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Canada's free trade agenda

The Harper government's vaunted free trade agenda is either a roaring success or hopelessly stalled — and given that government officials aren't commenting, even experts in the field are having trouble deciding which.

Next week, the government would have reason to trumpet its free trade achievements when hundreds of negotiators from 11 Asia-Pacific countries descend on Ottawa as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks, viewed as the next big deal after the European pact known as CETA.

But Ottawa is barely acknowledging the event is even happening; so much so that the Council of Canadians issued a release Friday wondering why the government is "setting (a) new global standard" for secrecy.

There may be good reason for the underwhelming embrace of TPP.

With more than 20 negotiating rounds to date, it's beginning to appear that the countries vying to create one of the world's biggest trading blocks are just going through the motions.

"Everyone is indulging in a charade where negotiations are going forward. It's the biggest game in town, but I'm not convinced TPP will see the light of day," says Lawrence Herman, a Toronto-based trade lawyer formerly with Cassels Brock.

The situation is not much more clear with Canada's agreement-in principle reached with Europe last October. Officials say CETA is taking longer than anticipated to render into legal text, but observers believe the deal has run into substantive roadblocks.

Also perplexing is why Canada has not ratified the foreign investment protection agreement with China, called FIPA, when the two sides signed the treaty almost two years ago.

The one agreement that appears to have staying power is the free trade deal with South Korea, although that rates low in terms of significance next to the Canada-European Union pact, or even TPP.

Trade agreements aren't usually big vote-getters for governments, but the consequences for the Harper government of failure on CETA — or having to announce further concessions to the hard-bargaining Europeans — could be a serious issue entering an election year.

The federal government has made free trade deals a central plank of its economic agenda, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper all but declared "mission accomplished" for CETA at a ceremony in Brussels last October.

"The Conservatives have made this such a high-level issue for them that, if they can't close these deals, they will have problems and it's not just closing deals, it's closing good deals," said NDP trade critic Don Davies.

The Canadian Press

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