Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets U.S. President Donald Trump today with trade issues sure to be a key part of the agenda. With the TPP now dead and NAFTA headed to renegotiation, the arrival of a Trump administration has had a dramatic impact on Canadian trade policy. Last November, I wrote a piece in the Globe and Mail arguing that Canada’s trade negotiation strategy needed to focus more on the how of trade negotiations than the who:
the how of negotiation may be more important than the who. The public backlash against trade deals points to a process that leaves many feeling excluded and to terms that are presented publicly for the first time as final. The real opportunity for Ottawa is not just to explore new trade partners but to challenge some of the long-standing assumptions about such deals in order to foster greater public confidence in the outcome.
The column continued by suggesting that the government “ensure that the same emphasis on transparency and public consultation that is emblematic of domestic policy development is mirrored in the trade file.”
Last week, the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade issued a report on free trade agreements, which it described as “a tool for economic prosperity.”
The report was the result of months of hearings that included stakeholders from across the spectrum (I appeared in March 2016). The final recommendations are particularly noteworthy since there is a strong emphasis on the need for public consultation, evidence-based policy, and greater transparency in Canadian trade negotiations. They include:
That the Government of Canada engage more actively in activities aimed at increasing consultations with – and direct engagement of – Canadians on the importance of international trade and the relevance of trade agreements to Canada’s economic prosperity.
That the Government of Canada commission one or more independent evaluations of the effectiveness of the federal measures intended to mitigate the potentially adverse impacts of free trade agreements on Canadian workers, sectors and businesses. These evaluations should be used to enhance the effectiveness of such measures, and inform the development of future “free trade agreement implementation strategies.”
That the Government of Canada establish a formal consultation process when defining a negotiating mandate in relation to a particular free trade agreement. Consultations should continue throughout the negotiation process, provide timely updates and be open to all relevant stakeholders, including the public. As well, consultations should lead to the identification of measures to be included in a “free trade agreement implementation strategy.”
That, in order to enable parliamentarians to serve as effective legislators in relation to international trade agreements, the Government of Canada report throughout the negotiation process to the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and the House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade. Reports to these parliamentary committees should occur on a quarterly basis, and should provide information on negotiating mandates and progress made during negotiations. When required, sensitive information should be disclosed to these committees with strict adherence to in camera rules.
That, prior to the ratification of a free trade agreement, the Government of Canada publicly report the expected economic, labour, environmental, social and other outcomes in relation to that agreement. Moreover, five years after the ratification of such an agreement, the Government should commission one or more independent evaluations to analyze the agreement’s outcomes, and should table a report outlining these outcomes in both the Senate and the House of Commons. These reports should thoroughly describe the methodology used in the analysis, and clearly identify the agreement’s benefits and costs for Canada.
The full report is worth reviewing as it contains considerable discussion on the benefits of greater transparency in trade negotiations. The committee report notes:
The Committee’s witnesses stressed that comprehensive FTAs reach into areas of domestic regulation in a way that traditional trade agreements never did before. This trend can contribute to a perception that the freedom of governments to regulate in the public interest is diminishing. In such a context, the lack of transparency of trade negotiations risks contributing to a perception that trade deals are not necessarily negotiated for the public good. The Committee believes that a higher level of transparency is required during trade negotiations, particularly as modern FTAs increasingly involve areas of domestic regulation. Increased transparency in relation to trade negotiations could help to better inform Canadians about potential advantages while also providing for opportunities to consult Canadians and take into account their concerns throughout the negotiations.
With some additional comments on the need for future trade agreements to ensure that IP commitments are – to the greatest extent possible – consistent with Canada’s IP regime, the Senators were clearly attentive to the concerns raised by witnesses and have provided a useful road map for how Canada might proceed with future trade negotiations.