An effort to land a massive Pacific Rim free trade agreement within weeks is under way, raising the prospect the wide-ranging Trans-Pacific Partnership could dominate the final stretch of the Canadian election campaign.
Chief negotiators for the 12 countries involved, including Canada, will begin meeting in Atlanta on Sept. 26, and trade ministers will join the next week, possibly Sept. 30, a Canadian government official said.
The chances Canadian voters will be confronted with a sweeping trade deal before they have chosen a new government have suddenly increased tremendously. "I don't imagine you start talking about a ministerial [meeting] unless you think you're going to land something," a Canadian official said of the move to set a date for what is seen as a final push for an accord.
The costs of entry to the Trans-Pacific Partnership could include exposing the Canadian auto parts sector, which employs 80,000 people, to far more foreign competition and eroding the preferential position the industry enjoys under the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
It could also cause headaches for dairy farmers by opening their sheltered industry to significantly more imports.
Mr. Harper wants a deal he can brandish as evidence he is working to create jobs and spur growth. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has said a New Democrat government would seek better protection for the Canadian auto sector in a deal. Liberal chief Justin Trudeau has criticized the Conservatives as too secretive about what is being negotiated.
Andrew Thomson, the NDP candidate for Toronto's Eglinton-Lawrence riding, called on Mr. Harper to spell out what Canada is bargaining away.
"Whether it's the automotive manufacturing sector, the family farm, or Internet freedoms, the details will matter. … Stephen Harper has kept Canadians in the dark for years on these negotiations. He needs to come clean about what he is putting on the table."
The United States and Japan, the two most influential players in the 12-country negotiations, are behind this effort to conclude a deal. The United States is trying to establish a North American-style trading and investment regime for commerce in Asia that becomes the dominant standard and acts as a counterweight to Chinese influence in the region.
An agreement in principle, if reached in Atlanta, would need to be fleshed out and ratified by all countries, including whichever party forms the government in Canada after the Oct. 19 federal election.
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Wednesday he was confident the Trans-Pacific Partnership accord could be wrapped up this year. He noted, however, that approval by the U.S. Congress could be challenging.
The drive for a deal comes in the middle of an election campaign, when Ottawa is being run in caretaker mode until a new government is elected. But the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic support arm of the Prime Minister's Office, released guidelines in August that justify Trade Minister Ed Fast's presence at the talks, saying that to skip negotiations "could negatively impact Canada's interests."
A deal would eclipse NAFTA in importance and would expand copyright and patent protections for drugs, place constraints on how state-owned companies and sovereign wealth funds conduct themselves and open up traditionally protectionist Japan to more foreign commerce.
A late July effort in Hawaii to complete a deal hit a wall after Canada and Mexico balked at domestic-content rules for vehicle imports set by Washington and Tokyo that would allow cars to have far more foreign parts before tariffs must be paid.
Mr. Harper could walk away from the table next week, but Canadian officials privately say that is out of the question, arguing Canada cannot afford to skip a trade agreement that includes both its NAFTA partners and opens up Japan.
Jayson Myers, president of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, agrees. Canada "cannot afford to be left outside of the deal," he said.
Rick Roth, spokesman for Mr. Fast, said Canada is committed to protecting its auto industry in talks.
With reports from Reuters