No time for PM to play hard­ball

National Post (National Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - AN­DREW COYNE

So to be clear: it is not true that Justin Trudeau skipped a meet­ing of 11 world lead­ers planned to close the deal on a re­mod­elled Trans Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, the only one to do so, or that by re­fus­ing to sign held up the agree­ment.

All that hap­pened was that the prime min­is­ter de­clined to at­tend a meet­ing of the TPP 11 — it was 12, be­fore the United States pulled out — on the grounds that, as he later ex­plained, “we weren’t ready” to sign, and that as a re­sult the agree­ment in prin­ci­ple that was to be an­nounced at the meet­ing was put off for fur­ther ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Which is to say, the orig­i­nal story was largely cor­rect, not­with­stand­ing the efforts of the prime min­is­ter’s peo­ple to spin re­porters af­ter the fact. No one is sug­gest­ing he missed the meet­ing lightly, or by ac­ci­dent — well, no one but the Min­is­ter of In­ter­na­tional Trade, François-Philippe Cham­pagne, who told re­porters that the prime min­is­ter’s fail­ure to at­tend was noth­ing more than a sched­ul­ing mix-up.

But an ex­pla­na­tion is not a de­nial. The ir­ri­ta­tion of the other del­e­ga­tions — “the Cana­di­ans screwed ev­ery­body” was one of the kinder re­marks — was widely re­ported, and if it is now main­tained that Canada was never go­ing to sign last week and ev­ery­one should have known that, it re­mains un­clear how they could have been led to be­lieve oth­er­wise.

Diplo­mats gen­er­ally do their ut­most to make meet­ings be­tween lead­ers as dull as pos­si­ble: any dis­agree­ments are worked out ahead of time, be­hind closed doors, with a view to en­sur­ing there are no un­pleas­ant sur­prises on the day. Yet that does not ap­pear to have been the case here.

That Trudeau told the con­fer­ence’s chair, Ja­pan’s Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe, of his re­fusal in a pri­vate meet­ing just be­fore the sched­uled sign­ing session would sug­gest the mat­ter was in some doubt un­til the last minute. That the meet­ing ran long sug­gests this was hardly a for­mal­ity, a mat­ter of con­firm­ing what was al­ready known, but was the sub­ject of some ne­go­ti­a­tion.

But never mind. Let’s ac­cept the of­fi­cial ver­sion that this was sim­ply a de­ter­mined prime min­is­ter play­ing hard­ball. No one doubts he had, and has, rea­sons for re­fus­ing to sign onto the deal — he didn’t just do so out of pique — but that’s hardly suf­fi­cient jus­ti­fi­ca­tion in it­self. The ques­tion is: were they good rea­sons?

Need­less to say the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice has been less than forth­com­ing about what his rea­sons were — and what­ever might be said pub­licly, it may bear only a faint re­sem­blance to re­al­ity: ne­go­ti­a­tions in­evitably in­volve some de­gree of se­crecy and dou­bletalk. But of the mo­tives that have been floated, with vary­ing de­grees of of­fi­cial en­cour­age­ment, none seems par­tic­u­larly cred­itable.

One sug­ges­tion is that it has some­thing to do with China. The TPP was al­ways one part trade deal, one part geopol­i­tics, be­ing de­signed as a coun­ter­weight to Chi­nese in­flu­ence in the re­gion. But the Trudeau gov­ern­ment, it is abun­dantly clear, is em­barked upon a strat­egy of cozy­ing up to China, which it sees as the ris­ing world power. Wit­ness its seem­ing in­dif­fer­ence to se­cu­rity con­cerns with re­gard to what re­mains a hos­tile power (see, for ex­am­ple, the Nor­sat satel­lite deal), its down­play­ing of hu­man rights abuses (see its re­fusal to rule out a pos­si­ble ex­tra­di­tion treaty), above all its con­sum­ing ea­ger­ness for a bi­lat­eral free trade deal. Whether Canada should be tilt­ing to China is de­bat­able, but sub­or­di­nat­ing our broader trade and strate­gic in­ter­ests to it would be in­ex­cus­able.

The sec­ond sug­gested ex­pla­na­tion for the gov­ern­ment’s re­luc­tance is pres­sure from or­ga­nized labour and busi­ness, no­tably in the auto sec­tor, who view the prospect of open­ing Canada’s market to the TPP coun­tries, no­tably Ja­pan, with alarm. I’m sure they do — all the more rea­son to sign the agree­ment. The point of a free trade deal is to free trade, not to re­strict it.

The third ex­pla­na­tion is that it has some­thing to do with NAFTA, cur­rently also be­ing rene­go­ti­ated. And on the sur­face it might seem plau­si­ble: any con­ces­sion we made at the TPP table might be used against us in the NAFTA talks. The prob­lem with this the­ory is that con­ces­sions in trade talks usu­ally aren’t con­ces­sions. Should we be re­luc­tant to open up, say, sup­ply man­age­ment to trade with the Trans Pa­cific na­tions, be­cause the United States is de­mand­ing the same? No, we should be ea­ger to do so on both fronts — for our own con­sumers’ sake.

More broadly, it’s not clear what one nec­es­sar­ily has to do with the other. The most com­monly cited ex­am­ple is au­tos. We are told that Canada can’t pos­si­bly agree to the TPP’s 45 per cent con­tent rule, be­cause NAFTA has a higher, 62.5 per cent con­tent rule — and the Amer­i­cans are push­ing to raise it even higher. But the TPP rule ap­plies, log­i­cally enough, to the TPP: to qual­ify for tar­iff-free trade be­tween TPP mem­bers, a cer­tain pro­por­tion of the con­tent of any au­tos must be sourced from within the TPP. In the same way, NAFTA’s rules of ori­gin ap­ply to trade within NAFTA.

Sure, Mex­ico, like Canada, is a mem­ber of both. So what? The lower TPP con­tent rule is a fea­ture, not a bug — again, if free­ing trade gen­er­ally is your ob­jec­tive, rather than a Fortress North Amer­ica that main­tains free trade within its walls only at the ex­pense of rais­ing bar­ri­ers to the out­side world.

That may be Don­ald Trump’s endgame. It should be no part of ours.


The empty seat, fore­ground, for Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau, is seen dur­ing a meet­ing of the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship (TPP) on the side­lines of the Asia-Pa­cific Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion (APEC) sum­mit in Danang, Viet­nam, on Fri­day.

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