ATLANTA — The Canadian government is eager enough to complete a historic trade agreement this week that the country’s lead minister has no idea when he’ll be back home campaigning in the federal election.
In his first full day at the meetings that could ultimately clinch the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership, Ed Fast said he’s willing to stay as long as it takes.
He said he doesn’t yet have a return plane ticket to British Columbia where he’s in a re-election fight because, he says, completing the deal is critical to Canada’s economy.
“What I can say is that Canada is prepared to negotiate, to stay here until we have a deal,” the international trade minister said Wednesday.
“We believe we are on track to do so.”
He insisted that he’s also willing to walk away if necessary: “I can’t prejudge whether there will be a deal this weekend… We are only going to sign a deal that is in our national interest.”
Some countries are expressing a sense of urgency that a deal be completed now before several governments involved in the talks face uncertain re-election campaigns, starting with Canada’s.
But the biggest impending concern for TPP proponents is the fast-approaching U.S. presidential primaries, which could play havoc with attempts to get the agreement ratified in Congress.
The Canadian government faces the dual pressure of having to run a campaign at the same time. While Fast chats about dairy and auto quotas in Atlanta, his colleagues back home are weighing the potential impact in dozens of ridings that could hold the key to Conservative re-election chances.
The government left the last talks dismayed by a surprise Japan-U.S. agreement that would have upended auto-production, with tariffs eliminated on cars that primarily use cheaper parts from non-TPP countries like China.
Fast called the last proposal unacceptable. He added Wednesday that there has been movement since the failed round in July: “We have continued to make progress,” he said.
But the Canadian government also desperately wants to change the conversation.
It’s attempting to steer attention toward companies and industries enthused by the TPP. It hopes those voices drown out some of the skeptics: the auto-workers union warning of lost middle-class jobs, and the dairy farmers urging against even a one-per-cent increase in foreign cheese imports.
The government has been circulating quotes from supportive stakeholders in multiple industries: mining, seafood, pork, cattle, and even from the bigger auto-parts companies with foreign plants.
One enthusiastic stakeholder is the Canadian beef industry. It predicts exports to Japan could potentially triple if tariffs fall as low as reported in Japanese media.
John Masswohl said the industry shipped $100 million to Japan last year — and lost almost 40 per cent in duties. But that’s not the biggest issue: It’s that Australia is gnawing away at everyone else’s market share, he said, because it already has a tariff-reduction deal with Japan.
“It’s a bad scenario for us if there is no TPP because Australia’s rate continues to get lower and lower,” said Masswohl, director of government relations for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.
In Quebec and Ontario, the concerns of dairy farmers have received widespread media coverage. Those two provinces also happen to produce more than half of Canada’s hogs.
And the pork producers are delighted.
Martin Rice of the Canadian Pork Council predicted that joining the TPP would increase the $1 billion in pork exports to Japan by more than 30 per cent within four years.
He warned that the exact opposite would happen if the TPP happens without Canada.
“Our processors just wouldn’t be able to compete anymore,” he said.
Expect to hear arguments like those from the Conservative party repeatedly in the last weeks of the federal election, should an agreement come together in Atlanta.
Another emerging debate has to do with transparency. The deal is being negotiated in secret the final text might not even be made public before Canadians vote and the government hasn’t involved opposition parties despite the fact that one of them might actually have to implement the deal if they win Oct. 19.
Fast said Canada would push for the full text to be released instantly. He offered no guarantee when asked about consulting his election opponents.