Don't exclude parliamentarians from free trade negotiations

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
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By Percy Downe

 

Commentary

 

These are busy times in Ottawa. Although the deadline has been missed yet again, the government assures us that negotiations for a free-trade agreement with the European Union (EU) are nearing completion, and last summer, Canada formally expressed interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade bloc encompassing 11 countries along the Pacific Rim.

 

Without a doubt, these two deals that will have a profound impact on Canada and its economy - indeed, our prosperity. One in five jobs and almost a third of our GDP is dependent upon exports, and given the size of the EU and Pacific Rim markets, these agreements - if properly implemented - could tremendously benefit our country.

 

However, it takes noting that international trade negotiations in Canada are conducted behind closed doors, often with the final agreement presented to Canadians as a done deal. Although parliamentarians may request briefings from officials on any trade matter, these briefings are simply informative and not consultative, and classified information is not revealed.

 

And yet, other countries, such as the United States, Australia and South Africa approach the process quite differently, and achieve much better results. For example, in the United States, the need to respect the confidentiality of ongoing international negotiations is more equally balanced with the requirement for legislative oversight of the activities of government. Far from being shut out of the process, Congress plays an integral role in trade negotiations, a role respected by the Executive. The United States Trade Representative states that it, "Works closely with the public's representatives in Congress to conclude trade and investment agreements . . . before it initiates negotiations to conclude broad, free trade agreements (and) provides Congress and the public a written set of U.S. negotiating objectives."

 

In addition, Congress has an Oversight Group consisting of members of both Senate and House committees responsible for the laws affected by free trade agreements. The Office of the Trade Representative consults with this group regularly on proposed trade deals, while they are being negotiated, with a view to preventing problems before they arise, rather than presenting a fait accompli at the end of the process. Again, to quote the USTR site: "The often daily communication between USTR and Congressional staffs demonstrates the premium USTR has placed on conducting . . . negotiations with input from those elected to represent Americans' interests in Washington."

 

This consultative process is not some pro forma exercise, either. Members of Congress have an extraordinary level of access to information regarding ongoing negotiations. It extends to the practice of providing "any Member of Congress access to classified negotiating documents and texts on request" - the sort of access that Canadian parliamentarians, including government members of Parliament, can only dream about.

 

For example, as part of Canada's involvement in the negotiations for joining in the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, Canadian officials submitted a document to the Government of New Zealand, formally expressing Canada's interest. This document is readily available on the website of New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The same cannot be said of Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade website, where, if the document can be found at all, it is with great difficulty.

 

It is tempting, for all their schedules and annexes, to think of trade negotiations as technical exercises best left to departmental officials and the ministers to whom they report. But the reality is that these agreements can affect regions, and individual communities, from one end of the country to another, in very profound ways. Parliamentarians who come from those regions know what the issues are and the people affected and can spot emerging problems before they become serious issues. Put simply, it just makes common sense to involve them as early as possible in the process to prevent problems later on. But they cannot contribute if they are not consulted, and they cannot help to solve emerging problems if they are not aware of the details of ongoing negotiations.

 

The best time to improve a deal is before it is finalized; indeed, sometimes it is the only time to do so. The idea of trade officials regularly consulting with legislators regarding ongoing negotiations strikes me as one worth pursuing, particularly when compared to Canada, where even MPs and senators on the government side, let alone opposition parliamentarians, are kept in the dark regarding negotiations.

 

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Canada is currently engaged in 11 sets of free trade negotiations with individual nations and trading blocs encompassing 67 countries. If Canadians are to be well-served by these negotiations - and by their federal government - they deserve to have their parliamentarians actively involved in exercising more oversight. Clearly, if other countries can involve their legislatures in the negotiation process and be more effective, Canada should follow their example.

 

Percy Downe is a senator from Charlottetown and vice-chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs.

 

 

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