Simon Doyle is a reporter based in Ottawa who specializes in lobbying and public affairs. Follow him on Twitter @sdoyle333.
The Conservative government has quietly given Canadian negotiators some new leverage, as they head into a new round of trade talks with a potential free-trade bloc that would rival NAFTA.
Copyright changes in the federal budget tabled this week indicated movement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade talks as dozens of companies and groups lobby the government in support of expanded market access.
Canadian negotiators will participate in another round of trade talks April 23-26 in National Harbor, Md., to discuss TPP offers. The potential free-trade bloc with the United States and Pacific Rim countries would rival the North American Free Trade Agreement and affect a range of laws and sectors from agriculture to intellectual property.
The government intends to amend the Copyright Act to extend the term of protection for sound recordings from 50 years to 70, echoing U.S. proposals contained in a leaked draft of the TPP in May 2014.
The budget did not draw the link between copyright and TPP, but one source familiar with the trade discussions said the copyright proposal may be a gesture of goodwill to some TPP members.
"These changes appear to be smoothing the way for the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, but they would only be the first of many difficult concessions," said Scott Sinclair, a senior research fellow for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a think tank that has been urging more transparency in the talks and warning of a proposed investor-state arbitration mechanism that could allow for foreign company lawsuits against governments.
The Conservative government is meeting regularly with companies and associations to discuss the TPP as the federal lobbyist registry shows more than 90 groups and individuals are registered to lobby on the potential free trade pact. Those include Honda Motor Company, Ltd., the National Pork Producers Council and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, which is advocating for liberalized trade through a business alliance called the Canadian Services Coalition.
"[What will] hopefully happen in the next 60 to 180 days, is we'll get to some sort of broad agreement," said Dennis Laycraft, executive vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, which wants to see Japan's tariffs lowered for the import of more Canadian beef. The group is working on the issue with the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance.
Mr. Laycraft said most of the talks with the Canadian government are about lowering tariffs between Canada and Japan as the two countries negotiate a separate bilateral free-trade agreement, with agriculture and autos as the biggest issues.
TPP members, including Canada, are also waiting for breakthroughs in negotiations between the United States and Japan. The TPP's two biggest economies have been prioritizing bilateral talks.
Several groups, including the Dairy Farmers of Canada and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, are lobbying for the protection of Canada's supply management regime, a system of import tariffs and production quotas that effectively subsidizes production in the dairy and chicken sectors.
The Conservative government has firmly stood by protection of supply management, though people familiar with the talks said Canada could make an offer to liberalize supply management if Japan and the United States make progress.
"Their position remains that they are fully in support of the supply management system here in Canada. It's one of their objectives to promote and defend the supply management sectors as part of these trade agreements," said Yves Leduc, international trade director with the Dairy Farmers of Canada.
Mr. Laycraft said an agreement between Japan and the United States will set a benchmark for further movement.
"There's no doubt there's countries waiting for Canada, getting impatient for Canada to table its whole range of offers, but in my mind the focus right now is that they're watching, seeing to what extent the two biggest partners in this negotiation can come to some consensus," he said.
The Canadian Meat Council, also registered to lobby in support of the TPP and greater market access, has been meeting with MPs and government officials, including Canada's chief negotiator on the trade talks, Kirsten Hillman, according to the federal lobbyists registry.
Holding up some offers has been President Barack Obama's efforts to pass a Trade Promotion Authority bill in Congress. The U.S. Senate could vote next week on the bill, which would provide the White House with the ability to fast-track trade agreements through Congress on a yes-or-no vote.
The Tory budget plan said the government has made "significant progress towards concluding the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement" and that, with "new trade agreements complete and more soon to be in place, the government is now focusing on helping Canadian businesses fully capitalize on global opportunities."
The budget also pledged investments to foster trade, including $50-million over five years to create an export market development program for small and medium-sized businesses and additional resources for the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service to provide Canadian firms with better information on foreign markets.
The government said it will provide $18.1-million over two years starting in 2016–17 to help the agriculture sector expand into new markets and "capitalize on opportunities created by new trade agreements."