During the last federal election, Justin Trudeau promised to make the government more open and accountable. “We will make information more accessible by requiring transparency to be a fundamental principle across the federal government,” he vowed. Referring to the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Liberal leader blasted the Harper Conservatives for having “failed to be transparent through the entirety of the negotiations” and as newly appointed trade minister Chrystia Freeland said: “We regret the fact that the discussions about it leading up to this point weren’t transparent.”
But that was then and this is now. With the first round of discussions regarding “modernization” of the North American Free Trade Agreement set to begin in Washington next week, the Trudeau government appears to be already breaking its promise to provide more public openness and greater transparency in trade negotiations.
At the beginning of June, the government launched a public consultation process by asking Canadians to identify their priorities for a renegotiated deal, including those elements of NAFTA they wanted to see preserved or improved, along with any new cross-border trade issues that should be addressed to bring the 23-year-old agreement up to date. This online venue was to have closed by July 18, but on that date the government let it be known it would continue indefinitely to accept responses through its web portal.
However, unlike the Trump administration that also sought public feedback on the upcoming NAFTA talks and made the tens of thousands of comments submitted to the U.S. Trade Representative over a period of several weeks readily available to be viewed online, there has been no equivalent sharing of the public input that has been provided to the Trudeau government (reportedly more than 12,000 submissions before the comment period was extended).
Another stark contrast to the U.S. consultation process is the handling of public hearings. During the last week of June, the USTR held three days of marathon hearings where 140 witnesses from dozens of groups representing an extensive range of industries, farm groups, business sectors, organized labour, special interest lobbies, think tanks and non-government organizations shared their concerns and suggestions about what the administration should aim for in a modernized NAFTA. (Videos of those hearings can be viewed here, here and here.)
Here in Canada, prior to parliament adjourning for summer, during the period May through June, over the course of six meetings totaling a scant 9 hours altogether, the House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade heard from just 30 stakeholders about their concerns in the upcoming NAFTA renegotiation.
On July 21, Conservative and NDP opposition members of the trade committee pressed for an emergency meeting to be held in order to question Prime Minister Justin Trudeau along with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Finance Minister Bill Morneau on Canada’s negotiating objectives and “expected positive outcomes” of the renegotiation. Unfortunately, this effort was quashed by the Liberal-dominated committee that agreed instead to hear only from Freeland, lead member of cabinet for NAFTA and Canada-U.S. relations, on August 14, just two days before the talks get underway.
The unwillingness of the Trudeau government to publicly disclose Canada’s objectives and set out its NAFTA agenda beyond vague platitudes puts it distinctly at odds in terms of transparency with its counterparts in the United States and Mexico, that in accordance with their respective domestic legal obligations, have already published documents (here and here) clearly outlining the priorities that will serve as the basis for their negotiating positions at the upcoming talks.
Liberal MP Andrew Leslie, who is parliamentary secretary to the foreign affairs minister, defended the government’s less than open stance, stating it had already announced its broad goals with NAFTA, which include modernizing the agreement and creating “win-win-win conditions” for all three countries. “It is illogical to unmask and to lay down detailed objectives when we don’t have to,” Leslie said. “That’s giving up a negotiating advantage.”
Ironically, this is exactly the same position taken by former Trade Minister Ed Fast, who repeatedly insisted that the Harper government’s lack of openness about the TPP was a tactical move to enhance Canada’s negotiating power. That “secretive, non-transparent” approach was widely criticized at the time, including by Justin Trudeau who two years ago, denounced his predecessor for not letting “Canadians know what it is negotiating and how it is negotiating, what is on the table.”