The Unkillable Trans Pacific Partnership

This is one of those times that I hate being right.

A few weeks back, with negotiations over the Trans Pacific Partnership on the rocks after representatives from Japan and the NAFTA countries failed to reach an agreement on auto policy, some pundits were saying that a deal this year was now looking impossible, given the election timelines in various TPP member countries. But I wasn’t so sure:

Given how high the stakes are and how close the deal is to slipping away, I have a funny feeling that we’re going to see some desperate last-minute negotiations. And if Harper slips in the polls, it wouldn’t be surprising if he thought that cobbling together a “major trade deal” in the final weeks of the election campaign was the path to victory. Never mind about what’s actually in the damn thing – the public won’t get to read it, by some accounts, until four years after it’s ratified.

If you’re attending all-candidate meeting or if you get your door knocked by canvassers, please consider bringing up the TPP. And for all our sake, don’t vote for any candidate who supports this terrible deal. Meanwhile, watch out for a hastily-thrown-together negotiating marathon sometime within the next two to three weeks. There’s too much potential profit on the table for the major players in this negotiation to let this opportunity slip away.

Literally two and a half weeks later, we’re on the eve of – guess what? – a hastily-thrown-together negotiating marathon.

Tomorrow, Minister of Trade Ed Fast, along with his provincial counterparts from Ontario and Quebec and representatives of the TPP-threatened dairy industry, will head to Atlanta for at least two days of furious negotiations to Get A Deal Done. It’s been billed as the latest “final” TPP negotiation session, and the sense is that if a deal isn’t closed this time, there’s no sense trying again until after next fall’s US Presidential election. The buzz in the press is that an “agreement in principle” could be announced by Friday.

Today, the Prime Minister tried to assuage concerns from dairy farmers by saying, somewhat incomprehensibly, that “Decisions to be made on whether we have such a system [of supply management] or not are decisions we want Canadians to take, not foreigners to take.”

To be sure, if Canadian Trade Minister Fast and his Canadian negotiating team make the decision to sign away supply management down in Atlanta, then it won’t be a decision made by foreigners, and that’s the truth. I don’t know if Harper meant something different, but what he actually said is not meaningful or encouraging to farmers in any way.

And farmers weren’t taking the situation sitting down:

Dairy farmers parked tractors at the foot of Parliament Hill, walked cows through downtown Ottawa and dumped milk on the pavement Tuesday to protest what they say is a looming trade deal that threatens their way of life…

Dozens of tractors clogged Wellington Street in front of the Parliament Buildings, snarling traffic, while some farmers led cows down the street and others splashed milk on the pavement.

As a vegan, it’s hard for me to get too riled up about the potential end of government subsidization of dairy farmers. But unfortunately, the supply management issue is the main lens through which the media is covering this atrocious excuse for a “trade” deal.

It’s in fact very strange that the press hasn’t had much to say about the actual content of the Trans Pacific Partnership. Of course, the full text of the treaty is super-duper-top-secret, but some details have leaked out, and, as I wrote back in July, the picture they present isn’t pretty:

Now, to read the mainstream media coverage of the negotiations, you’d think the only thing potentially wrong with the TPP is this whole supply-management angle – there hasn’t been a peep about, for instance, the devastating impact new copyright policies will have on Canada, or the extreme dangers of the treaty’s Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism.

Coverage has at times resembled reporting on a major sports contract, with reporters desperately seeking insider information on what’s being said at the negotiating table…

There’s been a strange reluctance in Canadian media to even acknowledge that several draft TPP chapters have been released by Wikileaks, and that their contents are pretty frightening.

This is a glaring omission and a total shit-the-bed moment for media outlets, particularly the CBC, which, it turns out, has a lot to lose from this particular deal.

