The top U.S. diplomat in Canada is wading into the debate over whether Ottawa is negotiating in good faith at major Pacific Rim trade talks, saying this country must come to the table as soon as possible with concrete proposals to offer foreign farmers more access to its heavily protected dairy and poultry sector.
The United States has been publicly prodding Canada to reveal its cards on what kind of farm trade concessions it will make at the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations as talks intensify, saying Ottawa has made no meaningful offer on this topic. It is a sensitive matter for Canada's Conservative government, which is heading to the polls in a matter of months and could face a political backlash from milk and poultry farmers.
Trade Minister Ed Fast has rebuffed Washington, accusing the Americans of trying to negotiate through the media and saying he will not play that game.
Now, Bruce Heyman, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, is firing back with a tart rejoinder for Ottawa that underlines Washington's impatience.
"If you don't want to negotiate in the press, you have to do it at the negotiating table," Mr. Heyman said in an interview with a Quebec business newspaper, Les Affaires, that was published this week.
Talks have resumed in Maui, Hawaii, and trade ministers are joining the discussions starting on July 28. The United States and Japan have raised the possibility of a deal that leaves some of the participating countries out. Canada has been cited as a laggard on farm trade.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is pushing to strike some sort of deal within weeks, a wide-ranging agreement geared toward deepening Asia-Pacific trade among the 12 countries, including Canada, the United States, Japan, Malaysia, Peru and Chile. The goal is to set the ground rules for trade, investment, labour conditions, protection of copyright and the conduct of state-owned companies that will become the standard for the region and act as a counterweight to Chinese influence.
Asked if it was realistic to expect Ottawa to make concessions that would weaken Canada's sheltered supply management farm system for dairy, eggs and poultry, Mr. Heyman said each country at the talks must put water in its wine to reach a deal.
"I do not know what the Prime Minister [Stephen Harper] will do, and I do not know what the [Canadian] negotiators will do, but now it's time to do it," he told Les Affaires.
The U.S. embassy said on Thursday that Mr. Heyman has nothing more to say on the topic.
The Canadian government, in response to the ambassador's comments, said Mr. Fast intends to negotiate at the bargaining table in Maui next week.
"Prime Minister Stephen Harper will only sign an agreement that's in Canada's best interests," said Rick Roth, director of communications for Mr. Fast. "Canada has been and will continue to be a committed and constructive partner at the negotiating table."
The U.S. government maintains that Canada agreed to open up its dairy and poultry sector further to foreign imports when it applied to join TPP talks in 2012. Mr. Fast insists Canada made no specific commitments.
A February, 2012, memo that Canada wrote to New Zealand, however, demonstrates that the Canadian government was signalling to prospective negotiating partners that everything would be on the table. For months, New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser had been raising questions about whether Canada was ready to join the negotiations, and calling the huge tariff walls that shield Canadian dairy and poultry producers dated and out of step with the goals of the trade deal.
Canada assuaged New Zealand's concerns.
"Canada is prepared to discuss all issues at the negotiating table, without exception," Caroline Chrétien, Canada's high commissioner to New Zealand, wrote in a 2012 letter to Wellington that was obtained by The Globe and Mail.
Tariffs of as much as 300 per cent shield Canadian dairy and poultry farmers from foreign competitors. A rise in imports could mean cheaper chicken, milk and cheese for consumers. It could also endanger farm incomes by destabilizing the supply management system, which tightly regulates the price and production of milk, chicken and eggs.
Chief negotiators at the TPP talks have begun meeting in Maui earlier than expected. They are trying to narrow differences sufficiently that elected officials will find it easier to reach a deal when they arrive on July 28.
Contentious issues include agriculture, intellectual-property rights and how far states should go in protecting pharmaceutical patents as well as the rights and obligations of state-owned enterprises when they operate in other countries.