OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Stephen Harper promised to put up $4.3 billion to protect farmers and provide new investment incentives for the auto industry to soften adjustments to the far-reaching Pacific Rim trade deal Ottawa initialed early Monday.
“Today is a historic day. It is a great day for Canada. It is a great day for Canadians,” Harper said during a press conference announcing his government had committed Canada to the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
The deal, which Harper said would likely come up for ratification in Parliament in early 2016, thrusts the new international commitment squarely into the election campaign with two weeks until voting day.
Both the NDP and the Liberals have expressed concerns about the TPP, which will shake up the economy for years to come. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair says his party if elected to power would not feel bound by the pact. He says Harper had no mandate to strike such a closed-door deal during an election campaign. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has also decried the secrecy with which the TPP was negotiated and says he wants to see the details of the agreement before passing judgment on it.
Speaking to reporters about the pact before hitting the campaign trail again, Harper said Ottawa had no choice but to be part of the TPP agreement because otherwise Canada would have been out of step with the United States, its biggest trading partner. The U.S. government spearheaded the TPP talks stretching back five years.
“We’ve been at a table for several years now, with 11 other countries. We have arrived at an agreement,” Harper said. “Most of the time when you are at a table like this, there are two possibilities. You either have an agreement or you don’t have an agreement.”
But in this case the 11 other countries could have gone on without Canada, Harper said. “If that had happened, that (would have been) a final decision, and we clearly don’t believe in that. We clearly have a deal we think we should be part of. . .and the decision for the next Parliament will be whether to ratify and implement or not.”
He said the federal cabinet has already approved a plan to spend $4.3 billion over the next 15 years to protect Canadian farmers from the impact of the agreement.
Calling the TPP “the most ambitious trade agenda in Canadian history,” Harper said the agreement would give Canadian companies tariff-free access to key Asia-Pacific countries, including Japan, and would create more jobs in Canada in the future.
The Conservative leader said Canadian farmers and processors would be protected from any potential losses related to the deal, which has been a key concern. Foreign suppliers would have limited access — 3.25 per cent — to the Canadian dairy market, Harper said.
“It is going to be the new gold standard for global trade agreements,” Harper said. “Our place at the table means that when we can do business with the rest of the world in the years to come, we will do so on our own terms.”
The proposed agreement reduces or eliminates barriers in a wide range of sectors and could lead to more Canadian exports of pork, beef, canola, high-tech machinery and a variety of other products.
It also entrenches new international trade standards in Asia, setting a template should any other countries in that fast-growing region — like China — want to join someday.
Other parts will be controversial in Canada. Cars will be allowed without tariffs, as long as they have 45-per-cent content from the TPP region — lower than the 62.5 per cent regional-content provision under NAFTA.
Harper said he would be proposing new investment incentives to help the auto sector in the next day or two.
The deal needs to be ratified in national parliaments — and the NDP’s recent opposition to the TPP process is an early example of the political challenges in could face, in several countries.
— With files from Canadian Press