This is a deal which unequivocally puts corporate profits ahead of literally every other priority. This is a massive power grab by the transnational elite.

ISDS is easily a greater threat to the Canadian people than ISIS.

It’s nothing new, either – a version of ISDS has been with us since NAFTA got approved back in ’93. Canada is the most-sued nation under that “trade” treaty’s dispute settlement provision, known as Chapter 11. Here are some examples of successful challenges:

In 1997, the Ethyl Corporation, a U.S. chemical company, used chapter 11 to challenge a Canadian ban on the import of MMT, a gasoline additive that is a suspected neurotoxin and which automakers have said interferes with cars’ diagnostic systems. The company won damages of $15 million and the government was forced to remove the policy.

A year later, U.S.-based S.D. Myers challenged Canada’s temporary ban on the export of toxic PCP waste, which was applied equally to all companies. Canada argued it was obliged to dispose of the waste within its own borders under another international treaty. However, the tribunal ruled the ban was discriminatory and violated NAFTA’s standards for fair treatment…

In one case, a Calgary headquartered company that is registered in the U.S., Lone Pine Resources Inc., is suing the Canadian government for $250 million over Quebec’s moratorium on natural gas fracking, which applies equally to foreign and domestic companies. Lone Pine argues it was not consulted before the ban nor compensated for its wasted investment or loss of potential revenue.

In other words, when laws are passed or policies are implemented which impair corporations’ ability to push their toxic and harmful products on people, those corporations are empowered to not only extract their lost profits from the very people they were victimizing, but also strike down those laws and regulations.

The TPP would vastly expand the pool of corporations who would be able to challenge Canadian laws. As Reich put it, it’s a race to the bottom – all twelve countries involved will rapidly see their regulatory structure dragged down to the level of the least regulated member.

The result will be terrible for labour, for the environment, for consumer safety, for pretty much most people you know. But it will be intensely lucrative for transnational corporations, the treaty’s most ardent advocates and sponsors.

I do like to be hopeful – which is naive, maybe, but it’s the only way I’m able to stay engaged with the news. And so here’s the hope I was able to garner in researching this piece.

Canada is currently holding up negotiations due to its insistence on maintaining strong subsidies for the dairy and poultry industries. The US, Australia, and New Zealand are all insisting that these subsidies be eliminated, which is something the government is extremely reluctant to do in an election year. iPolitics summarizes the situation nicely:

The Canadian dairy market is protected by tariffs of up to 300 per cent on imports. But the closed home market has the effect of limiting exports of milk and cheese because the World Trade Organization ruled Canada’s fixed milk prices are, in effect, a subsidy, which they are.

Quebec politics dictate that every Canadian political leader ends up giving in to the pressures of supply management. Unanimous motions to that effect have routinely passed the House of Commons. Half the country’s dairy farms are in Quebec, most of them in ridings held by the NDP, which is very much on side with dairy farmers.

But dairy farmers could pose a huge problem for the Conservatives in their rural Ontario strongholds, particularly eastern Ontario. There may be only a few thousand of them, but dairy farmers are political activists with the potential to disrupt a campaign. In Ottawa, the Dairy Farmers of Canada are an entrenched and powerful lobby. Harper and Trade Minister Ed Fast are both old enough to remember the indelible image of protesting dairy farmers dousing then agriculture minister Eugene Whelan with milk on Parliament Hill in 1976.

I can’t remember ever being grateful for the existence of entrenched interests and influential lobbyists in federal politics before, but they may actually save us from this terrible deal.

It may ultimately come down to Stephen Harper and his political calculus, though, because Canada’s system for approving treaties of this nature is shockingly undemocratic. Parliament is often consulted, and sometimes gets a “courtesy” vote, but its opinion is not in any way binding. If the Prime Minister agrees to sign a treaty, that’s it – it’s implemented. (Officially, it’s the Governor-General as head of state who signs the treaty, but that’s a technicality, really – GGs tend to do what Harper tells them.)

And it’s not like either of the other major parties are any better on this issue. Justin Trudeau, typically trying to appeal to everybody, says that he’s in favour of the TPP, but he would negotiate a better deal than Harper would. And the NDP, worried about upsetting labour, has remained frustratingly vague on the issue, falling back on the safe position of standing up for the farmers but leaving unclear whether or not he would approve a deal which killed subsidies (or, indeed, a deal which didn’t).

This is one of those (depressingly numerous) issues on which the three major parties speak with one voice, perhaps choosing to emphasize things differently but ultimately differing only negligibly. And anybody who holds a contrary view is denied any representation.

With negotiations fully underway and political pressure to reach a deal at an all-time high, this could turn into an election issue – if ever the media starts taking it seriously enough to cover it regularly and in depth. If that is the case, then all we can do is put as much pressure on possible on all the leading politicians to kill the deal. It sucks that that’s all we can do, but given the way this either gets ratified or rejected, it pretty much is all we can do. No amount of protest, no matter how disruptive, would stop a determined Prime Minister from ratifying this terrifying treaty.

If this is something you feel strongly about, you can reach out to the candidates in your riding and ask them to clarify their positions on the TPP, especially if they’re NDP candidates. Make clear to them that this is a major issue which will determine how you vote in this fall’s election. And then follow through on it – don’t vote for a party that supports signing away our ability to protect our environment and our people!

(And in the meanwhile, keep your fingers crossed that negotiations don’t conclude before the election rolls around.)

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I find it very humorous to read all the things that lead people to my blog. I’m sure so very many of them are very disappointed. From your description I have a picture of someone dressed from head to toe in camouflage tiptoeing through a jungle whispering “Shhhh! Be very, very quiet! I’m hunting pineapples!”

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