Parliament and Trade Scrutiny

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Feds have yet to make agreed-upon changes giving Parliament greater oversight over trade deals

By NEIL MOSS      
Though still not made official, the government says it will comply with new trade policy provisions, including in trade talks with the United Kingdom, which began before the guidelines were agreed to in February.
A spokesperson for International Trade Minister Mary Ng, pictured, says ‘preparations for negotiation of any new agreement with the U.K. would be in accordance with recent commitments to inform Parliament ahead of their launch.’ The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Despite saying it would abide by agreed-upon provisions to give Parliamentarians more oversight on trade deals, the Liberal government has yet to amend its official policy on tabling trade bills in Parliament.

Those provisions include tabling notice of the government’s intent to enter into free trade negotiations in the House of Commons 90 days before those talks begin; tabling its objectives for those negotiations 30 days prior to their start; and tabling an economic impact assessment of the trade deal at the same time a implementation bill is introduced in the House for a new trade pact. The government’s notice of intent and objectives would be referred to the House Committee on International Trade after they are tabled.

The new provisions were agreed to between the Liberals and the NDP in February, with the government agreeing in order to cement NDP support for its effort to accelerate the House International Trade Committee’s study of the implementation bill for the new NAFTA. At the time, Canada was the lone country of the pact not to have implemented the trade bill.

That agreement, which was confirmed in a Feb. 19 letter from Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.) to NDP MP Daniel Blaikie (Elmwood-Transcona, Man.), his party’s international trade critic, noted the government “will revise” the Policy on Tabling Treaties in Parliament. Five months later, it has yet to do so.

The new framework is intended to give Parliamentarians move oversight over trade negotiations, which are controlled by the executive.

A Global Affairs spokesperson confirmed with The Hill Times that the changes to the Policy on Tabling Treaties in Parliament have yet to be made, citing delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This change will soon be implemented and will apply to all future trade agreements,” Sylvain Leclerc said in a statement.

The government has promised to comply with the provisions in future trade negotiations with the United Kingdom.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland reached a deal with the NDP on the new trade oversight provisions to accelerate the passage of the new NAFTA implementation bill. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Canada has already begun preliminary talks with the U.K. government for a potential new trade deal, but have not begun formal negotiations.

To date, no notice of intent, objectives, or economic impact assessment for a U.K. trade deal have been tabled.

Ryan Nearing, a spokesperson for International Trade Minister Mary Ng (Markham-Thornhill, Ont.), said “preparations for negotiation of any new agreement with the U.K. would be in accordance with recent commitments to inform Parliament ahead of their launch.”

Canada’s top trade negotiating official, Steve Verheul, said during a July 9 meeting of the House Committee on International Trade that an agreement between Canada and the U.K. was “very close … early last year” before the U.K. released its plans for “most favoured nation” tariffs in May, which eliminates tariffs on about half of the exports to the United Kingdom.

Some trade experts said it is better for Canada to wait to see how Britain’s policy on tariffs evolves before agreeing to a free trade deal, which they expect will involve Canada having to make concessions.

Canada and U.K. trade is currently covered under the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), but the U.K. will no longer be party to the pact after the Brexit transition period ends at the end of the year.

Asked by Conservative MP Michael Kram (Regina-Wascana, Sask.) about when the 90-day notification for Canada-U.K. trade negotiations would be tabled, Mr. Verhuel said the government will “clearly abide by the commitments made under that understanding [between the Liberals and NDP].”

“We’ll move forward on that basis,” he said, adding that, when it comes to the provision for tabling the objectives of the negotiations, the government’s objectives are already “very clear,” but have yet not been “set out in a formal document as of yet, but that is something that could be clearly be done very quickly.”

Asked by The Hill Times what those objectives are, Global Affairs did not answer, referring to Mr. Nearing’s response.

Mr. Nearing said Canada and the U.K. continue to work together “to build on our strong trading relationship to grow our economies and benefit our people.”

“Over the past few years in preparation for Brexit, our government has actively worked with U.K. ministers and government officials to ensure a solid path forward to our two countries. Continuing our trade relationship with the U.K. remains a key priority for our government so that we preserve critical market access for Canadian businesses, producers, and exporters,” he said.

Canada is also in the midst of trade talks with Mercosur members (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay) and Pacific Alliance nations (Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru).

Conservative MP Randy Hoback (Prince Albert, Sask.), his party’s international trade critic, said he is skeptical that the Liberals will table a notice of intent to enter into formal negotiations with the United Kingdom.

“They should be honouring their agreement with the NDP, but I am not expecting them to honour it,” he said. “If they haven’t given us notice now, what makes you think they ever will give us notice?”

“Unless its embedded in legislation they can just ignore it, and it looks like that’s exactly what they are going to do,” Mr. Hoback said.

Trade official Steve Verheul said the government will comply with ‘recent commitments to inform Parliament’ before the start of trade negotiations with the United Kingdom. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

He said if the government does intend to provide notice, timing now means it likely won’t be entering into negotiations until 2021, a year after many other countries have started trade talks with the U.K.

“Instead of staying active in proceeding with negotiations when they first started and to keep those talks moving forward, now we’re at the bottom of the list and we’re waiting and waiting for everybody else to be completed before the U.K. has capacity to deal with us,” Mr Hoback said. “That’s disappointing”

He added that when the government tables its objectives, it should include which sectors are going to gain market access, as well as an assurance that the government is going to protect supply management.

Bloc Québécois MP Simon-Pierre Savard-Tremblay (Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot, Que.), his party’s international trade critic, questioned whether the new provisions will be “fully useful.”

“Because, if the negotiations [with Britain have] started, how come we know so little about it and how come the Parliament—as during the new NAFTA—will surely be called to rubber-stamp the deal and not to study it and to modify it,” Mr. Savard-Tremblay said.

More parliamentary transparency for trade deals needed, says Bloc MP

After experiencing the way the government pushed the new NAFTA implementation bill through Parliament and the International Trade Committee, Mr. Savard-Tremblay told The Hill Times he thinks there should be a larger role for Parliamentarians in the trade negotiation process.

Conservative MP Randy Hoback says he doesn’t expect the Liberals to honour the guidelines agreed to with the NDP. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

He said, unlike U.S. lawmakers, Canadian Parliamentarians weren’t given any ability to influence the final new NAFTA.

“We are elected by the people. We have democratic legitimacy. We should have something to say,” Mr. Savard-Tremblay said.

He said both Parliamentarians and the provinces should be more involved in trade talks, adding that jurisdictional control can be modified. He said that there should be “a lot more consultation” with MPs, civil society, and business groups before Parliamentarians are asked to approve a trade deal.

Former trade negotiator Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said the new provisions will bring Canada closer in line with the United States.

“It’s very much mirrored after what the USTR [U.S. Trade Representative] has to do with Congress,” Mr. Robertson said.

“This makes sense for whatever government is in power to do so, because inevitably they are going to have to provide that kind of information anyways. This way there are no surprises and there is now some rigour,” he said, adding it is particularly important for the bureaucracy so it knows what to prepare for.

International trade strategist Peter Clark, president of Grey, Clark, Shih and Associates, said Canada has a “long way to go” to match the U.S. system when it comes to trade deals, which involves calling for public submissions from stakeholders and other non-governmental groups.

In the American system, Mr. Clark said there is a far better understanding of what the issues are in a trade negotiation.

“In Canada, we’re overly secretive about these things.”

He said it is “essential” to have the government table an economic assessment at the same time it tables a trade deal’s implementation bill, saying “otherwise, the opposition is buying a pig in a poke.”