The Canadian government unveiled a new NAFTA Advisory Council yesterday as it prepares for trade negotiations that start later this month. The Council advising Minister Chrystia Freeland is an impressive one with broad representation from across the political spectrum and from many industry sectors. Indeed, the council is presumably as much about signalling the government’s priorities and including potential critics as it is about the substance of the negotiations. The committee therefore includes Conservatives (Rona Ambrose and James Moore) and NDP members (Brian Topp), Perry Bellegarde (national chief of the AFN), Hassan Yussuf (President of the Canadian Labour Congress) and a representatives from the automotive, energy, financial, agriculture, entertainment, and entrepreneurial sectors.
While that is a strong, diverse council, it is not fully representative as it is notable as much for who is not included as who is. There is no civil society representative despite years of concern that the public interest is left on the outside of trade negotiations. A new e-commerce chapter is one of the top U.S. priorities for NAFTA, yet there is no e-commerce or privacy expertise, despite the obvious impact on Canadian law. Telecom has been listed as a U.S. priority, but the sector is not on the committee. The environment is a major concern with the renegotiated NAFTA, but there is no representative dedicated to the issue. Trade dispute resolution is one of the most contentious issues, yet expertise is missing there as well. There will always be limits – a council of 20 or 30 would be unwieldy – but the signal of the government’s priorities is unavoidable.
The Trudeau government inherited a trade policy marked by secrecy, encroachment onto domestic regulation, and little ambition to see Canadian policies reflected in the final texts. The TPP’s demise and the re-opening of NAFTA offered the chance for real change by pursuing trade agreements that offer economic gains and remain true to the commitment for an open and transparent government. The NAFTA renegotiation is obviously Canada’s most important trade negotiation. It is disappointing that many key voices have not been included in the government’s leading advisory council, which raises concerns about whether their issues will be priorities as the negotiations unfold.