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Business lobbyists ride inside track of Conservative trade agenda

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Law professor and regular media commentator on Canada's trade deals, Michael Geist described the Harper government's "two-tier" approach to negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in his Toronto Star column Friday. Basically, Canada's politically connected business lobby groups get exclusive access to information on the TPP, government departments get limited access, and the rest of us get almost nothing. This is confirmed by documents obtained through access to information, says Geist (leaks notwithstanding).

"[A] November 2012 email to government officials noted that their access to TPP texts was conditioned on 'Secret' level clearance, an acknowledgement that all texts are watermarked and can be traced back to the source, and confirmation that no sharing within government is permitted without prior approval," writes Geist today. This is why no one not in Canada's tiny trade policy club knows the slightest thing about the TPP or Canada-European Union free trade deal, even though both will impact policy across dozens of departments.

Business lobbyists, on the other hand, have been invited to form a "a secret insider group with some companies and industry associations granted access to consultations as well as opportunities to learn more about the agreement and Canada's negotiating position," writes Geist. The access to information request shows that "Bombardier, the Canadian Manufactures and Exporters, Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance, and the Canadian Steel Producers Association all signed a confidentiality and non-disclosure agreement that granted access to 'certain sensitive information of the Department concerning or related to the TPP negotiations.'"

As Geist points out in his column, this is a normal practice of the Government of Canada -- they did it for the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement negotiations and the defunct North American Security and Prosperity Partnership, which was at one point driven almost entirely by a corporate advisory group -- but how to argue with him that "the two-tier approach raises serious concerns about the lack of transparency associated with Canada's global trade strategy."

The Council of Canadians has an outstanding access to information request for all correspondence between the Harper government and its new advisory panel on Canada's global commerce strategy. We just got our first notice that the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade needs more time to collect the information.

The advisory panel includes Conservative go-to lobbyists Kathleen Sullivan (Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance), Perrin Beatty with the Chamber of Commerce, John Manleyof the CCCE, Catherine Swift with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, and others. These people are not just sources of information for the government, to help prepare trade policy. They are also recruited by the government to echo back the virtues of the Conservative trade agenda. Click on "What's Being Said" in the middle of Canada's website on the EU trade negotiations to see what I mean.

When we get our ATI-requested documents you'll be the first to know.

May Days of action against the TPP

A trade policy that excludes everyone outside of big business creates trade agreements that only benefit big business. As Andrew Gavin Marshall wrote for Occupy.org last year, "This is what corporate governance looks like." The 11-country TPP negotiations continuein Lima, Peru from May 15 to 24, with Canada (and Canada's big business lobby groups) participating as a full member country for the second time. (Japan is hoping to join halfway through the next TPP round, likely in Malaysia this July.)

But May 11 is also World Fair Trade Day, and the beginning of the May Days of Action against the TPP, announced earlier this year by TPPxBorder -- a trinational effort to unite movements for trade fairness across North American borders. The Council of Canadians is a member of TPPxBorder and will concentrate its May actions in B.C. later this month for a six-stop tour between May 22 and 30. More information on that tour soon, but check out Facebook event pages for the Langley and Nanaimo events.

If you think you would like to organize an event in your community this month on the TPP, the U.S. Citizens Trade Campaign has some helpful tips on how to get it started. We can help you find speakers in your community, videos to watch, and information to hand out about the TPP. You can write me directly, or contact your closest Council of Canadians chapter and/or regional organizer to let them know you're interested in joining the movement against the TPP.

This blog was originally posted at the Council of Canadians website

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