Yesterday I had the pleasure of appearing as a panelist at the government’s town hall meeting in Toronto on the Trans Pacific Partnership. The town hall, held in a packed auditorium at the University of Toronto, featured International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland (in listening mode) along with three panelists (myself, C. D. Howe’s Daniel Schwanen, and Unifor’s Jerry Dias) and moderator Dan Breznitz of the Munk School.
It is easy to become cynical about the government’s emphasis on public consultations. They are happening everywhere – innovation, digital CanCon, TPP, and soon copyright to name a few. But to attend yesterday’s TPP town hall was to witness the remarkable passion and enthusiasm for public engagement on critical public policy issues. The event ran nearly 2 1/2 hours with dozens of speakers from an incredible range of ages, backgrounds, and interests. There were librarians and archivists focused on copyright term extension and digital locks; several doctors spoke to the impact of the TPP on public health and access to medicines, food experts highlighted the dangers associated with food security, environmental activists focused on the TPP and climate change, and speakers of all ages (including a 92 year old woman) expressed concern with the investor-state dispute resolution provisions. Some speakers quoted from Freeland’s book on plutocrats to note the inconsistency between the TPP and the Minister’s prior writing. An aboriginal student nearly broke down speaking about the need to consult first nations, bringing the room to its feet.
While there has been a tendency to dismiss critics of the TPP, there is an informed public anxious to make their views on the agreement known to the government. The audience was knowledgeable, citing specific issues and their potential impact. Conservative MPs have been urging the government to simply get on with TPP ratification, falsely claiming that they engaged in widespread consultation. The audience made it very clear that no one in the prior government had ever asked for their opinion as the negotiations unfolded.
Freeland emphasized that there is no rush to ratify the TPP as no country has done so and everyone has until at least 2018 before the agreement can take effect. The government seems content to listen, study the deal, and adopt a neutral approach to the question of ratification. In fact, the deadline for submissions to the Standing Committee on International Trade has been extended once again, with October 31st now the last date for submissions. That suggests that there will still be ample opportunities to speak out and if the Toronto TPP town hall is any indication, a willingness of the government to listen.