The Honourable Chrystia Freeland
Minister of International Trade
House of Commons
Canada K1A 0A6
Dear Ms. Freeland,
I am pleased to see your invitation to Canadians to familiarize ourselves with the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP) and provide comments to the government. Such an overture is much appreciated, particularly in light of the style of governance that has gone before.
But, the Canadian public may need some help in understanding the issues presented through 6000 pages of text. The media are most likely their expected guides in judging the merits of the TPP. Unfortunately, the media has shown little interest in covering, let alone assessing, what may be the most deleterious aspect of the TPP, namely the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism. (At this blog, some coverage can be found here, here, here, and here.)
This mechanism, brought to Canada through NAFTA, ostensibly secures business investments from seizure by hostile governments. Sugar plantations and oil fields in alien jurisdictions come to mind. But ISDS windfalls have come through, not for Canada, but from Canada, for international corporations seeking redress when they have felt their profits unfairly curtailed by domestic regulations.
Just prior to the conclusion of the TPP negotiations, Brook Baker (Northeastern University) and Katrina Geddes (Harvard University) posted a paper describing the rise in global applications of ISDS, from 50 instances in the first 50 years of the existence of the mechanism to 608 in the last 15 years. They write:
This sea change in investor-state claims was triggered by the belated realization that not only could investors bring claims against banana-republic confiscations but against emerging economies and even advanced democracies whenever their expectations of profit were thwarted … Accordingly, foreign corporations have used investor-state dispute resolution to challenge a broad array of environmental and land use laws, government procurement decisions, regulatory permitting decisions, financial regulations, consumer protection, public health, and public safety laws, and a range of other public interest policies (p.11).
Baker and Geddes draw attention to Canada’s current difficulties under ISDS: a $500 million challenge from Eli Lilly, all because our courts had the temerity to invalidate a patent which did not live up to assurances. Eli Lilly also complained that our system of patenting was not to their liking. It may be their prerogative to complain about our system, but it should not be their right to change it. Like any other regulatory measure, Canada’s system of patenting was set by a Canadian government, in full compliance with existing international norms. Eli Lilly had every opportunity to press their concerns through Canadian courts. They did, and they lost. The story should have ended there. Yet ISDS offers a venue for Eli Lilly to take a course of action that would render our courts’ decisions irrelevant.
As I noted in an earlier post, the former Harper Government presented the TPP investment protection measures in glowing terms. While such a rosy outlook did not ring true, it is plausible that, having curtailed the Civil Service from doing its job of meaningful scrutiny, the mandarins in Mr. Harper’s office truly did not know better. But with the release of the text we now know that what is encoded into the TPP is ISDS at its worst. Experts who condemned the agreement before it was released have been vindicated, cold comfort as that may be.
Among those experts is internationally acclaimed economist Joseph Stiglitz. In your 2012 publication, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, Stiglitz appears in your acknowledgement of scholars who became “important sounding boards and advisors (p.290).” It is no secret that Stiglitz views the TPP as a charade of a trade agreement; among his recent columns is this assessment:
… These agreements go well beyond trade, governing investment and intellectual property as well, imposing fundamental changes to countries’ legal, judicial, and regulatory frameworks, without input or accountability through democratic institutions.
Perhaps the most invidious – and most dishonest – part of such agreements concerns investor protection. Of course, investors have to be protected against the risk that rogue governments will seize their property. But that is not what these provisions are about. There have been very few expropriations in recent decades, and investors who want to protect themselves can buy insurance from the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, a World Bank affiliate (the US and other governments provide similar insurance). Nonetheless, the US is demanding such provisions in the TPP, even though many of its “partners” have property protections and judicial systems that are as good as its own.
The tone from the participating governments of the TPP is that the agreement is good for business; they rely upon the implied orthodoxy that business well-being translates to citizen well-being. However, you have questioned this orthodoxy. In Plutocrats, you describe a heated exchange in 2011 between then-Governor of the Bank of Canada, Mark Carney and Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase and write:
Are the interests of the state and its big businesses synonymous? If not, who decides? And if they do clash, does the state have the right—and the might—to curb specific businesses for the collective good (p.255)?
That our Minister of International Trade has your background suggests that the TPP will be examined comprehensively. That our civil service has been unshackled suggests that qualified personnel with backgrounds in law, commerce, human rights, and trade negotiation will be encouraged to exercise their expertise with vigour. That Prime Minister Trudeau has promised transparency suggests that, whatever decision is reached concerning the TPP, Canadians will be fully informed as to both its merits and demerits. If Canadian sovereignty must continue to be diminished, we expect to be told the truth.
But, I choose to be optimistic. The state will not be limited to serving only as a handmaiden to business. My optimism stems from an encore remark in Plutocrats:
The issue, instead, is whether the interests of business and of the community at large are always the same and, if they aren’t, whether the government has the will, the authority and the brains to defend the latter, even against the protests of the former (p.261).
You and your colleagues have been given the authority. Your collective credentials remove any doubt as to the brains. What remains to be answered is the question of will.
I wish you all the best in your endeavors.
Meera Nair, Ph.D
Update — January 25, 2016
Minister Freeland has posted an open letter, detailing the state of the TPP Agreement. It is encouraging to read that the Federal Government has undertaken widespread consultation, and is committing to fully evaluate the agreement in a transparent manner: “… this should include extensive, non-partisan consideration, analysis, and testimony from all regions, sectors, and backgrounds. Most importantly, this process will be fully public.”
Freeland also states the Canada will sign the agreement in February, but emphasizes that signing the agreement now does not commit Canada to full ratification in two years. (Readers may remember Howard Knopf’s explanation during discussion of the WIPO treaties, that signing is like dating, whereas ratification is like marriage.) Freeland echoes the simile; stating that, by signing, we preserve our status as “a potential full partner in the Agreement, with all of the rights and powers that go with it.”
Canadian opinion concerning the TPP Agreement is divided. It will not be possible for any government to please everyone. Whatever decision is ultimately arrived at, if it is chosen by knowledgeable, non-partisan actors, with the aim of making the best possible, overall decision, and, with frank acknowledgement of the more deleterious consequences, then Canada will have been well-served by its government.