Supply management becomes hot potato among politicians

Yet another round of Trans Pacific Partnership talks are underway, this time in Atlanta, Georgia, as chief negotiators and trade ministers attempt to nail down a final trade deal.

No deal had materialized at the time of writing, and talks among the 12 participating countries were just getting underway, with dairy and auto still sticking points.

A looming American election and a Canadian election well underway means it’s political crunch time.

Those close to the TPP negotiations have said a final deal needs to be reached by January if the deal has any hope of being ratified.

The federal Conservatives can attend, negotiate and sign a final TPP trade deal under parliamentary rules but can’t ratify any part of it until Parliament returns.

Recent reports that Canadian negotiators are prepared to make significant concessions on supply management have dairy farmers fuming.

The Americans have demanded 10 percent access to Canada’s protected dairy market, which Dairy Farmers of Canada has said is equivalent to $2 billion a year in losses. International trade minister Ed Fast has categorically denied those reports.

Still, the American demand, which sources close to the negotiations have said was flatly rejected by Canadian officials in July, means the TPP has started to emerge as an election issue.

An election as close as this one can make for some tricky political positioning.

Canada’s supply management sectors are worried their industries could be undermined by the TPP, while exporting sectors such as pork, beef and grain, argue that the multibillion-dollar trade deal is essential if they are to remain competitive internationally.

The ex-porters insist that Canada cannot be left out of this trade deal.

The Conservatives have long said they will uphold and protect supply management at the bargaining table while ensuring market access for export dependent farmers.

“Prime minister Stephen Harper has made clear that he will only sign an agreement that’s in Canada’s best interests,” Fast said in an emailed statement Sept. 26.

“Our goal is to secure an agreement that benefits all sectors of our economy, across all regions of our country.”

Doubtful dairy farmers are not as confident, pointing to quota concessions the Conservatives made while negotiating the trade agreement with Europe, where negotiators gave European cheese makers 17,700 tonnes worth of new quota access.

The federal government has promised compensation if the industry is negatively affected, but details remain scarce.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair has repeatedly asked Harper to uphold the system in the TPP negotiations, which he reiterated Sept. 17 during the French leaders debate in Montreal.

Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe also demanded that Harper protect supply management at the negotiating table.

Some 1,500 dairy farmers were in Montreal the day of the debate to demand the federal government defend supply management in TPP negotiations.

Another protest was planned for Sept. 29 on Parliament Hill, with others scheduled across Ontario at Conservative MP offices.

Meanwhile, the Liberals are sending mixed signals about the TPP. In an interview with iPolitics Sept. 26, Liberal agriculture critic Mark Eyking said his party would not support a TPP deal that opens up the Canadian border to American milk imports.

“If they (the Conservatives) have opened the borders to the United States milk in here, we are not going to be supporting this deal,” Eyking said.

However, in an interview with Global’s Tom Clark that aired Sept. 26-27, Liberal leader Justin Tru-deau refused to say whether his party would ratify or support the TPP trade deal if concessions on supply management are made, insisting he wants “to wait and see” the details of the deal first.

“We have to take him (at his word) that he’s not put supply management on the table and we certainly hope that he hasn’t,” Trudeau said.

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