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TPP: Innovation Myths And Trade Realities

02/02/2016 03:31 EST | Updated 02/02/2017 05:12 EST
Phil Walter via Getty Images
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - AUGUST 15: Anti TPPA protestors march down Queen Street on August 15, 2015 in Auckland, New Zealand. The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) is a proposed regional free trade deal between 12 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

RIM's former co-chief executive, Jim Balsillie, recently renewed his attack on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, writing that the TPP's "colonial IP (intellectual property) policies" are "not a net benefit to our economy."

Not to be outdone, University of Ottawa intellectual property law Professor Michael Geist has run a daily blog on "the trouble with the TPP."

These arguments have been convincingly countered by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and intellectual property lawyers who have underlined that the TPP has "minimal impact."

But the question really is whether it is worth Canada standing on the sidelines of the TPP over intellectual property. Is it the case that our existing, supposedly fundamentally different intellectual property policy/law has made Canada an innovation leader? If not, how is it that the "colonial" intellectual property policies supposedly being forced on Canada have led to more innovation in the "imperial" United States?

Is there evidence that Canada's weaker intellectual property regime made us an innovation powerhouse? Last fall the Canadian Patent Medicines Patented Medicine Prices Review Board reported that generic drugs are 40 per cent cheaper in the United States than Canada. Has coddling a Canadian generic industry helped Canadian consumers?

Trade negotiations are a bargain between multiple parties. Agreements are a function of what we put on the table and what others want from us. So what else would we or realistically could we offer, if not small intellectual property changes?

It seems to me that Canada's TPP concessions are fairly minimal across the board. It's hard to imagine how we could be in without some intellectual property concessions.

It is discouraging to hear a leading Canadian entrepreneur and innovator react so defensively to the TPP instead of embracing the challenge. That reflexive, defensive reaction to TPP speaks more to the problem of innovation in Canada than anything in this or any other trade deal. Canada can and should do more to support innovation, but autarky is not a strategy.

"Start a more balanced series of consultations where both critics and TPP advocates are invited, and where the Canadian public can see more than tweets of the events after the fact."

Putting aside the uncomfortable irony of tenured Canadian academics arguing against intellectual property rules, should we be concerned by this persistent strand of TPP criticism? Perhaps we should.

Minister of International Trade Chrystia Freeland has published an open letter to Canadians on TPP -- a delicate pirouette of an explanation of why the new government will sign the TPP but may not ratify it.

Leading up to this, Freeland and her Parliamentary secretary, David Lametti, embarked on a quickie cross-country TPP consultation exercise. A review of the list of consultations on the government's website and tweets by minister Freeland show a number of meetings with these particular TPP critics.

All of this raises the question of whether the minister is hearing the alternative positive case for the TPP. Minister Freeland's Parliamentary secretary was a noted intellectual property scholar before being elected in October, but there are trade lawyers in Cabinet such as Catherine McKenna, as well as in the Liberal caucus, such as Ali Ehsassi, MP for Willowdale. One is otherwise occupied and the other is not on the newly minted Standing Committee on International Trade.

So, what is the way forward? A start might be for the Parliamentary committee, perhaps with the assistance of the Senate committee, to start a more balanced series of consultations where both critics and TPP advocates are invited, and where the Canadian public can see more than tweets of the events after the fact.

I agree with Prof. Geist's suggestion that it would be useful for public events to be streamed online, and outcomes from other meetings should be posted online.

Experience with trade agreements has shown that when critics are left unanswered for too long, it can be hard to put the cork back in the bottle. Canada does not need to lead the charge to approve the TPP, but waiting too long to engage the affirmative case may prove very costly in the end.

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