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Cows go through the first of their twice daily milking at an Ontario farm in February of 2011.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

At first glance, it looks impressive.

The Harper government joined 22 other countries Thursday at the World Trade Organization in signing what it called a "strongly worded pledge" to "fight all forms of protectionism in the strongest terms."

"In these uncertain times, protectionism is poisonous to our efforts to create jobs and economic growth," International Trade Minister Ed Fast said in a news release trumpeting the promise as evidence of "Canada's leadership on the world stage in support of free and open trade."

But those who assume the Conservatives are giving Canadian consumers an early Christmas present will be disappointed when they read beyond the headlines of the government's press release.

Canada's pledge – made by Mr. Fast – doesn't affect the huge tariff walls the Tories are maintaining to keep out foreign dairy and chicken products.

The fine print in the promise is that it only applies to new protectionist measures. In other words, these countries are merely promising not to behave even more badly.

"We therefore commit to refrain from raising new barriers to trade in goods and services, imposing new export restrictions, or ... [measures]that stimulate exports," the declaration by 23 countries reads.

As part of their pitch to rural voters in Quebec and Ontario, the Conservatives have made hard and fast commitments to defend Canada's sheltered supply management farm system for dairy and poultry. This means keeping in tariffs that range from 150 per cent to nearly 300 per cent on foreign butter, milk, ice cream, cheese and chicken products.

The protectionist walls amount to a subsidy from consumers who are forced to pay higher prices for these goods than they otherwise would. Defenders of supply management say their system nevertheless ensures the government doesn't need to subsidize dairy and chicken farmers.

Canada has come under fire by New Zealand in recent weeks, which has called out the Harper government for asking to be admitted to massive Asia-Pacific free trade talks despite protecting its dairy and chicken farmers from foreign competition.

"We will be looking for clear political signals of a reasonably broad-based understanding that it is not just a matter of turning up at the club and demanding membership," New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser said in a November speech discussing admittance to the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks.

"When our leaders said 'eliminate' tariffs and other direct barriers to imports, they meant it."