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By: Adam Taylor

Back in August, the Privy Council Office issued a bulletin entitled “Guidelines on the Conduct of Ministers, Ministers of State, Exempt Staff and Public Servants During an Election.” The document notes that during a writ period, a sitting government and its ministers should only undertake routine activities that don’t bind future governments. It also states the types of activities that should be avoided such as “participating in high-profile government-related domestic and international events, including federal/provincial/territorial events, international visits and the signing of treaties and agreements.” That’s all fairly standard stuff, which is issued every time an election is called.

However, these are not sleepy days on the international stage, as military missions, trade negotiations and peace talks rage on regardless of Canada’s fixed-election date legislation. And therefore it was not surprising to see the document include this amended text:

“For greater clarity, there may be compelling reasons for continued participation by Ministers and/or officials in specific activities such as treaty negotiations. For example, when negotiations are at a critical juncture with timelines beyond Canada’s control, the failure to participate in ongoing negotiations during the caretaker period could negatively impact Canada’s interests. Under such conditions, a compelling case may be made for ongoing efforts to protect Canada’s interests. Irreversible steps such as ratification should be avoided during this caretaker period.”

As Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiators and ministers sat down in Atlanta last week, some suggested that Canada should not participate in the negotiations, citing the “Caretaker Convention.” Yet this position does not hold water for the following reasons:

  • Up until now, Canada has been an active participant in the 12-nation talks since formally joining in October 2012. By being at the table, Canada has been able to promote and defend its interests on equal footing with the 11 other countries, in order to shape what is now the largest free trade pact in the world.
  • With the talks now complete, the final outcome directly affects Canadian interests. It was absolutely crucial that Canada be at the table defending its interests in the 11th hour as a final agreement was reached. The opportunity to secure the best outcome for Canada was now. If an agreement had been signed without Canada, any future attempts to join the TPP would likely be seen as an opportunity by our trading partners to extract greater concessions from Canada.
  • Canada’s continued participation in TPP negotiations is merely an extension of the policy direction it has pursued since it initially joined the TPP years ago. Decisions made won’t bind a new government any more that any newly elected government is bound by an outgoing government’s policies. Furthermore, legislation will need to be passed by a new Parliament long before any of what’s been negotiated becomes law. Or a new government could simply choose to remove Canada from the TPP by not ratifying it.

For those arguing that any outcomes reached in Atlanta by the current government is illegitimate, they are essentially arguing that Canada should a) let its interests be decided by non-Canadians; and/or b) that Canada should be left out of the TPP altogether. Both are plausible when you look at who is making this argument. These are the same groups that oppose any trade agreement Canada pursues whatsoever, be it with the United States, the European Union, Korea or any other of our numerous trading partners. They simply oppose trade and will find any reason to advance the anti-trade agenda that best suits their particular, narrow interests. This time, they latched onto the so-called Caretaker Convention and the TPP without the slightest consideration for Canadian interests.

As good shepherds of Canada’s interests, it is the signature responsibility of our civil servants to use their sound judgement to ensure the common good is protected. It is their responsibility to ensure the politics of special-interest groups will be filtered from a debate that should revolve around Canada’s well-being — whether it is election time or not.

Adam Taylor is a Director at ENsight Canada’s international trade practice. He played a leading role in Canada’s official entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.