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Lawrence Herman is a principal at Toronto-based Herman & Associates. He practises international trade law and is a senior fellow of the C.D. Howe Institute.

How does Canada tackle the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, now that the text is finally out?

There's been a flurry of media reporting and commentary, some of it breathless – the Twittersphere has been going berserk – some of it more reflective and analytical. There's a vast gourmet offering of information on legal websites.

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It's hard to digest it all. Is this deal good or bad for Canada?

My advice is to stay away from Twitter and the blogs. Don't be influenced by the shouting of narrow or sectoral interests. This is a vast and detailed agreement, negotiated over many months by skilled Canadian diplomats. It deserves careful, reasoned and balanced assessment.

During the election, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau declared his party's support for open markets and liberalized trade but made no firm commitment to approve the agreement without the text being available.

Now that the text is out, new International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland has not yet agreed to the deal, but said she wants to "engage with Canadians" and to have a "full and open public debate in Parliament" before moving ahead.

That's reasonable. Engagement is good. Canada shouldn't feel stampeded into ratification. However, sooner than the new cabinet may wish, the government will have to signal some concrete policy on the deal. As a government, it can't forever rely on the old Mackenzie King dictum, "Parliament will decide."

That said, we shouldn't forget that the TPP initiative has been driven by the Americans. They were the leaders throughout the negotiations, pushing other countries, Canada included, to put ambitious offers on the table. For this deal to come into legal effect, it now requires U.S. congressional approval. Without that, it's dead in the water.

Some signals coming out of Washington indicate that the deal may be in for a rough ride in Congress. Neither Canada nor any of the other TPP countries should sign on the dotted line until we see what happens there. And that means not only congressional approval of the treaty – as negotiated – but the contents of the implementing bill as well.

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In the meantime, the government should proceed with its own evaluation. Judging from Ms. Freeland's statement, we can expect the TPP agreement to be referred to a parliamentary committee, maybe even a joint committee of the House and Senate.

A mature evaluation of the deal's merits, having good background papers and analyses from the Trade Department and parliamentary research staff, will give the treaty a full airing.

The government hasn't announced plans, but a joint committee would be a useful course of action. It will also be a test of the role of MPs in the new Parliament and give added value to the Senate, not just in terms of the result but in terms of the seriousness of the process.

Here are three suggestions for the committee (whether of the House alone or a joint body):

  • It must ensure that discussions occur in a professional and non-partisan manner. Trade agreements shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of party politics. Even though it was negotiated by the Conservatives, the question should always be whether ratification is in the interests of Canada as a whole.
  • The committee should make sure it hears the most qualified witnesses, and that oral testimony and written presentations are on as high a level as possible. Efforts should be made to guard against axes grinding away at favourite causes or for MPs to use the process to grandstand for their own constituents back home. The guiding principle should be to avoid anything that resembles a circus. That would discredit the process.
  • The committee must keep in mind that trade agreements aren’t zero-sum exercises. They are the product of compromise, of give-and-take in the treaty-negotiating process. What might be a concession here or a compromise there will be counterbalanced by gains in other areas. The TPP agreement is a complete package and assessing the Canadian interest has to be viewed in that way.

Too often, trade agreements are viewed by Canadians in defensive terms, from the perspective of concessions made in the negotiating process. That tends to overlook the gains, not only in achieving greater – and preferential – access to a vast and expanding transpacific economic sphere but in ensuring that Canada's commercial and political relations are based on the rule of law.

Hopefully, that framework, with a watchful eye south of the border, will guide our parliamentary deliberations.

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