As Wikileaks revealed two days ago [July 29 2015], state-owned enterprises (SOEs) such as the CBC and Canada Post may be targeted for privatization by the TPP…

Major media coverage of the deal has been if anything more disappointing since July. As the Long Campaign drags on, the TPP has poked its way into the headlines a few times, but each report I read is just a breathless summary of the latest negotiations, reported second-hand through anonymous sources or relying on boilerplate press releases from national negotiating teams. Nothing of substance about the deal seems to merit mentioning.

One detail has clarified through this campaign, however: whoever wins this election is likely to support the treaty.

The NDP has made the most noise out of the three major parties about protecting supply management. But if Harper reaches a deal this week which kills the longstanding agricultural policy, and Mulcair finds himself occupying the PMO in four weeks’ time, what do you suppose the odds are that he’d actually repudiate the agreement? His criticism of the deal has thus far been limited just to this one narrow issue, as has Trudeau’s much more mild commentary.

I’ve been profoundly disappointed that none of the major parties has addressed pressing issues related to this treaty, like the atrocious Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism, which would empower corporations to sue nations for lost profits as a result of increased regulations or labour standards.

I’ve been disappointed as well at the lack of historical perspective as the Prime Minister prepares to sign us onto a sort of super-NAFTA two decades into that trade agreement’s legacy of lost manufacturing jobs and lower wages.

In 1988, an entire election campaign was waged largely over the issue of the just-signed Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the United States. Liberal Leader John Turner vowed to tear up the agreement if elected, as did the NDP’s Ed Broadbent. And the two parties collectively secured the support of a majority of Canadians. However, Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives won a majority, because first-past-the-post, and the FTA was put in place.

A depressing result, to be sure – but at least it was considered a major issue and the input of the public was a factor. Here we are in the midst of an election campaign with a far more dangerous free trade agreement looming over us, and we can’t get any meaningful debate over it, because all the party leaders are for it in principle. Their only point of contention is how much sacrifice Canada should make to get a place at the TPP table.

There are, as I see it, two potential outcomes of this ministerial marathon in Georgia.

The first and more desirable (and, I think, more likely) outcome is that these talks, like the Hawaii negotiations in August, break down without a deal being reached. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on the negotiators to Get A Deal Done, Dammit, but there’s also major differences between the parties. Getting a deal done will involve some large sacrifices from major players, and the costs of achieving the deal may well turn out to be too high for some countries to afford.

If this turns out to be the case, we won’t hear much more about the TPP during this miserable joke of an election, which will give us all more time to ponder the role of niqabs in contemporary Canadian society, or talk about some other equally trivial and trumped-up and racially loaded issue.

The second scenario is that a deal gets done.

In order for this to happen, Canada is gonna have to kill supply management, and probably throw auto workers under the proverbial bus as well. And that’s without mentioning the jeopardization of the CBC and Canada Post, the opening up of the federal and provincial governments to an onslaught of corporate lawsuits, the empowering of pharmaceutical corporations to extend their patents indefinitely, etc., etc., ad nauseum.

If we agree to a deal (or an “agreement in principle”, with the important details to be filled in at a later time), then expect the TPP to dominate the final weeks of this campaign.

Harper will aggressively try to sell the agreement as a triumph of sound economic judgement which will give Canada a secure place at the table in a globalizing twenty-first century economy yadda yadda bullshit buzzwords. He’ll have to push hard too, because his rural constituency isn’t gonna be happy about being sold down the river. (None of the farmer-focussed pieces I’ve read have commented on the absurdity of dairy farmers’ simultaneous support for the Conservative Party and fealty to a quasi-socialized system of agriculture.)

I would expect to see the NDP in particular pushing back hard against this deal. After all, they stand to gain in the rural ridings in Ontario and Quebec where dairy farming is most concentrated. Mulcair may even repeat John Turner’s famous vow to tear up the agreement. The issue could be a rallying cry for the NDP, a chance for them to finally and meaningfully differentiate themselves from the Liberals.

But history teaches us to be wary: In 1993, Jean Chretien ran on a platform which opposed expanding the FTA to include Mexico, but after winning a large majority the Liberals signed on to NAFTA anyway.

Election promises are, ultimately, just so many words.

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