TPing the TPP: A Crash Course on the Trans-Pacific Partnership

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has made a lot of headlines in the past year. Canadian participation in it was negotiated by the Harper government just a month before its colossal defeat by the Liberals. It was signed on Canada’s behalf by our International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland on February 3rd of this year.

People in favour of the TPP say that it will result in job creation, innovation, and give Canadian companies access to international markets. People against the TPP are worried that Canadian industries like maple syrup, dairy products and poultry will suffer when the market is flooded with inexpensive competitors from participating countries.

People are worried about job loss especially in Canada’s auto industry and that enforcement of the intellectual property rules within the agreement will come at the expense of Canadian innovation. Others consider Canada’s participation to be the lesser of two evils and that it’s better to be a part of something than be left out.

This article is not going to cover all of the TPP because the text of the agreement is six thousand pages long. It IS going to give you an overview of three of the main components of the agreement and a quick tutorial on how treaties work.

When a government representative signs a treaty on Canada’s behalf they are not legally obligating Canada because they don’t have the power to do so. Canada is a democracy and all laws and treaties have to be approved by our parliament made up of the House of Commons and Senate.

When Chrystia Freeland signed the TPP on Canada’s behalf, what she was actually agreeing to was that her government would put the TPP before our Parliament to debate, discuss, and vote on its ratification within the two year deadline of the agreement. It is only when a country ratifies a treaty that it becomes legally bound by it. If our Parliament decides that the TPP is rubbish and votes against ratification, Canada won’t be bound by it. If it votes in favour and ratifies the agreement, we will be.

Now Let’s Talk About Labour

People in favour of the TPP say that it will result in improved working conditions by making countries enact and enforce labour laws that are fair to workers and there is some truth in that. Under the labour provisions of the TPP, parties are required to enact laws that guarantee the right to collective bargaining, the elimination of forced and child labour, minimum wages, reasonable working hours, safety, and the end to discrimination with regards to employment. The rules also state that countries aren’t allowed to weaken or reduce legal protections for workers in order to encourage trade or investment. These all seem like great ideas but there are problems with the language used.

Though parties to the TPP have to adopt laws against discrimination, the agreement doesn’t specify what kinds of discrimination are prohibited, and the vagueness of the language leaves participating countries too free to deny women, LGBTI people and visible and religious minorities basic labour rights.

There is a dangerously reluctant tone to these provisions. Parties have to enact and enforce fair labour laws but only to ensure a level economic playing field. The subtext seems to be: “we don’t give a shit about our workers and if we could make our stuff cheaper by paying them less we would, but since we can’t, you can’t either or it wouldn’t be fair.”

Now Let’s Discuss Competition

The TPP competition policy is designed to create a level economic playing field. It requires that parties adopt competition laws that punish anti-competitive business practices including the unauthorized use of consumers’ personal information. They also establish procedural rules for contesting a charge of violating those laws, the burden of proof being on the state claiming the violation.

On the surface the rules seem fair, but when you think about how much Canadian industries like dairy benefit from government protection, the dangers of such an agreement becomes clearer. However, the policy does provide for exceptions if a country’s chosen exemptions from competition laws are transparent and based on public interest.

Last But Not Least We Must Address the TPP’s Intellectual Property Rules

Critics of the TPP claim that it is written to favour countries like the US who have a lot of patents and copyrights and aggressively demand their enforcement. And the critics are right.

Though the TPP reinforces the clause of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Agreement (TRIPS) permitting countries to violate drug patents in states of emergency, the bulk of the provisions of the TPP are geared at protecting patent and copyright holders. They call for countries to establish civil and criminal penalties for copyright infringement that will even include prison terms.

Though in Canada the authorities generally don’t go after people who illegally download music and movies for personal use, the TPP could change all that. The provisions allow copyright holders to sue violators for monetary damages including legal fees. Our legal system is already overtaxed and participation could create an even greater backlog of cases to the detriment of Canadians seeking justice.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a damned if we do, damned if we don’t debate. Most experts agree that it will be beneficial for Canada but only marginally. As the Trudeau government does its best to clean up the mess Stephen Harper left behind, now is an opportunity for them to put our country back on the map and regain our place as the world’s moral authority.

That means making sure that if we ratify the agreement we do it on OUR terms, without bending over and throwing Canadians workers and businesses under the bus in the name of international cooperation.

It means not sacrificing our state sovereignty and our values. This is their chance. Let’s see if they take it.

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