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Let Us In On Trade Deals Before They're Done Deals

03/27/2013 05:43 EDT | Updated 05/27/2013 05:12 EDT
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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 are nearing completion; 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 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 be of tremendous benefit to our country.

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

Other countries 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. As the website of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) states:

"USTR works closely with the public's representatives in Congress to conclude trade and investment agreements that benefit the American people and promote core U.S. values. Before it initiates negotiations to conclude broad, free trade agreements . . . USTR provides Congress and the public a written set of U.S. negotiating objectives. USTR consults extensively with key Congressional committees, interested Members of Congress, as well as with a wide range of trade advisory committees, both before the negotiations begin and after they are underway to solicit views and to keep them apprised as the negotiations progress."

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 Canadian parliamentarians can only dream about.

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."

Other countries have also managed, unlike Canada, to incorporate legislators into the treaty-making process (of which free trade agreements are a form). In Australia -- which shares the same Westminster-based system as Canada -- there exists a Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. This committee, comprised of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, has the mandate to examine issues related to all treaties (including trade agreements), regardless of the stage of negotiations. Similarly, both houses of the South African Parliament must approve all treaties before ratification, even if no enabling legislation is required.

The idea of trade officials regularly consulting with legislators, individually and in committees, regarding ongoing negotiations strikes me as one worth pursuing, particularly when compared to Canada, where even Members of Parliament and Senators on the government side, let alone those in opposition, are kept in the dark regarding negotiations, hence excluding much needed perspective.

The best time to improve a deal is before it is finalized; indeed, sometimes it is the only time to do so. 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. 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.

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.

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade website, 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, indeed, by their federal government -- they deserve to have their parliamentarians actively involved in exercising oversight. Clearly, if other countries can involve their legislatures more actively in the negotiation process and produce better free trade agreements, the government of Canada should consider following their excellent example.

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