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The Trudeau government's relentless push for a "progressive trade" agenda – one that tries to impose labour and environmental standards on trade partners, along with protections for vulnerable groups – has managed to annoy just about everyone.

The left thinks "progressive trade" is an oxymoron. Right-wingers think it's politically correct nonsense.

Our most important trade partners, meanwhile, find it a distracting roadblock at best, and an arrogant stunt at worst. After some grumbling, members of the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership – now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership – have accepted some of our progressive demands (they even put the word in the new title!).

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But China and the U.S. are unlikely to be as accommodating. Canada's insistence on progressive trade may soon come at a price. The question is whether it's worth it, or just a vacuous marketing exercise.

Whatever else progressive trade is, it's not particularly new. Governments have been demanding avowals of virtue from their trade partners for ages, in part to protect their own workers from impossible competition in places that allow employers to get away with murder, and in part for humanitarian reasons.

To their credit, the Liberals have updated their rationale to fit the times. They argue that, by larding free-trade agreements with provisions that soften their sharpest edges, you can save globalization from itself, blunting the outrage of those who feel left behind by globalization and vote for Brexit or Donald Trump.

So far, so good.

The idea only starts to fall apart when you examine it in detail. And progressive trade clauses tend to be very detailed – in fact, so choked with procedural hurdles and cautious legalese that they amount to dead letters. A side agreement to Canada's trade deal with Chile, for instance, only requires parties to "consider" blocking the mutual export of pesticides whose use is banned in the other country. It's the kind of laughably low bar that abounds in these pacts.

Often, that's by design – these clauses can't work too well, for the sake of each country's sovereignty, and to maintain a basic, if unspoken, truth about free trade: that it makes way for the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to countries where labour and regulatory costs are cheaper, so Canadians can save at Walmart.

In that dynamic, there are bound to be losers in Canada, and the Trudeau government is right to focus on them.

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Progressive trade just isn't the way to do it. The whole concept has become too baggy to have force. Per the government's various statements on the subject, its position is that progressive trade protects and benefits women, Indigenous people, youth, the environment, small businesses, and the middle class and those trying to join it.

That kitchen-sink approach risks draining the phrase of all meaning. It also risks convincing countries like China and the U.S. that Canada is using the "progressive" tag opportunistically, to cloak whatever concessions we're hoping for in the mantle of Liberal virtue.

A coherent progressive-trade agenda would focus on those who have suffered the most as a result of international trade. It would be more accurate to say that middle-aged white men in the industrial regions of wealthy countries are the people who need protection. Only it wouldn't play very well.

In any case, the way to dull the pain of free trade is through domestic policy. The traditional progressive response to the disruptions of capitalism has been to compensate its casualties on the back end, with a generous social safety net to soften their fall.

That's still the right answer. Where global trade is concerned, the compensation may need to be more creative or more comprehensive (income support during retraining, a moving stipend to help families leave dead-end towns, a universal basic income, even).

But the answer is never going to be feelgood rhetoric that misleads a domestic audience about the real impact of free trade, and risks scuppering deals most Canadians would benefit from.

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We would be much better off with trade, followed by progressivism, than with "progressive trade" that is a pale imitation of both.

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