Agriculture ministers from four Canadian provinces showed up in Atlanta to stage a defence of Canada's dairy industry at major Pacific Rim trade talks, warning the federal government against granting foreign milk producers any new access to this country's market.
The provincial farm ministers from Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick said that it was only bad travel logistics that prevented their Manitoba and Prince Edward Island counterparts from joining them to serve notice at what might be the final round of Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations.
This show of provincial unity – and the particularly forceful message delivered publicly outside the meeting of TPP trade ministers – offers a preview of the political backlash the Conservative government could face should it open Canada's dairy market to more imports under a Trans-Pacific deal.
After five years of negotiations, the 12-country TPP talks are down to the wire, with Japan and the U.S. leading the charge to clinch a wide-ranging deal after several false starts. Negotiations are scheduled to wrap up Friday, but players are talking about extending discussions until Saturday.
Alan Wolff, who served as a senior trade official in the U.S. Carter administration, now puts the chances of a deal in Atlanta at 80 per cent. "When will there be a better opportunity to do this?"
There are mixed signals, though. Senior Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the United States, including Paul Ryan and Orrin Hatch, are now publicly cautioning the White House to go slow if necessary on a deal – a sign that congressional worry is rising about whether the pact as currently negotiated achieves enough for American business.
Canada, Mexico and Japan have been trying to surmount differences over how much freedom Japanese auto makers will have to use overseas auto parts in cars sold in North America – a major sticking point in talks. Sources say there's agreement that the domestic content threshold for auto parts will be higher – as much as 45 per cent – for sophisticated components but 35 per cent for simpler ones.
"Talks are progressing," a Canadian government source said of auto talks. "Despite some movement in the right direction, we're not there yet."
There's clear evidence that Western Canada would benefit from the TPP because many of the industries with a big footprint are expected to see gains. Beef, barley, pork and canola producers, among others, expect to gain fresh access to Pacific Rim markets, such as traditionally protectionist Japan.
It could be a bit tougher sell for the TPP in Central Canada, where the auto-parts sector would face a flood of new competition from Asian rivals and where the bulk of this country's 12,500 dairy farms are located.
Quebec Agriculture Minister Pierre Paradis pointed out it was only in 2014 that Canada gave the European Union the right to ship 18,500 tonnes of cheese into this county without facing tariffs. He said these new imports displace Canadian production, and estimated the Canada-European Union deal cost Quebec alone the equivalent of output from 400 family farms.
"We don't want any repetition of that. The family farm is at the centre of this discussion. We support TPP … but we want an exception for agriculture because it's a different way of life," Mr. Paradis said.
None of the provincial governments that are speaking out against dairy trade concessions at the TPP are headed by Conservative or Progressive Conservative parties. All but one are Liberal.
Ontario Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal said foreign producers now have the right to ship about 50,000 tonnes of cheese tariff-free into Canada, implying that is sufficient. The Dairy Farmers of Canada says at least 10 per cent of the dairy products consumed domestically already come from foreign imports.
"Anybody that makes the argument that the Canadian borders are closed to [foreign] dairy products are just dead wrong," Mr. Leal said.
Mr. Leal said the Canadian government is required under the Constitution to consult the provinces before signing on to any TPP deal in Atlanta that would affect farmers.
"Section 95 of the Canadian Constitution is very clear that agriculture is one of those areas where we have joint jurisdiction between the government of Canada and the provinces," he said.
"At some stage, there is going to have to be an opportunity to look at the contents if a trade deal is reached here in Atlanta."
International Trade Minister Ed Fast's office said it did not plan to take a TPP deal to the provinces before agreeing to it. Spokesman Max Moncaster said Mr. Fast met with provincial ministers in Atlanta to hear their concerns. "We have consulted extensively with the provinces and territories throughout the TPP negotiations, but negotiating trade agreements is the job of the Prime Minister and federal government," he said. "We have been clear we will continue to protect supply management."
The Conservative government said it will endeavour to obtain and circulate a text of any deal reached as soon as possible in order that Canadians, who are heading to the polls Oct. 19, could judge the agreement for themselves.