OTTAWA — If Canada's efforts to secure a massive Pacific Rim trade deal indeed pan out, voters may find themselves marking a ballot on Oct. 19 without having had a chance to examine the fine print.
Teams of negotiators, including Trade Minister Ed Fast, are in Atlanta to continue talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a long-awaited 12-country pact that could generate an agreement in principle as early as this week.
Canada, however, finds itself in a unique situation: it's the only country in the talks that's in the throes of an election campaign.
With the election less than three weeks away, it's not clear how much Canadians will learn about the deal, which has stirred up bitter opposition among stakeholders in the dairy, poultry and automotive industries.
"I guess the headlines (of any deal) would be made aware straight away, but it's probably quite true that it would be a number of weeks before the detail surrounding the agreement would happen," Noel Campbell, the president of Australian Dairy Farmers, said Wednesday from Atlanta.
"That may well be the case — that the finer detail would not be known (before Oct. 19)."
With speculation that a long-awaited deal could be reached in the coming days, the TPP talks have been prominent on the campaign trail this week.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair have both accused Conservative Leader Stephen Harper of keeping Canadians in the dark about the talks.
Canadian sources say it's true the final text might not be publicly available for weeks, but add would likely release briefing materials and consider different ways of releasing information to the public and opposition parties.
On Wednesday, Fast said his delegation has asked that the text be made available "immediately" after an agreement.
"We certainly requested that and there are some discussions on the timing of the text, but I believe it is certainly possible."
If the deal is signed before the election, the Conservatives would surely use it to woo voters, trumpeting the agreement as evidence of their prowess as builders of economic prosperity through freer global trade.
But the Harper government's trade pacts have a tendency to take months — sometimes years — to see the full light of day.
The agreement in principle for the Canada-Europe free trade deal was signed in October 2013, but the treaty still has yet to be finalized as it undergoes "legal scrubbing" by lawyers. An overview of the deal is available online.
In another case, the Harper government's initial announcement about its foreign investment protection agreement with China — FIPA — turned out to be different than advertised when the final text was released eight months later, said international investment law expert Gus Van Harten.
"We do have examples where the government has taken advantage of the absence of a public text, which of course it controls, in order to make misleading claims about its supposed achievements," said Van Harten, a York University professor and author of "Sold Down the Yangtze," a book about the FIPA deal.
In February 2012, Van Harten said Harper indicated the FIPA would protect foreign investors from discrimination to create a level playing field that would prevent a government from favouring domestic companies over foreign firms.
But when the details were made public in September 2012, he said agreement had a very broad exemption for existing discriminatory measures, meaning any law or policy that existed at the time the pact was put into force could continue indefinitely.
Van Harten said he was "pretty shocked" to see how many concessions Canada gave up in the deal when he read the final document.
Nonetheless, there are good reasons to withhold specifics, especially during the negotiation period or when lawyers comb through the text after a deal has been signed, he added.
"The problem is when I see a kind of manipulation of timing to maximize the political benefit when the text is not available," Van Harten said, adding that he doesn't expect the public to see a copy of the text until after the election.
If full details of the deal aren't released before the vote, Campbell said he believes the Harper government could find itself in an uncomfortable position as the election campaign winds down.
"I think that government would come under a fair bit of scrutiny in that time frame to try and get them to open up as to what the deal was about," said Campbell, who is also chairman of the Australian Dairy Industry Council.
"Yeah, it would be quite a difficult situation."
— with files from Alexander Panetta in Atlanta
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