OTTAWA—A little over two years ago, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau criticized the then-Conservative government for keeping Canadians in the dark on the talks and impacts surrounding the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
Today, as prime minister, Trudeau is facing complaints for withholding details on Canada’s commitment this week to an updated version of the huge Pacific Rim pact.
Trudeau has praised the deal, struck Tuesday, as something that will open new markets for Canadian business across the rapidly expanding Asia-Pacific region. The Liberals insist they’ve vastly improved the terms compared to agreement the Tories negotiated, which fizzled when the United States pulled out a year ago.
But like the Harper Conservatives in 2015, Trudeau’s Liberals are under pressure to release more information about the potential economic consequences of the agreement here at home.
Critics of the deal, including Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yussuff, argue that the Liberals’ tight-lipped manner is reminiscent of the secretive approach taken by their Conservative predecessors a couple of years ago in negotiating the original TPP deal.
“There is no fundamental difference from the previous government in the negotiation of TPP versus this government,” Yussuff said Wednesday in an interview.
“I think the government will have a tough time squaring that with what they’ve been saying to most of us who really want to believe there is a difference in their approach.”
He said the public has heard some details this week how Ottawa agreed to side letters on autos and culture in the new deal. But he added there’s been a “troubling” shortage of specifics on such an important agreement.
Yussuff, who is a member of the government’s advisory council on the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, insisted Ottawa’s approach to the TPP talks has been far less transparent than how it’s handled NAFTA.
“We were led to believe that this would be a key underpinning of the government’s approach going forward,” Yussuff said of the Liberals’ campaign pledge to improve transparency.
New Democrat MP Tracey Ramsey said the Liberals have failed to be up front about the more-negative aspects of the trade deal and how they plan to address them.
“I believe what we’re seeing is a repeat of the way that Conservatives negotiated deals—in secrecy,” she said in an interview Wednesday.
After the Tory government announced it had agreed to the original TPP in October 2015, Trudeau issued a statement that criticized the Harper government for failing to be transparent throughout the negotiations, especially when it came to the concessions made by Canada.
“The government has an obligation to be open and honest about the negotiation process, and immediately share all the details of any agreement. Canadians deserve to know what impacts this agreement will have on different industries across our country,” Trudeau said in the statement, released two weeks before the election.
Fast forward to this week’s 11-country agreement. The Trudeau government is disputing assertions it has been quiet in its approach to the deal, which was rebranded the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Joseph Pickerill, a spokesman for International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, said the government has been relying on the input of Canadians over the past two years. The negotiating positions have been informed by 41,000 emails and letters from interested Canadians as well as from consultations with more than 530 stakeholders from a wide range of sectors, he said.
“Taken together, this is a marked improvement over the past and the fact we secured so many industry asks is proof positive that we heard, we fought hard and we achieved a better deal for more Canadians,” Pickerill wrote in an email.
“These meetings informed Canada’s approach and negotiating positions, but to hold those negotiations in public or through the media is not an effective way to achieve a trade agreement,” he added.
Pickerill said the full text will be made public after the thousands of pages are translated into each of the 11 partners’ languages. And, once that’s been done, the release of the side letters will follow, he said.
The partners are expected to sign the deal in early March but it’s unclear if the documents will be available to the public by then.
In 2015, the Conservatives offered a private, line-by-line briefing on the original TPP for opposition MPs before it had been made public, as long as the parties agreed to a confidentiality agreement. The NDP and Liberals rejected the offer and described it as a political ploy.
Pickerill said Champagne would be open to a holding a briefing for parliamentarians on the new deal, but he added the minister had yet to receive such a request.
Even Conservative MP Dean Allison, the party’s trade critic, felt the Liberals hadn’t been open enough about the new deal. Allison said he hoped more details would come soon because businesses need certainty.
“They’re actually worse than what our government ever did around secrecy, transparency, all these other kinds of things,” Allison said.
“It is interesting when one day you’re campaigning to be in government and making all these promises, the next day you get in—not only are you doing exactly the same thing in some situations, you’re going further.”