Ottawa’s focus on social issues threatens to slow trade deals

Indonesian officials, and experts here, have warned any trade talks focusing too much on issues of labour and the environment could come up short. Canada isn’t that valuable of a market for Indonesia. | Reuters/Willy Kurniawan photo

Canadian producers eagerly awaiting a trade pact with major Asian markets will have to exercise patience, and should be prepared for nauseating moral posturing by politicians.

Bilateral talks with Indonesia are expected to formally open this year, setting the stage for broader negotiations involving the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a bloc of 10 member states.

While momentum for these long-awaited deals is growing, and a desire among producers for additional markets to access is strong, there are major roadblocks.

Most respondents to a recent consultation on Indonesia-Canada trade outlined market access and eliminating trade barriers as a priority, but there will be continued focus on issues less relevant to industry but important for politicians seeking re-election.

The federal Liberal government likes to focus on issues like labour, the environment and gender issues during trade negotiations.

An environmental impact assessment, for example, will be done on a potential deal involving Indonesia.

Throughout the process, the deal will be subject to gender-focused analysis.

Stakeholders consulted on a possible deal spent more time highlighting issues around technical trade barriers and labelling requirements. For example, submissions from those involved in exporting meat raised concern over how Canada’s inspection system meshes with requirements in Indonesia.

But despite one-third of respondents being from the agricultural sector, only a couple of paragraphs in the summary of consultations from Global Affairs were dedicated to outlining industry concerns.

Instead, much attention in the Global Affairs report focuses on “inclusive trade issues” despite clearly stating those issues don’t rank among top priorities for stakeholders.

Indonesian officials, and experts here, have warned any trade talks focusing too much on issues of labour and the environment could come up short. Canada isn’t that valuable of a market for Indonesia.

People with knowledge of the technical discussions about a deal caution that Canadian officials are already spending significant portions of their efforts on the inclusive side of the trade deal. Some are pointing to these issues as the reason why talks aren’t progressing faster.

And while Canada’s ambition to be a world leader by working social and environmental issues into trade deals is admirable, it may also be a little shallow.

Should Canadian officials justifiably call for another country to do better?

Canada’s environmental record is poised to improve, but even the Liberal’s “Green Agenda” to significantly reduce emissions is criticized for not being effective enough. Critics argue legislation to reduce emissions lacks enforcement, and targets to achieve emissions reductions are unclear. Also, domestic emissions continue to rise.

A “national disgrace” is how a federal member of cabinet described migrant farm labour in Canada. Everyday Canadians, throughout the pandemic, have watched and read stories about migrant workers falling victim to COVID-19.

Food insecurity continues to disproportionally impact racialized communities, and racist sentiments can be found easily online and in day-to-day living.

Efforts to reconcile with First Nations communities are moving painfully slow, and governments around the country continue to ignore, or fail to implement, recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

We also continue to engage in trade with other nations responsible for ethically and morally questionable activities throughout the years.

What gives Canada the moral high ground in negotiations with Indonesia and other Asia-Pacific nations? Where does the privilege to police behaviours of other nations come from? Why do the goal posts for what is, and isn’t, considered “inclusive” change?

Protectionism and isolationism are on the rise, making it more difficult to liberalize trade.

Canadian politicians and policy makers trying to force countries like Indonesia into an inclusive trade deal are slowing free trade. It also demonstrates a lack of self-awareness.

D.C. Fraser is Glacier Farm Media’s Ottawa correspondent. Reach out to him by emailing

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