Tories seek outside consultant to help auto industry in free trade talks

OTTAWA – The Harper government says it is cancelling plans to hire an outside consultant to give strategic advice on how it can negotiate free trade agreements that are advantageous to the auto sector.

The consultant was to have been paid up to $420,000 for three years to provide Canadian trade negotiators strategic advice on how to get the best deal possible for makers of cars, buses, and heavy trucks.

The federal government solicited bids for the contract on Monday, citing the fact that is moving forward with free trade talks on a number of fronts, including two countries with thriving auto industries: South Korea and Japan.

The government’s statement of work said it wanted a consultant to provide “an analysis of Canada’s trade interests, identify risks and opportunities associated with potential trade agreements, and provide strategic and economic advice in the context of Canadian manufacturing industries.”

The government is focusing on the automotive sector, as well as “mass transit manufacturing (bus, rail, heavy duty trucks),” the statement says.

“The consultant(s) will provide … written reports analyzing Canada’s offensive and defensive interests, identify risks and opportunities, trade policy provisions which can result in a Canadian advantage, and provide strategic advice to allow Canadian manufacturing industries to optimally benefit from a particular trade agreement.”

However, a spokesman for Industry Minister James Moore said Monday evening the government would not proceed with the contract.

“This contract is being cancelled. It was not approved by the minister’s office. There are more than enough civil servants with the expertise to provide this analysis,” Jake Enwright said in an email to The Canadian Press.

The Tories, ardent free traders, landed their biggest deal last fall when they signed an agreement-in-principle on a sweeping pact with the European Union.

As Monday’s call for bidders makes clear, many more deals are being sought including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well as separate, bilateral pacts with South Korea and Japan.

The government says the new consultant would have helped create the most favourable conditions possible to help Canadian businesses compete.

“A number of the countries that Canada is currently negotiating with have significant interests in the manufacturing sector, particularly in automotive and mass transit (both export and import),” it says.

“The expert advice sought through this contract will complement the work of Government of Canada officials, providing access to a full range of perspectives and insights into best negotiation practices going forward in international trade discussions.”

Initially, the job was to have been for one year, but with options to renew for two more.

The government also planned to restrict the competition to Canadian companies.

Canada made some gains in the auto sector under the EU deal announced last fall. It gained greater access to the European market for autos that are for composed mainly of Canadian components. The elimination of Canadian tariffs will also give major European car makers a chance to increase sales through lower prices.

Don Davies, the NDP trade critic, said he was shocked that the Conservatives chose to go outside of the government for advice on trade, given that expanding it has been a main pillar of its economic agenda.

“At this stage of the game, calling for strategic advice, particularly on issues as important as the manufacturing base of Canada, I would have expected they would have had a good handle on that,” Davies said in an interview.

“They’re spending nearly half-a-million dollars of hard-earned taxpayers’ dollars for advice that I think exists, and is available to the government for free.”

Davies said the move is a “hallmark of the Conservatives” because it smacks of a lack of transparency that characterized the Canada-EU trade talks.

The statement work says that in the longer term the consultant would identify “key industry issues as well as any trade policy provisions that can be incorporated that would give Canada a competitive edge, including any competitive advantages Canada may presently have.”

It calls on the consultant to “identify any tools available to the Canadian government” that would benefit industry at home.