Except when Canada was pursuing the free-trade agreement with the United States almost 30 years ago, there's never been a time when the country's trade negotiating agenda has been so highly charged.
Not only are the Canada-European Union trade negotiations at a critical stage, there's the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the continuing Canada-U.S. Beyond the Border (and regulatory co-operation) initiative and a host of ongoing bilateral trade discussions.
With all of these files on the go, one would expect more effective public engagement by the federal government to better inform and educate the public about what's at stake.
Yet something's missing. There's been only modest, indeed muted, public advocacy by the Harper government, in marked contrast to Canada's jam-packed trade agenda.
Of course main-line business groups, like the Council of Chief Executives, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Manufacturers, can be relied on to faithfully issue endorsements of the government's negotiating objectives when called on. That's good.
However, unlike the situation surrounding trade talks with the U.S. in the 1980s, or NAFTA a decade later, there are relatively few corporate champions or senior business leaders trumpeting the value of these deals, particularly with the European Union.
One accepts the need for the Prime Minister's Office to control things, to ensure tactical and strategic consistency in these negotiations. However, central control has meant a dampening of public advocacy at a time when it is critically needed.
The federal government hasn't spelled out clearly and effectively Canada's offensive interests with the Europeans. What barriers do we want to crack? We seem to be constantly on the defensive, reacting to EU criticisms as if we are the bad guys.
Even with the EU talks getting closer to conclusion, there are things that can be done, or at least done better, to stimulate greater public awareness and understanding of what's at stake for Canada in these actions.
First, the trade department should re-start issuing regular reports on Canada's market access priorities, including the discontinued annual inventory of foreign barriers to Canadian trade. These were useful tools for the business community in identifying trade priorities and barriers and should be revived.
Second, governmental resources could be more effectively used to explain, analyze and educate the Canadian public on Canada's trade policy priorities. The Office of the Chief Economist in the trade department could be used to do analytical reports on key policy issues, including an annual update on Canada's trade and investment performance over the prior year.
Third, both the House of Commons and the Senate and their research staffs could provide a valuable service if they were referred key negotiating issues by the government and asked to hold public hearings – on a serious and non-partisan basis – and to report back. For the last several years, the House and the Senate and their committees have been largely un-engaged in trade and investment issues.
Fourth, there needs to be better and more sustained engagement between the government and the business community on major trade initiatives. Private sector support and advocacy is critical. Much more needs to be done to engage senior business leaders, including by the Prime Minister.
Fifth, instead of the "bubble" approach and confidential sessions between the Trade Minister and industry representatives on an ad hoc basis, there should be standing industry bodies in key economic sectors, modelled after the effective International Trade Advisory Committees (ITACs) used during trade negotiations in the 1980s and 1990s.
Even with the Canada-EU talks in the final phase, it's not too late for the trade minister, and even the Prime Minister, to enrol key business and community leaders in various sectors – banks, insurance companies, service providers, manufacturing enterprises, farmers – to become public champions of these trade deals.
None of these recommendations are intended to limit co-ordination of Canada's negotiating strategy by the PMO and the trade department. These are simply ways to improve the quality of public discourse and enhance the public's understanding of what's at stake in these trade talks.
It's not too late to start doing these things better. No one will lose and Canada at large will gain.
Lawrence Herman is international law counsel at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP and senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute