Trade Minister Ed Fast is pushing back at U.S. efforts to goad Canada into spelling out how it might open dairy and poultry markets to more foreign competition, saying he won't be drawn into public negotiations with the Americans as talks on a Pacific Rim trade deal intensify.
In recent weeks, senior U.S. officials have made high-profile statements in the press calling on Canada to lay out at the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks what kind of access it will grant foreign milk and poultry producers to Canadian markets.
Mr. Fast said he's not playing this game.
"I think the Americans prefer to negotiate this agreement through the media," he said in an interview.
"That is something we will not do. It is not in Canada's interest to do so."
The Canadian Trade Minister and counterparts from 11 other countries including the U.S., Japan, Malaysia and Chile are heading to Hawaii this month as momentum builds toward a deal that has been billed as the most ambitious agreement ever attempted. U.S. President Barack Obama is seeking a speedy conclusion after obtaining "fast-track" negotiating authority in June.
Mr. Fast said Canada has a clear strategy at the talks, which he won't divulge, but said all of Canada's farm sectors must benefit from a deal. "I can assure you that for it to be in Canada's best interests, there will have to be benefits across every region across our country including benefit across our agricultural sector."
In late June, top U.S. trade negotiator, Michael Froman, urged Ottawa "to come to the table with a meaningful offer." This week, as the Wall Street Journal reported, Paul Ryan, Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, said "Canadians need to step it up and get serious about agriculture and dairy." On Friday, Reuters cited unnamed U.S. officials who said Washington, frustrated over lack of progress with Ottawa, is weighing "contingencies" that could include completing a trade pact without Canada.
The cost to Canada of signing onto the deal is expected to include allowing more duty-free dairy and poultry imports from countries such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand – a concession strongly opposed by farmers who would be affected.
Countries generally hold back concessions affecting their most politically sensitive sectors until the eleventh hour of negotiations, when a deal is in sight and serious horse-trading begins. In Canada's case, tariffs of as much as 300 per cent shield dairy and poultry farmers from foreign competitors and any duty-free access is hammered out in trade deals. A rise in imports could easily destabilize this system where the price and production of milk, chicken and eggs is tightly regulated.
Australia's Trade Minister has suggested a deal is "literally one week of negotiation away" from completion.
But Mr. Fast doesn't appear to be in any hurry, adding he can't say whether the Hawaii gathering will produce an agreement.
"The TPP still has a ways to go in terms of negotiation. We still have a lot of hard work to be done."
He noted deadlines for a deal have repeatedly slipped, saying when Canada first signalled it wanted to join the Trans-Pacific talks, the deadline "was going to be the end of 2012" for an accord.
Then it was "the end of 2013; then the end of 2014," he said.
"Our focus is not so much the timelines as it is the quality of the outcome for Canadians. We want to make sure at the end of the day, this agreement is one that Canadians can enthusiastically support."
The Conservative government is seeking re-election this fall and a deal that lets in more dairy or poultry imports risks hurting the Tories' electoral fortunes. As The Globe and Mail has reported, Ottawa is preparing a compensation package to cover possible concessions.
Dairy farmers and poultry producers are running PR campaigns playing up their role as job creators and tax revenue generators.
Mr. Fast insists, though, that he is not beholden to any particular sector in deciding whether to sign a Trans-Pacific deal.
"At the end of the day my role is to promote the national interest, writ large. I think Canadians understand that."