Canada will continue to negotiate a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact during its election campaign, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said.
The TPP pact would “form the fundamental trading network of the entire Asia-Pacific region,” Harper said, and can’t take a back seat to the campaign, which began Sunday.
“It is important that Canada remain at the table,” he said. “We will remain at the table during this election campaign.”
Trade ministers from the 12 countries involved in TPP talks convened in Hawaii last week -- a meeting that ran late yet failed to produce a final agreement.
Earlier Monday, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said Harper “has been aware for quite some time” that talks could heat up and coincide with the campaign.
“It’s not a time of his choosing, but nevertheless he just has to deal with it,” Key said.
The window of opportunity to finalize a trade pact will narrow as U.S. elections draw nearer, he said.
“The question for Canada is the same question that is posed by any country -- are you going to be better being in it or being out of it?” Key said. “I still think, provided the right deal can be negotiated, we’re all better off being in it.”
One of the main sticking points is Canada’s protectionist system of quotas and tariffs in its dairy industry, known as supply management. Many of the country’s dairy farmers are in Quebec, the first province Harper visited after kicking off his campaign in Ottawa.
“We will be there to advance and protect our interests in every sector, including supply management,” Harper said Monday. “And we will make sure that, should there be a deal, we will get the best possible deal for this country.”
Canadian campaign rules published this month by the Privy Council Office say ministerial efforts on treaty negotiations can continue during a campaign “when negotiations are at a critical juncture with timelines beyond Canada’s control.” The rules, however, call for Harper to avoid any “irreversible” steps during an election, such as ratification.
Harper triggered the country’s longest campaign since 1872 on Sunday, and finds himself in a three-way race amid stiff economic headwinds. Trade and the economy are key campaign issues for his Conservative Party.