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Politics Tories say TPP talks shifted to Ottawa to save money, not stymie protests

International Trade Minister Ed Fast responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 29, 2014.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Harper government moved controversial Pacific Rim free trade talks to Ottawa from Vancouver to save more than $150,000 in hosting costs and not because a last-minute shift to Canada's capital might thwart planned protests, a spokeswoman says.

International Trade Minister Ed Fast's office say fiscal prudence was the sole motivator behind the mid-June decision to relocate Trans-Pacific Partnership meetings that commenced in Ottawa on Thursday. Canada is hosting this round of talks.

The July 3-12 meetings, part of efforts to create a massive trading bloc encompassing 792 million people, had long been scheduled to take place in Vancouver.

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Last week, however, the Canadian government revealed the venue had moved 3,500 kilometres to Ottawa.

As of Thursday afternoon, federal officials were not disclosing where in the capital the meetings are taking place but sources say at least some talks are being held at the downtown Delta Ottawa City Centre.

Shifting the meeting to eastern Ontario from Vancouver has frustrated the protest plans of those opposed to the talks.

Mr. Fast's office says that didn't factor into the decision.

"Upon learning of his department's original plan to host the meetings in Vancouver, Minister Fast sought lower-cost options," press secretary Shannon Gutoskie explained.

"From these options, Ottawa was selected as the most cost-efficient location, representing less than half of the cost to taxpayers of hosting the meetings in Vancouver, a budgeted savings of over $150,000, for this 10-day meeting."

The Trans-Pacific Partnership talks involve hundreds of negotiators from 12 countries with Asia-Pacific connections, from the United States to Japan.

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While most trade talks take place behind closed doors, with countries keeping their bargaining positions close to their chest, the Trans-Pacific talks have been criticized by activists such as the Council of Canadians for being excessively secretive. In 2013, WikiLeaks released a draft chapter of the deal on intellectual property rights that included proposals to boost patent protection and harsher measures to fight those who would skirt copyright protections.

"The whole thing is shrouded in mystery and to change the location at the last minute is part of that general story," Liberal MP John McCallum, a former bank economist, said.

"What issues are on the table? We don't know anything from the government."

Rudy Husny, director of communications for Mr. Fast, said no political leaders are attending the talks.

Rather, they are bureaucrat-level technical negotiations, he said.

"This is a working-level technical meeting, held by … negotiating leads and a small number of focussed working groups, that meet as required to continue to advance negotiations," Mr. Husny said.

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He said topics under discussion will include investment, intellectual property, state-owned enterprises and rules of origin that determine the source of products for customs purposes.

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