Negotiators from 12 countries have come to an agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that will cover 40 per cent of the world's economy, including Canada's, if the deal is ratified.
The Harper government indicated Monday morning it expects the debate over the deal to be left to the next Parliament, after this month's election.
It would have been "absolutely irresponsible" for the Canadian government to walk away from negotiations on the TPP because of the election, International Trade Minister and Conservative candidate Ed Fast said at a press conference in Atlanta Monday morning.
"It will be the new Parliament that will judge the merits of this agreement," Fast told reporters.
At this point, it's not clear if Canadians will see the full text of the deal before the election takes place. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has vowed to release the text of the TPP if a deal is reached during the election, and Canadian officials say they hope to see the deal released within days. But a report Monday morning in the New York Times suggests the full text won't be released to the public for about a month — past the Oct. 19 election. The full text is reportedly undergoing a legal review.
Talks had been scheduled to end Friday, but were delayed by a number of last-minute outstanding issues including patent protections for biologic drugs, a source of contention between the U.S. and Australia, as well as dairy industry protections, which pitted Canada's supply-managed dairy system against Australian and New Zealand demands for more access to dairy markets.
To take effect, the deal must be ratified by the parliaments and lawmaking authorities of all 12 member countries. Canada will be the first political testing-ground — the agreement lands smack in the midst of a federal election campaign that will decide who will control the Parliament that determines whether it lives or dies.
The drama reached a high point overnight Monday, as a series of delays culminated in an agreement around 5 a.m. on a persistent irritant involving dairy and the future of Canada's tightly controlled sector.
The Canadian government appears to have guaranteed the long-term entrenchment of the supply-managed sector, which is detested by free-market economists but backed by every major political party, provincial governments, and the domestic dairy lobby.
Canada agreed to 3.25 per cent more foreign imports, a minuscule change compared to what some countries asked for. That means a bit more international products like butter on grocery shelves now 90-per-cent dominated by domestic content. For their loss, the government would compensate Canadian farmers billions of dollars under a series of programs over at least 10 years.
It's a little less clear what impact the deal might have on the auto sector.
The agreement would allow a 17.5 per cent greater tariff-free share of cheaper intercontinental parts compared to the standard set out in NAFTA, although the formula is apparently complex and includes a series of exemptions. New measures to attract auto investment and protect auto-assembly operations in Canada will be forthcoming shortly, Harper added.
The Canadian envoy to the talks didn't make any promises specific to workers in any individual sector. But he appeared to insist there would be no net negative impact on Canadian employment as a whole.
"We certainly don't anticipate that there will be job losses,'' said Fast, who suspended his re-election campaign in B.C. for nearly a week to attend the Atlanta talks.
''Obviously there will be some industries that will adapt.''
His New Zealand counterpart Tim Groser had expressed some disappointment earlier this week. In an apparent reference to the smaller-than-hoped-for concessions in dairy, he said completing a deal would require every country to take a deep gulp and swallow a few ''dead rats.''
But Groser predicted Monday that the agreement would have far-reaching geopolitical benefits.
''Long after the details of this negotiation on things like tonnes of butter have been regarded as a footnote in history, the bigger picture of what we've achieved here remains,'' Groser said.
''It is inconceivable that the TPP bus will stop in Atlanta. The TPP bus will move on.''
Several countries including Thailand and Colombia have already mused about joining TPP, which involves North America, Chile, Peru, Japan, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia.
The proposed agreement reduces or eliminates barriers in a wide range of sectors and could lead to more Canadian exports of pork, beef, canola, high-tech machinery and a variety of other products.
As one example among hundreds, the beef industry predicts exports to Japan will triple. The 39 per cent current tariff in Japan will become nine per cent over the next few years, and barriers will completely disappear in other areas.
But voters can't yet see the fine print.
The actual text of the deal is undergoing a legal review, and it's not clear when it will be available. The government offered no guarantees at a news conference. It simply expressed hope the 12 countries might manage to make it available in the next few days — before voters pick a government Oct. 19.
— With files from The Canadian Press