Selling a massive Pacific Rim trade deal to Canadians won't be easy.
And that's unfortunate because there are plenty of good reasons why Canada should be part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The 12-country deal will give Canadian businesses preferential access to markets in key Asian countries, including Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam. The hope is that the agreement will eventually set the ground rules for dealing with China.
Canada can't afford not to be there. Exclusion from a TPP agreement, reached in Atlanta Monday, will erode some of the existing benefits of the North American free-trade agreement, put food and agricultural exporters at a severe competitive disadvantage in the huge Japanese market, and penalize companies in global supply chains.
As with all trade negotiations, Canada must give to get, including granting more access to its protected dairy and poultry markets, as well as weakening content rules on the parts put into North American-built vehicles.
Canadians are ill-prepared to weigh the merits of the TPP because the Conservative government has done a poor job of explaining the stakes. Instead, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Trade Minister Ed Fast have served up mainly empty rhetoric and bland verbal porridge on the Trans Pacific Partnership.
Canada needs a real debate on a host of larger questions stirred up by the deal, including the merits of the supply management system and what it will take for Canada to remain a major player in the auto industry.
"Let me assure everyone: We will only accept a deal that is in the best interests of our country," Mr. Harper said Saturday.
Mr. Fast has talked a lot about the deal, but has revealed almost nothing about what's really on the table. He has repeatedly insisted his lack of openness is a tactical move to enhance Canada's negotiating power.
"We will only sign a trade-agreement deal if it's in the national interests to do so, if it measurably moves forward our national prosperity," he said on CBC's Power & Politics last month.
What national interest and whose prosperity? Mr. Fast would not say.
It isn't only the public that's been kept in the dark. The opposition NDP and Liberal parties insist they were not briefed, even in confidence, during the negotiations.
Leader Thomas Mulcair now says that if elected, an NDP government would not be bound by whatever trade pact Mr. Harper agrees to.
Contrast the Canadian position to that of the United States, where the TPP has been widely discussed and debated in committees and on the floor of Congress.
The Obama administration has been open and vocal about its negotiating objectives, publicly modifying them as the negotiations have progressed. At least twice now – once in mid-2014 and again last month – U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman issued detailed reports on the status of the negotiations.
Canadians deserve more from their government.
The TPP has stirred up some crucial economic issues that deserve broader public debate.
There is the long-term viability of the supply management system, which tightly regulates prices and production of dairy, poultry and eggs. Allowing more imports could undermine the system. There is also mounting evidence the system creates damaging economic distortions, including waste, inefficiency, exclusion from foreign markets and high prices. And yet the three major federal parties insist they will protect it.
Supply management "impedes access to healthy foods, particularly for poor consumers," according to the authors of a research paper slated to be published shortly in the journal Canadian Public Policy. The trio of University of Manitoba economists, led by Ryan Cardwell, estimate the system puts a penalty on the poorest households of roughly 2.3 per cent of their incomes, far in excess of the premium paid by the rich.
The TPP is also likely to accelerate a shift in the production of vehicles and parts to lower-cost areas of the world, including, Mexico, the southern U.S. and Asia, putting at risk thousands of jobs in Canada's automotive industry.
And yet there's been no talk from the government of forging a new industrial strategy – one that would help create a more stable future for a Canadian manufacturing sector.
The TPP is the start of a debate on these issues, not the end.