Half of Canadians clueless about impending Pacific Rim trade deal

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman (C), Singapore's trade minister Lim Hng Kiang (3rd R) meet with pacific rim trade ministers including Japan's Economics Minister Akira Amari (3rd L) during a news conference to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Ministerial meeting in Singapore May 20, 2014. REUTERS/Edgar Su (SINGAPORE - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS) (REUTERS)

Almost half of Canadians know so little about a proposed free-trade deal with Pacific Rim countries that they don’t have any opinion on whether it would be good for Canada, says a new poll.

But we’ve come a long way from the heated debates over the first free-trade deal signed with the U.S. more than 25 years ago, and Canadians are generally accepting of such deals, says the survey released Wednesday by the Angus Reid Institute.

“When nearly half of Canadians say they don’t know enough about a big agreement to render an opinion, that is significant,” says Shachi Kurl, senior vice-president at Angus Reid.

Earlier this month, the public research group conducted an online survey of 1,475 people who have signed up to participate in their forum.

Forty-eight per cent felt they didn’t know enough to form an opinion. Of the 52 per cent who did have an opinion, four out of five were in favour.

“There is very little awareness of the issue,” Kurl tells Yahoo Canada News.

But overall, forum members appear to be increasingly supportive of trade deals, the poll found.

“We’re much more embracing of trade than we were a generation ago,” Kurl says.

“If you go back to things like the free-trade agreement in 1988, it was a big national debate at that time. And we’ve become a country that broadly and cautiously says free trade is a good thing or an OK thing.”

Preferred trade partners

Traditional trading partners the United States and the European Union still top the list of preferred trade partners, by 49 per cent and 48 per cent of respondents, respectively. Last year they garnered 36 per cent and 37 per cent.

“When things are going not so great south of the border, we hear a lot of conversation about how we need to take all of our eggs out of this one basket and look at diversifying and look at trading in new markets,” she says. “As we see the U.S. starting to look like it’s rebounding and looking a little bit better, it may be that there is a bit more of a swing back to saying ‘let’s stick with our biggest trading partner.’”

Of other potential partners, poll participants favoured China over South and Central America or India.

Forty per cent favoured enhanced trade with China, placing it third among prospective partners. Last year that figure was 34 per cent.

Groups including the Council of Canadians and Doctors Without Borders oppose the Trans-Pacific Patnership.

Deals like the TPP “are of modest to insignificant economic value to the country and which put important environmental, social and job-creation policies at risk at home and abroad,” the council wrote in its submission to government on the agreement.

But the agreement does have significant support.

“The TPP can ensure that North Americans aren’t stuck on the outside, looking in as rapidly growing Asian economies pursue new trade accords among themselves,” chamber president Perrin Beatty said two years ago when the deal was first “nearing completion.”

The deal has not been finalized. Officials were scheduled to meet this month in Maryland.

The partnership involves 12 countries: Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.

The federal government says those countries represent a market of 792 million people and a combined GDP of $28.1 trillion - close to 40 per cent of the world economy.

Because it is an online poll, there is no margin of error on the Angus Reid Institute poll. For comparison, a traditional survey of this size would carry a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.